The history of Yoga spans from four to eight thousand years ago to the current day. From hints of its practice in pre-vedic times, the first elucidations and detailed elaborations in Hindu texts, absorption into Buddhist and Jain philisophies, up to its modern suffusion into secular life, its applicability has stood the test of time.
Older findings are believed by some to show that “yoga” existed in some form well before the establishment of vedas in the Indian subcontinent:
As such, the history of yoga may go back to eight thousand years, depending on the perspective of the historian, and interpretation of the Mohenjo-daro seals.
Yoga was first clearly expounded in the Vedic shastras (Hindu religious texts). Those that estimate Yoga’s age to be four thousand years see the history of Yoga from this point.
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.
Explicit examples of the concept and terminology of yoga appear in the Upanishads (primarily thirteen principal texts of the Vedanta, that are the culmination of all Vedic philosophy).
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 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. This line of yoga is dedicated to Lord Adi Nath, a name for Lord Shiva, who is believed 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 (see Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras) while always striving to achieve beyond that: Brahma. Hindu philosophy in the Vedanta and Yoga streams, as the yogi will remember, views only one thing as being ultimately real: Satchidananda Atman, the Existence-Consciousness-Blissful Self. Very Upanishadic (scientific) 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 one religion.
Hatha is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘violence’ or ‘force’ (according with the Sir Monier-Willians Sanskrit-English Dictionary, on page 1287), nevertheless, there are other common misundertandings to this term, such as: ‘sun’ (ha) and ‘moon’ (tha), that would represent opposing energies. Hatha yoga attempts to withdraw the mind from external objects, through vigorous physical exercises, or “asanas” and controlled breathing, or “pranayamas”. 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
In the West, hatha yoga has become wildly popular as a purely physical exercise regimen divorced of its original purpose. Currently, it is estimated that about 30 million Americans practice hatha yoga. 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 educational institutions, and which gave rise to all the great yogins and yogis who made way into international consciousness in the 20th century, has been maintained in India, Nepal and Tibet.
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 Sun) in the morning or body therapy based on Yoga or the medicine system of Ayurveda. The age-old tradition of Yoga has continued uninterrupted by 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 of sannyasins (renunciates) and sadhus (monks) wander in and out of city temples, village country sides and are to be found smattered all across the foothills of the Himalaya and the Vindhya Range of central India. For India’s holy-men, Yoga is as fundamental as life and blood. 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 same in Tibet, where Buddhist 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.
In the West followers of yoga have taken a less spiritual approach and focusing more on the physical part of it that is stretching and breathing. While Yoga is a religion to many, most practitioners in the west separate yoga from its spiritual goal, seeing yoga strictly as an exercise/fitness regimen, or an overall program of keeping physical and emotional wellbeing.
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