History of Yoga
Here, we are exploring the History of Yoga, something practiced today by over 250 million people across the planet. So where did this practice, now a multi billion dollar industry, originate?
The Origins of Yoga
The exact origin of yoga is unclear, but many place its beginnings with the Hindu God ‘Lord Shiva’ himself, claiming him to be the first yogi. The first historical record of yoga is around 5000 years ago, when clay seals from the Harappan civilisation (3000-1700bc) were excavated. They depicted people seated in the lotus position. 2000 years later we see meditation, mantras, mudras and pranayama practiced by Sages in the Vedic Period (1750-500bc). The sacred texts, The Vedas, are documented in ancient Sanskrit and contain four bodies of text; Rigveda, Samaveda, Yarurveda, and Atharvaveda. A section of the Vedas which is more commonly known is the Upanishads. These ancient Sanskrit texts outlined the spiritual philosophy of India. Referred to often as ‘Vedanta’, the Upanishads are seen as serving the highest purpose of the Vedas, illustrating the concepts of Brahman (the ultimate reality) and Ātman (soul or self).
Yet to took until between 400-200bc for these sacred texts to be really brought to life when Patanjali documented them in the ‘Yoga Sutras’. This led to a flourish of Gurus over the coming years, each influenced by Patanjali, but with his own teaching and idealogy. These included Swami Vikananda and later Gurus such as Swami Sivananda, K. Pattabhi Jois, B K S Iyengar and Krishnamarchaya.
Patanjali was born in Benares (Varanasi), where he compiled 195 Sutras to allow people to integrate yoga into their daily lives. He divided Yoga into eight limbs; Yama (abstinences), Niyama (observances), Asana (yoga postures), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (absorption).
Later, in 800-1500ad the Tantric Era brought focus back to the body. In the Tantric tradition, the body became the hub of spiritual activity and this then inspired the birth of Hatha Yoga (1600ad), where asana practice was central to the Sadhana.
How Yoga spread to the West
It was in the late 1800’s, during the British Raj rule, that yoga begin to spread across the borders to the West. Swami Vikananda pioneered the teaching of Indian philosophy to USA and, ultimately, the world. Meanwhile, in Pondicherry, in Southern India, Sri Aurobindo, developed ‘Integral Yoga’, with a focus on meditation. Alongside his French wife, referred to as the ‘Mother’ he developed the Aurobindo ashram. Later, in 1968, in a realisation of the ‘Mother’s’ vision, Auroville was opened. Today approximately 50,000 people from 49 different nationalities live, work and practice yoga here.
An early disciple of Yoga Guru Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was Russian dancer and actress Eugenie Petersen. She travelled to India in the 1930s and become popular in Indian films. Later known as ‘Indra Devi’, she was the first Westerner to teach yoga asanas within India. In 1946 Indra travelled to Hollywood and opened the first yoga studio stateside, which quickly became popular with celebrities. Tirumalai Krishnamacharya transformed Hatha to focus on specific poses or ‘asanas’ and his teachings went on to influence Guru’s such as BKS Iyengar in Pune. He pioneered the method of using props such as ropes and blocks, allowing people with health conditions to continue to practice yoga. Later, influenced by Krishnamacharya, Sri K Pattabhi Jois introduced the more dynamic Ashtanga Yoga.
During the peace movement of the 1960’s, the States then saw the arrival of many Gurus from India and The Beatles popularised transcendental meditation, through their interest in the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at the time. The flower power generation saw tourists flocking to India, in search of magical enlightenment.
Today, in a faster paced and more dynamic world, the demand for ‘new’ versions of yoga abound, including Acro-Yoga, hot Bikram Yoga and Aerial Yoga, yet the fundamentals will always remain the same.
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