The history of yoga

A brief look into the evolution of yoga
The history of yoga

The term yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘yuj’ meaning to unite; the union of the individual self with the supreme self. According to the classical definition by Patanjali, yoga means controlling the modifications of mind. There are several styles of yoga, but the core idea of every style is controlling the mind.

This concept of yoga (along with various physical postures or asanas) that has got recent attention globally, can be traced back to the Indus valley civilization. Since then, it has undergone various modifications and what  we know as yoga today is vastly different from the way yoga was originally practiced.

Here is a  brief look at the evolution of yoga:

Pre-vedic period (Before 3000 BC)

Until recently, Western scholars believed that yoga originated around 500 BC, the period when Buddhism came into existence. However, depictions of yoga postures were found in the recent excavations at Harappa and Mohenjodaro. This indicates that yoga may have been practiced as early as 5000 years ago. However, there are no written records to  prove this conclusively.

Vedic period (3000 BC to 800 BC)

During the vedic period, yoga was practiced ritually, to develop concentration, and to transcend the mundane. The rituals practiced during this period are quite differing from the present  practices of yoga. The rituals of the vedic period are close to the definition of yoga: union of the individual self with the supreme self.

Preclassical (Upanishad) period (800 BC to 250 BC)

The Upanishads, Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita contain several references to yoga. The Bhagavad Gita mentions may forms of yoga: Jnana yoga, Bhakti yoga, Karma yoga and Raja yoga. Krishna, during the Gitopadesha, explains that if a person seeks reality with humility and reverence, they can attain a higher state of consciousness. In this period, yoga was more of  lifestyle rather than breathing or a posture-related practice.

Classical period(184 BC to 148 BC)

During the classical period, Patanjali compiled 195 sutras (aphorisms) of yoga into a more concise form. Patanjali’s view on yoga is known as Raja Yoga. It has the classical eight limbs: Yama (social conduct), Niyama (personal conduct), Asana (physical postures), Pranayama (breathing regulation), Prathyahara (withdrawal of senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (transcendence). Though Patanjali added physical postures and breathing regulation to yoga, they were used only as practices secondary to Dhyana and Samadhi. Patanjali’s sutras do not name any asanas or pranayama.

Post classical period (800 AD to 1700 AD)

During this age, followers of Patanjaliyoga gave yoga a new outlook by giving greater importance to the asanas, kriyas and pranayama, for cleansing of the body and mind. The purification of body and mind helped  practitioners reach higher levels of practice, like Samadhi. This form of yoga is called hatha yoga.

Modern period (From 1863 AD onwards)

Yoga was introduced to the rest of the world by Swami Vivekananda when he mentioned it in his historic speech at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Many yogis like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Paramahamsa Yogananda, Ramana Maharishi, etc., influenced the western world profoundly through their spiritual accomplishments and gradually yoga was accepted throughout the world as a secular spiritual practice rather than a ritual-based religious doctrine.

In recent times, T.Krishnamacharya trained three disciples, BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and TVK Desikachar. These yoga masters popularized yoga globally.

The form of yoga we practice today, may be different from the original form of yoga, but is based on the same classical concepts propounded by Patanjali. The only difference seems to be that today, we work on our bodies before we begin working on our minds.

Dr Ramajayam G is a PhD scholar of yoga at NIMHANS

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