HISTORY OF YOGA

Pre-Vedic (ca. 6000 – 3000 BCE)

The history of yoga may go back anywhere from five to eight thousand years ago, depending on the perspective of the historian. It evolved wholly in the land of India, and while it is supposed by some scholars that yogic practices were originally the domain of the indigenous, non-Aryan (and pre-Vedic) peoples, it was first clearly expounded in the great Vedic shastras (religious texts).

Pre-Vedic findings are taken, by some commentators, to show that “yoga” existed in some form well before the establishment of Aryan culture in the north Indian subcontinent.

A triangular amulet seal uncovered at the Mohenjo-daro archeological excavation site depicts a male, seated on a low platform in a cross legged position, with arms outstretched. His head is crowned with the horns of a water-buffalo. He is surrounded by animals (a fish, an alligator, and a snake) and diverse symbols. The likeness on the seal and understandings of the surrounding culture have led to its widely accepted identification as “Pashupati“, Lord of the Beasts, a prototype and predecessor of the modern day Hindu god Shiva. The pose is a very familiar one to yogins, representing Shiva much as he is seen today, the meditating ascetic contemplating divine truth in “yoga-posture”.

Vedic (ca. 2000-1500 BCE)

David Frawley, a Vedic scholar, writes: “Yoga can be traced back to the Rig Veda itself, the oldest Hindu text which speaks about yoking our mind and insight to the Sun of Truth. Great teachers of early Yoga include the names of many famous Vedic sages like Vasishta, Yajnavalkya, and Jaigishavya”. Ideas of uniting mind, body and soul in the cosmic one, however, do not find real yogic explication until the most important mystic texts of Hinduism, the Upanishads or Vedanta, commentaries on the Vedas.

Upanishadic (ca. 800-100 BCE)

Explicit examples of the concept and terminology of yoga appear in the Upanishads (primarily thirteen principal texts of the Vedanta, or the “End of the Vedas“, that are the culmination of all Vedic philosophy). While protracted discussions of the ultimate, infinite Self, or Atman, and realization of Brahman, are the true legacy of the Upanishads, the first principal Yoga text was the Bhagavad Gita (“The Lord’s Song”), also known as Gitopanishad.

In the Maitrayaniya Upanishad (ca. 200-300 BCE) yoga surfaces as:

“Shadanga-Yoga – The uniting discipline of the six limbs (shad-anga), as expounded in the Maitrayaniya-Upanishad: (1) breath control (pranayama), (2) sensory inhibition (pratyahara), (3) meditation (dhyana), (4) concentration (dharana), (5) examination (tarka), and (6) ecstasy (samadhi)”.

In the Katha Upanishad yoga surfaces as:

When the five instruments of knowledge stand still, together with the mind and when the intellect does not move, that is called the Supreme State. – III.10
“This, the firm Control of the senses, is what is called yoga. One must then be vigilant; for yoga can be both beneficial and injurious. – III.11”
“Having received this wisdom taught by the King of Death and the entire process of yoga, Nachiketa became free from impurities and death and attained Brahman. Thus it will be also with any other who knows, in this manner, the inmost Self. – III.18″

Commentary

“In the Kathopanishad there is a hint given to us as to how we can practice Yoga. There are one or two verses in the Kathopanishad which give the sum and substance of the practice of Yoga, which is also the same Yoga explained in greater detail in the system of Patanjali. The Kathopanishad says, in these verses, that the subtle essences of objects are superior to the sensory powers, they are higher in their degree and in quality. Higher than these essences of objects is the mind; higher than the mind is the intellect; higher than the intellect is the cosmic intellect called Mahat. It is also called Hiranyagarbha. Higher than that is the peaceful undifferentiated causal state called Avyakta. Higher than that is supreme Absolute, Purusha. The same Upanishad mentions the system of practice in another verse. The senses have to be rooted in the mind. The mind has to be centered in the intellect. The intellect has to be fixed in the Cosmic Intellect, and the Cosmic Intellect has to be united with the Peaceful Being. Sometimes this Peaceful Being, Shanta-Atman, is identified with the Isvara of the Vedanta. This is how we have to control the mind.”

Classical (ca. 200 CE)

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

After the Bhagavad Gita, the next seminal work on Yoga is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The Yoga Sutras are a compilation of Yogic thought that is largely Raja Yogic in nature, it was codified some time between the 2nd century BC and the 3rd century by Patanjali, and prescribes adherence to “eight limbs” (the sum of which constitute “Ashtanga Yoga”) to quiet one’s mind and merge with the infinite. These eight limbs not only systematized conventional moral principles espoused by the Gita, but elucidated the practice of Raja Yoga in a more detailed manner. Indeed, his “eight-limbed” path has formed the foundation for Raja Yoga and much of Tantra Yoga (a Hindu deific, Shiva-Shakti yoga system) and Vajrayana Buddhism (Buddhist Tantra Yoga) that came after. It goes as follows:

  • Yama (moral codes)
  • Niyama (self-purification and study)
  • Asana (posture)
  • Pranayama (breath control)
  • Pratyahara (sense control)
  • Dharana (concentration)
  • Dhyana (meditation)
  • Samadhi (absorption)

Patanjali, whose own life is virtually unknown, had the impact of further spreading in compact form the essence of Raja Yoga. Some legends speak of his being Adinaga, the first snake, the lower half of his body being that of a snake, upon which the great Hindu God Vishnu reclines. Many say that he was the same Patanjali who wrote commentaries on Panini’s singular masterwork on Sanskrit grammar. Others speak of the legends of his birth. A few even dispute his existence and attribute the Yoga Sutras to many authors, but this is highly unlikely due to the structural, linguistic and stylistic uniformity of the short work. His base is Hindu Samkhya philosophy and shows itself to have been highly influenced by the Upanishads.

His Yoga Sutras espouse a threefold system for attainment of samadhi through tapas (austerities; discipline; literally “heat”), swadhyaya (self-study) and ishwar-pranidhana (contemplation of God). While Patanjali accepts the idea of what he terms “ishta-devata” (worship of deities as manifestations of the single Brahman), his overall “ishwar” is not a conventional God with personal form and speaks more to a universal, attributeless Brahman, an impersonal, unknowable, infinite force that is all and transcends all. Together, the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras form the theoretical and philosophical base of all yoga. However, as far as Raja Yoga (meditation yoga) goes, it is most precisely captured by Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras.

450 – 850 CE

The Yoga-bhasya, Veda Vyasa’s commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali could have been written as early as 450 CE. Professor J. H. Woods, places the date of the Yoga-bhasya between 650 CE to 850 CE. Trevor Leggett places the date closer to 600 CE based on a commentary to the Yoga-bhasya published in Sanskrit in 1952 in the Madras Government Oriental Series #94 by Polakam Sri Rama Sastri and S. R. Krishnamurti Sastri. Evidence strongly suggests that this sub-commentary was written by Sankara who lived about 700 CE.

Vacaspati Mishra’s Tattva Vaisharadi, a commentary on the Yoga-bhasya was written in ca. 850 CE. An authoritative translation of this work can be found in “The Yoga System of Patanjali” by Professor James Haughton Woods.

1350 – 1400 CE

Hatha Yoga Pradipika In the West, outside of Hindu culture, “yoga” is usually understood to refer to “hatha yoga”. Hatha Yoga is, however, a particular system propagated by Swami Swatamarama, a yogic sage of the 15th century in India.

After the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras, the most fundamental text of Yoga is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, written by Swami Swatamarama, that in great detail lists all the main asanas, pranayama, mudra and bandha that are familiar to today’s yoga student. It runs in the line of Hindu yoga (to distinguish from Buddhist and Jain yoga) and is dedicated to Lord Adinath, a name for Lord Shiva (the Hindu god of destruction), who is alleged to have imparted the secret of Hatha Yoga to his divine consort Parvati. It is common for yogins and tantriks of several disciplines to dedicate their practices to a deity under the Hindu ishta-devata concept while always striving to achieve beyond that: Brahman. Hindu philosophy in the Vedanta and Yoga streams, as the reader will remember, views only one thing as being ultimately real: Satchidananda Atman, the Existence-Consciousness-Blissful Self. Very Upanishadic in its notions, worship of Gods is a secondary means of focus on the higher being, a conduit to realization of the Divine Ground. Hatha Yoga follows in that vein and thus successfully transcends being particularly grounded in any one religion.

Hatha is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘sun’ (ha) and ‘moon’ (tha), representing opposing energies: hot and cold, male and female, positive and negative, similar but not completely analogous to yin and yang. Hatha yoga attempts to balance mind and body via physical exercises, or “asanas”, controlled breathing, and the calming of the mind through relaxation and meditation. Asanas teach poise, balance & strength and were originally (and still) practiced to improve the body’s physical health and clear the mind in preparation for meditation in the pursuit of enlightenment. “Asana” means “immovable”, i.e. static, and often confused with the dynamic 108 natya karanas described in Natya Shastra and, along with the elements of Bhakti Yoga, is embodied in the contemporary form of Bharatanatyam.

By balancing two streams, often known as ida (mental) and pingala (bodily) currents, the sushumna nadi (current of the Self) is said to rise, opening various chakras (cosmic power points within the body, starting from the base of the spine and ending right above the head) until samadhi is attained. Ida and pingala are represented in the dynamism of natya yoga by lasya (female) and tandava (male) aspects, and bear direct reference to the Taoist dualism.

By forging a powerful depth of concentration and mastery of the body and mind, Hatha Yoga practices seek to still the mental waters and allow for apprehension of oneself as that which one always was, Brahman. Hatha Yoga is essentially a manual for scientifically taking one’s body through stages of control to a point at which one-pointed focus on the unmanifested Brahman is possible: it is said to take its practitioner to the peaks of Raja Yoga.

In the West, hatha yoga has become wildly popular as a purely physical exercise regimen divorced of its original purpose, and thus, devoid of its original efficacy. But in the Indian subcontinent the traditional practice is still to be found. The guru-shishya (teacher-student) relationship that exists without need for sanction from non-religious institutions, and which gave rise to all the great yogins who made way into international consciousness in the 20th century, has been maintained in Indian, Nepalese, and some Tibetan circles.

In India, whose Hindu population combines to a staggering 800 million, Yoga is a daily part of life. It is common to see people performing Surya Namaskar (a yogic set of asanas and pranayam dedicated to Surya, the Hindu God of the Sun) in the morning or speaking about food diets and body therapy entirely based on Yoga or the Hindu healing system of Ayurveda. The age-old tradition of Yoga has continued uninterrupted by the its popularity in the west (although more established schools like the Bihar School of Yoga work from within India to produce Yoga texts to send abroad).

In addition, hundreds and thousands sanyasins (renunciates) and sadhus (Hindu monks) wander in and out of city temples, village country sides and are to be found smattered all across the foothills of the Himalayas and the Vindhya Range of central India. For India’s holy-men, Yoga is as fundamental as lifeblood. To see a man meditating at the steps of a temple, or even wondering contemplatively on the roadside, is not uncommon even to the more Westernized crowds. It is the same in Tibet, where the Buddhist establishment’s lifestyle is permeated with the Yoga or yogic practices, which is ultimately not a once-a-day routine, but a constant immersion in self-discovery.

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