Learning the foundations and history of yoga helps us intertwine traditional principles of yoga into our modern lifestyles enabling us to keep the rich lineage and traditions of yoga alive.
Yoga can be traced back to 3000BC in ancient carvings depicting yoga asana (poses/postures). It’s evolution is marked with ancient scriptures such as the Veda’s, classical texts such as the Bhagavad-Gita, and founding principles such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Yoga as we know it today is evolved from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s (Raja Yoga) and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika of Yogi Swatmarama (Hatha yoga) which set out both the tangible (physical poses/postures) and intanglible (ethics and principles) elements of yoga. Krishnamacharya is commonly thought of as the father of modern yoga, and shared his teachings with such students as T.K.V Desikachar (his son), Sri K.Pattahbi Jois (founder of the Ashtanga Vinyasa system), B.K.S Iyengar (founder of the Iyengar system and his brother in law), and Indra Devi (the first foreign woman yoga student of Krischnamacharya). Every yoga student should be able to trace the lineage of both the yoga and teacher to which they study, and have an understanding of the rich development and history behind their yoga.
The Meaning of Yoga
The Sanskrit word Yoga literally means ‘to yoke’. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s, Sutra 1.2 describes yoga as yogas citta vritti nirodhah– “yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind/consciousness”.
The Vedas are the sacred scripture of Brahmanism that is the basis of modern-day Hinduism. The Vedas contains the oldest known yogic teachings and as such, teachings found in the Vedas are called Vedic Yoga. During this time it was recorded that the vedic people relied on the teachings of rishi’s and that for the first time it is recorded that yogi’s were living in seclusion.
The creation of the Upanishads marks the Pre-Classical Yoga period. The 200 scriptures of the Upanishads describe the inner vision of reality resulting from devotion to Brahman. These explain three subjects: the ultimate reality (Brahman), the transcendental self (atman), and the relationship between the two. The Upanishads further explain the teachings of the Vedas. In 500BC the Bhagavad-Gita was created and is currently the oldest known yoga scripture. Just as the Upanishads further the Vedas, the Gita builds on and incorporates the doctrines found in the Upanishads. The Bhagavad-Gita discusses bhakti yoga (path of devotion), jnana yoga (path of knowledge) and karma yoga (path of action).
The Classical Period is marked by another creation – the Yoga Sutra. Written by Patanjali around the second century, it was an attempt to define and standardise Classical Yoga. It is composed of 195 sutra’s (threads) and is founded on the underlying principles of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga (known as Raja Yoga):
- Yama – social restraints or ethical values;
- Niyama – personal observances;
- Asanas – poses/postures;
- Pranayama – breath control or regulation;
- Pratyahara – sense withdrawal;
- Dharana – concentration;
- Dhyana – meditation;
- Samadhi – ecstasy.
This period of yoga focusses on the present, in particular the introduction of yoga to the West during the early 19th century. It was first studied as part of eastern philosophy and began as a movement for health and vegetarianism around the 1930’s.
Krishnamacharya is commonly thought of as the father of modern yoga, and shared his teachings with such students as T.K.V Desikachar (his son), Sri K.Pattahbi Jois (founder of the Ashtanga Vinyasa system), B.K.S Iyengar (founder of the Iyengar system and his brother in law), and Indra Devi (the first foreign woman yoga student of Krischnamacharya).
The Four Paths of Yoga
The four paths of yoga arose from concepts introduced in the Bhagavad Gita. In the context of Hinduism these paths lead to union with the supreme being or God, and represent the elements present in all humans – intellect, heart, body and mind.
* Karma Yoga – the path of action
* Bhakti Yoga – the path of devotion
* Jnana Yoga – the path of knowledge
* Raja Yoga – the path of meditation
In the Western world today, we are most familiar with Hatha Yoga, the system described by Yogi Swatmarama, compiler of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika in 15th century India. It marks the development of asana’s into the full body ‘postures’ now in popular use in yoga classes, and is concerned with the purification of the physical body as leading to the purification of the mind (ha), and prana, or vital energy (tha).