History & Philosophy of Yoga
Yoga is an ancient and rich tradition. No one knows exactly when yoga first began but it predates written history.
Scholars believe yoga can be traced back to Stone Age Shamanism as both yoga and Shamanism have similar characteristics, particularly in their efforts to improve the human condition and human well being. The earliest archaeological evidence of yoga's existence, however, can be found in stone seals, figurines and carvings found in the Indus valley dating back 5,000 years or more. .
The history of yoga can be divided it into four periods: the Vedic Period, Pre-Classical Period, Classical Period, and Post-Classical Period.
The oldest written records of yogic activities are found in the Vedas, or scripture of Brahmanism, which are a compilation of hymns and rituals over 3000 years old. The hymns show a strong intuition, wisdom and knowledge about human beings that can inspire new levels of understanding even for the people of today. The Vedas contains the oldest known Yogic teachings and as such, teachings found in the Vedas are called Vedic Yoga. This is characterized by rituals and ceremonies that strive to surpass the limitations of the mind. Yoga is not rooted in Hinduism as is a common misconception; rather, Hinduism's religious structures evolved much later and incorporated some of the practices of yoga specifically found in the Vedas.
The Pre-Classical period of yoga begins with the creation of the Upanishads. The Upanishads further explain the teachings of the Vedas. They are scriptures which describe the inner vision of reality resulting from devotion to Brahman. There are three main subjects discussed in the Upanishads - the ultimate reality (Brahman), the transcendental self (atman), and the relationship between the two.
The Bhagavad Gita, the most well known and popular work among all Yogic literature, was written during this period (about 500 B.C.). This is currently the oldest known yoga scripture, devoted entirely to yoga. The central point to the Gita is that - difficulties in the lives of ourselves and of others can be avoided when we remove ourselves from our egos; we must remain active in order to remain alive. In the Gita, three facets must be brought together in our lifestyle: Bhakti or loving devotion, Jnana which is knowledge or contemplation, and Karma which is about selfless actions.
Just as the Upanishads further the Vedas, the Gita builds on and incorporates the doctrines found in the Upanishads.
The creation of another document, the Yoga Sutras, marks the classical period. The Yoga Sutras where most likely written around year 100-200 A.C. by Patanjali. The Sutras were written in an attempt to define and standardize Classical yoga and are composed of 195 sutras (from the Sanskrit word which means thread, or wisdom). Here yoga is presented in a systematic and approachable way, and many yogis see it as an important source of yogic understanding.
The Yoga Sutras expound upon Patanjali's Eightfold path of Yoga, also called Eight Limbs of Classical Yoga. These are:
- Yama, which means social restraints or ethical values;
- Niyama, which is personal observance of purity, tolerance, and study;
- Asanas or physical exercises;
- Pranayama, which means breath control or regulation;
- Pratyahara or sense withdrawal in preparation for meditation;
- Dharana, which is about concentration;
- Dhyana, which means meditation; and
- Samadhi, which means ecstasy.
(See Lifestyle for more information on the eight limbs of yoga).
At this time, due to Patanjali's teachings, Yogis focused exclusively on meditation and neglected their Asanas (physical postures). This is because Patanjali thought that every individual consists of two parts - matter (prakiti) and soul (purusha), and that the goal of yoga is to free the soul from the material world in order to take it's original, pure form. This is often characterized as philosophical dualism. This was unusual as most Indian philosophy is of a non-dualistic nature. The world as it is perceived in a non-dualistic nature is generally thought to be different aspects of the same pure, shapeless but conscious existence.
It was only later that the belief of the body as a temple was rekindled and attention to the importance of the Asana was revived. This time, Yogis attempted to use yoga techniques to change the body and make it in connection with the mind, enlightened.
The post classical era (modern) was very much unlike Patanjali's Yoga, and very much like the Vedic traditions, that is, characterized by a non-dualistic nature. Post-classical yoga also differs from the first three in that its focus is more on the present. It no longer strives to liberate a person from reality but rather teaches one to accept it and live at the moment.
Yoga was introduced in the West during the early 19th century. It was first studied as part of Eastern Philosophy and began as a movement for health around the 1930's. The new generation of Yogis developed a system where different exercises - in conjunction with deep breathing and meditation, would help keep the body young and prolong life. By the 1960's, there was an influx of Indian teachers who expounded on yoga. In 1961 Hatha Yoga was presented in American television by Richard Hittleman, and his book called The Twenty Eight day Yoga Plan sold in the millions. One prominent Yogi, Maharishi Mahesh, taught yoga to the famous pop stars The Beatles, and popularized Transcendental meditation. Another prominent yoga guru was Swami Sivananda. The most prominent of his works is his modified Five Principles of yoga which are:
- Savasana or proper relaxation;
- Asanas or proper exercise;
- Pranayama or proper breathing;
- Proper diet; and
- Dhyana or positive thinking and meditation
Sivananda wrote more than 200 books on yoga and philosophy and had many disciples who furthered yoga. Some of them were Swami Satchitananda who introduced chanting and yoga to Woodstock; Swami Sivananada Radha who explored the connection between psychology and yoga, and Yogi Bhajan who started teaching Kundalini Yoga in the 70's.
Yoga has gained tremendously in popularity during the last few years, and today over 30 million people practice yoga on a regular basis. Yoga is the most rapidly growing health movement of today.
Yoga continues to proliferate and spread its teachings, crossing the boundaries of culture and language.