Millions of people across the world practice yoga every day, and it’s becoming a constantly evolving and changing practice that has integrated into the modern world. But what is the history of yoga, and how has it shaped our modern day practice?
Yoga’s extensive 5,000 year old history is rich, intertwining with religion, philosophy and exercise, and as such, there are a few theories about the origin of the practice. Some people suggest that the origins of yoga stem from a Bronze age civilization called the Indus Valley Civilization, from northwest South Asia, while others believe yoga was around when the ideas of Hinduism and Buddhism were taking shape.
There were many different periods of yoga, and they have all shaped our modern practice today. The first of these is the Vedic period. This was the era when the Vedas, which are four ancient scriptures, were created. These holy writings were created by Brahmans, ancient indian priests, and are a collection of hymns that actually contain the oldest known teachings about yoga that are still available today. The Sanskrit word ‘Yuj’, which is the root of the word ‘yoga’, first appeared in one of the Vedas.
This is very different from the modern-day yoga you see today. Vedic yoga was characterized by ceremonies that encourage your mind to broaden and pass its limitations. These teachings relied on ‘rishis’ or an enlightened person, who would guide people on how to correctly follow the teachings of the Vedas.
During this period, yogis tended to live in seclusion. Vedic teachings highlighted that living in seclusion close to nature, was a conducive environment in which to practice.
After the Vedic period came the Pre-Classical period. This era was defined by a collection of 200 Vedic texts, called the Upanishads. The concepts that were central to these texts are Braham, which is the idea behind the ultimate reality in the universe, and Atman, which means ‘the transcendental self’. Both the Upanishads and the Vedas are said to help form the bases for the religious concepts of Hinduism and Buddhism.
This period ended in the creation of Bhagavad Gita, a 700 verse text which is known as the oldest yoga scripture, and it's a very famous Hindu text. While it’s viewed as the oldest yoga scripture, it’s more focused on the philosophical ideas behind yoga, rather than the practical elements that we focus on today.
Even with all this history, it was only 2000 years ago that yoga was documented so that others could clearly follow and learn. Indian Sage Patanjali, documented his works and systematized the practice of yoga, in his Yoga Sutras.
These Yoga Sutras are often credited as the foundation of classic yoga. The Sutras offer guidance and help for the readers to create inner peace and feel fulfilled.
Another defining moment of this Classical period, was the emergence of the eight limbs of yoga, which many people will be familiar with to this day. The eight limbs are the following, which are a means to live a life with purpose and meaning.
Yama, which are the ethical rules to conduct yourself towards others; Niyama, the conduct towards yourself; Asana, the practice of physical poses; Pranayama, controlling the breath; Pratyahara, controlling the senses; Dharana, drawing your senses inwards; Dhyana, meditation; and Samadhi, the linking between mind and body.
Yoga became introduced to the west in the early 19th century, and over time, a lot of the eastern aspects of the practice became westernized. This period also saw a lot of guys travel west to introduce the practice of yoga there. One such guru was Swami Sivananda, who wrote over 200 books on yoga! Another such guru was Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who some people refer to as the ‘father of modern yoga’.
The introduction of yoga to the West gave birth to the type of yoga we see the most today, modern yoga as practiced in studios and homes across the world. Although changed and adapted over thousands of years, modern yoga can be just as complex as those periods that came before. Modern yoga is mostly based on Hatha yoga, which was introduced in the Yoga Sutras, back over 2000 years ago. From Hatha, a myriad of different styles has emerged over the past 100+ years. Styles such as Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Hot Yoga and Iyengar, to name a few, are all relatively recent, in the grand scheme of yoga history.
The great thing about yoga is that it is constantly evolving and changing, and can mean something very different from one person to another. Yoga has developed and changed in the past 5000 years, and it will continue to grow and evolve over time.
One thing that is sure to stay the same though, is the combination of both physical benefits and emotional and spiritual benefits, which make yoga very different from other forms of exercise. The very root of all yoga practice is enlightenment, which can be traced all the way back to the Vedic period - something to bear in mind next time you’re hitting the mat!
By Amy Cavill
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