Yoga’s History And Philosophy. What Hides Behind The Practice

yoga history

Humans are exceptional beings who have accomplished the amazing. We are forever observing the world. Our curiosity about nature, space and ourselves has allowed us to create and discover the imaginable.

India has 6000 years of known history focused on the philosophy of the mind. In ancient India, seers would study the attributes of human nature, how our senses help us to understand the world around us. The mind, however, is more complex and is forever entangled in the material realm. No matter how much we develop, the mind is still one of life’s biggest unanswered mysteries and is essential in balancing human pleasure, pain, sadness and happiness.

Ancient Yoga And Shamanism

Yoga dates back to the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation (3000-1800 BCE), as well as the Quetta, Harappan, and Mohenjo Daro civilisation. Excavations carried out in these areas revealed statues representing people practising yogic poses.

Interestingly, academics suspect yogic roots began in Shamanism of the Stone Age due to the similarities between them. Both practices focused on the health and well-being of humans while inserting some religious ideals within the customs that were intended to reach a broad range of humans.

Vedic Yoga

Once archaeologists found the statues of Indus Valley, the next sign of yoga was visible in the Rig Veda. The Rig Veda is a very important text dating back to 1500 and 1200 BC. “The Vedas” are hymns, mantras, and rituals all put together in one ancient book. They are the sacred writings for Brahmanism, which is the foundation of the Hindu culture.

The term Brahman appears in many Vedic texts to qualify the Supreme Self (Sva) which refers to the transcendent Absolute and the Cosmic Consciousness. The Vedas themselves are a collection of scriptures: the science of Mother Nature, agriculture, mathematics, astronomy, social sciences, ethics & morality, culture, arts, medicine, and much more.

In the Vedas, yoga – which means to unite – is the earliest written mention of the term. In ancient times, it was believed that all that existed internally within the body, also existed in the universe. The goal for seers was to research how they could establish a theory – based on this assumption. No telescopes or microscopes were needed. Instead, the observer had to be its own tool – to look inward and recognise the stages or what some call – chakras of the body. The more focus and clear the observer, the more they could see. This process is yoga. Yoga’s goal is to alleviate the mind from suffering.

Although the Vedas do not go into detail between the practice of yoga and its techniques, they do mention the combination of discipline and breathing. During this period, yoga fundamentally consisted of groups of men forming exercise practices, tapas, by gathering around a fire and making primordial sounds while concentrating on breathing.

Yoga Upanishads

The Upanishads are philosophical works in dialogue form that discuss questions of nature, philosophy, the fate of the soul, and contain some mystic and spiritual interpretations of the Vedas. The word Upanishad literally means to sit near, and this invokes the image of devotees or aspirants sitting at the feet of a master. It comes from the Vedas, but the Yoga Upanishads explore the realm of mind and body with more focus. Where Vedic yoga was more focused on chanting to a higher being, Yoga Upanishads emphasises the importance of meditation and other yoga practices.

The Epics And Gita (Mahabharata)

The two great epics of India are the Ramayana (smrti) and Mahabharata. These are two books that encompass the truths and virtues of the universe and humankind. The Ramayana depicts the duties of relationships, portraying ideal characters like the ideal father, the ideal servant, the ideal brother, the ideal wife and the ideal king.

The Bhagavad Gita which means “song of the lord” is generally accepted as an earlier work from the Upanishads set down into the larger work of the Mahabharata, a love story. It focuses on a key teaching tale – the foundation of Yoga as a way of life yoga is to break the bonds of suffering.

The Gita spoke of yoga and revealed that it had in fact been around for quite some time before the scripture was written, yet does not give a date that indicates when yoga began. The main focus of the Gita is to emphasize that living functioning and accomplishing things, but to stray from hardships people must put their egos aside and let their actions speak for who they are.

During this time, Buddhism began to emerge but with differences. Where the Gita focuses on action to prevail from suffering, Buddhism promotes withdrawal from the world because life means suffering. The first Buddhist to study the teachings of yoga was Siddharta Gautama, and he is said to have experienced total enlightenment at age thirty-five.

Patanjali And The Sutras

Experts say that a man named Patanjali wrote three important treatises: Yoga Sutras, Mahābhāṣya, and Ayurveda. With yoga sutras, he eliminated the impurities of the mind and suffering. Through grammar, he eliminated the impurities of speech and through his composition of Ayurveda, the ailments of the body.

The yoga sutras are a technique to keep the mind free and peaceful – a compilation of answers for the enquiring mind. The word sutra comes from the same root as the medical term suture, meaning to connect or hold together. They are threads of knowledge that allow you to explore the essential core meaning of yoga.

Patanjali was the first to demystify the elements of consciousness and arrange them scientifically. He created the sutras with precise classifications, sequences and logic. To keep to their simplest form, the yoga sutras teaching fit onto one page which were later elaborated.

When a teacher expounded on a piece of knowledge from the yoga sutra, the student would be given a short phrase that would later remind him/her of the greater body of material. The sutras are divided into four chapters, or padas: Samadhi, Sadhana, Vibhuti, and Kaivalya.

Yoga wants bring man back to the point of purity and consciousness – what yogis call Samadhi.

Samadhi Pada

This is the first chapter of the Yoga Sutra. It the detachment of the material world. It is about enlightenment, focusing on concentration and meditation. This chapter is for advanced practitioners where the state of self-realisation is attained beyond the intellect which cannot be achieved through ordinary wisdom. For the ordinary person, they must start at the second chapter called Sadhana Pada.

Sadhana Pada

This chapter is considered the most important of all the sutras. It is the practice of yoga to prepare the body and mind for Samadhi. Sadhana Pada describes Kriya yoga (yoga of action) and the steps to eliminate worldly suffering and reach a yogic state — a process known as The Eight Limbs of Yoga, or the eight-fold path (Ashtanga yoga).

The eight limbs introduced in Sadhana Pada are:

The eight limbs introduced in Sadhana Pada are:
  • Yamas (ethical standards)
  • Niyamas (self-disciplines)
  • Asana (poses)
  • Pranayama (breathing techniques)
  • Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses)
  • Dharana (concentration)
  • Dhyana (meditation)
  • Samadhi (absorption into the object of focus)

There are five Yamas: non violence, truth, non-stealing, non possession and celibacy.

There are also five Niyama: cleanliness, contentment, austerity, recistation and reverence for God. God in this context is not a creator, but is consciousness that unites us outside of the bonds of nature. Religion demands faith, but yoga is existential, experimental and experiential. The seeker, by controlling and regularizing daily conduct of Yama and Niyam, sits in an Asana.

Asana is a comfortable and pleasant posture of the body where the body should not move. The vision should either be at the tip of the nose or the centre of the eyebrows, or at a target point. When one practices an asana for hours, the body becomes steady and consciousness is rested in the infinite. On acquiring stability, the seeker regulates the breath, when the breath becomes subtle, that is Pranayama. Pranayam purifies the mind and also cleanses the channels of energy. By making the breath subtler, the most hyperactive mind can be controlled.

After Pranayama, the practise of focusing the mind away from external objects and focusing it inwardly is practised. Our life is nurtured through the sensory experiences through touch, speech, vision, taste and smell. Pratyahara is the reverse, going from the external senses to within.

Vibhuti Pada

The third chapter is about the results, power, and manifestation once union is achieved – that Samadhi can be attained. It describes the capacity of the mind which can achieve a state free from distractions. Such a mind can probe deeply into objects and concepts into dimensions previously unknown. This knowledge, or power, can become a source of distraction and can prevent a person from reaching the highest state of being.

This is where Patanjali introduces the last three limbs of the eight. When the mind gets stabilised – that is called Dharana. It is the point of concentration which can be an object, real or abstract, or a thought. When Dharana gets prolonged, it becomes Dhyana, meditation which extended further results in Samadhi – the purest and most steady state of being.

Kaivalya Pada

Here Patanjali concludes his treatise with more metaphysics and the presentation of the yogic vision of freedom, kaivalya. The last chapter is about liberation, or moksha. The sutras clarify liberation and what is achieved by the mind. This final chapter is devoted to complete, unconditional, and absolute liberation that removes us from the fear of death and accepts eternal being.

Tantra Yoga

A few centuries after Patanjali, yoga masters created a system of practices designed to rejuvenate the body and prolong life. They rejected the teachings of the ancient Vedas and embraced the physical body as the means to achieve enlightenment. They developed Tantra Yoga, with radical techniques to cleanse the body and mind to break the knots that bind us to our physical existence.

The word tantra literally means “expansion.” A tantra yogi concentrates on expanding all levels of his or her consciousness to unveil and realize the Supreme Reality. Tantra focuses on the dynamic aspect of divinity called Shakti, or “the Cosmic Mother.” The tantric devotee strives to attune with the spiritual dynamic energy in order to transform personal limitations and release subconscious blockages.

It is the esoteric version of hinduism and buddhism. Although it is generally associated with sexuality, this was not the core value. The important part was to follow your own path, and not that of a yogi’s. Over time, some developed the path to sexual orientation which became a widely accepted apprach of breaking the bonds of reality.

Yoga Philosophy And Religion

Is yoga connected to other religions and faith or is it man’s attempt to conquer disease, old age and death? As we have seen, there are different forms of yoga. Some of which are more overtly religious than others. Hare Krishna monks, for example, are adherents of bhaktiyoga, the yoga of devotion whereas hatha yoga, ehat most people in the West think of as the main practice of yoga – a path towards enlightenment that focuses on building physical and mental strength.

But what “enlightenment” means also depends on tradition. For some Hindus it is liberation from the cycle of reincarnation, but for many yoga practitioners it is a point where you achieve stillness in your mind, or understand the true nature of the world and your place in it.

The principles of yoga are closely related to these other Eastern religions, most notably Buddhism and Hinduism, which we have discovered when tracing back to yoga’s roots. Buddhism began in the 6th century B.C. when Buddha began his teachings including specific postures and meditation.

As the years continued, yoga was introduced to the western world and is now taking a universal approach suitable to anyone who is looking for peace of mind – no matter what their beliefs.

Yoga In The West

Hatha yoga, the most popular form of yoga known in the west, was introduced n the late 1800s and early 1900s when yoga masters began to travel to the West. They quickly gained a lot of attention and followers. In 1893, Parliament of Religions in Chicago, a yogi called Swami Vivekananda fascinated the audiencewith his lectures on yoga. He was a key figure in the introduction of the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the Western world and is credited with raising interfaith awareness, bringing Hinduism to the status of a major world religion during the late 19th century. He was a major force in the revival of Hinduism in India, and contributed to the concept of nationalism in colonial India.

In the 1920s and 30s, Hatha Yoga was strongly promoted in India with the work of T. Krishnamacharya, Swami Sivananda and other yogis practicing Hatha Yoga. Krishnamacharya opened the first Hatha Yoga school in Mysore in 1924 and in 1936 Sivananda founded the Divine Life Society on the banks of the holy Ganges River. Krishnamacharya educated three students that would continue to pass down his teaching and increase the popularity of Hatha Yoga. These three students were B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar and Pattabhi Jois. Sivananda was also a writer who released 200 books on yoga.

Modern Yoga

Yoga has come a long way since Ancient India. There are so many variations of yoga including Bikram, which practices yoga in intense heat, and critical alignment, which focuses on the skeletal structure of the body and readjusting it as a chiropractor would do.

Nowadays, there is much less focus on the spiritual teachings of reaching enlightenment. In order to know more about the philosophical practice of yoga, practitioners must study with books or attend yoga school. These days, modern yoga is more about taking care of the mind and body to manage within our society. Having a moment to ourselves to breathe, relax and be still. When we do not take a moment for ourselves to reflect on the bigger picture, we get lost in our daily activities.

As the ancient Vedic philosophy states, the individual self is alienated from the transcendent self, and this isolation is the root cause of human suffering. The main yogic concept is not about spirituality, but about integrating all aspects of our lives which leaves us with inhabiting our bodies and being comfortable with ourselves.

Olly Moran
Olly Moran
Website author

Olly Moran works as a freelance copywriter and brand communication strategist. She also gives lectures at the University of Amsterdam where she is based. She loves to eat healthy, sustainably, practice yoga, and workout. In her spare time, she works on music, enjoys Amsterdam, and travels.

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