The Origin of Yoga
In the modern era, the origin of yoga is not usually given much importance. While ‘yoga’ has now become a veritable household word, knowledge of its roots escapes most people, even many of those who practice it with regularity …
But it is important to know about these things. If we don’t know where yoga has come from, then we may not care at all where it is going …
… and certainly today yoga is heading in a direction that concerns a great many people who honour and respect this age-old tradition.
The Roots of Yoga
“[Historically] yoga was more than a particular teaching. Yoga was a way of life, a culture and a lifestyle which encompassed not just techniques, practices or ideas, but also eating habits, bathing habits, prayer, social interaction, and work.
Yoga included a vast body of ‘attitudes toward being’, an ingrained sense of morality and ethics… [and it] was the bedrock of the personal – social – cosmic order which developed in that part of the earth known as Bharata [India]…
[Therefore] it is in the ancient Samskrithi (culture) of Bharata that origin of yoga is to be found.”
~ Smt. Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani, “Returning to the Roots; Classical Yoga”
The Origin of Yoga in Classical Texts
The origin of yoga lies in antiquity. It was first expounded in the great shastras (texts), known as the Vedas. Four in number, these are the earliest scriptures known to mankind, extending back thousands of years.Vedas
Together, these texts explain and regulate every aspect of life, from supreme reality to all worldly affairs. Here, and in much classical literature to follow, is where we can see evidence of the origin of yoga.
When Did Yoga Originate?
The exact birth of the Vedas is lost in the distant past. The Vedas themselves were ancient hymns, originally sung in the forests by Rishis (seers) who lived remote, ascetic lives
… and in this way were passed from guru to disciple for perhaps thousands of years before being put to writing…
The origin of yoga can be traced back to the very oldest of these scriptures, the RIG VEDA, which speaks about ‘yoking the mind’ to the ‘highest truth’.
… But within these hymns from this ancient vedic period, we even see the actual word ‘yoga’ used occasionally as well. As Dr. Kumar Kaul says in his book, “Yoga in the Hindu Scriptures”:
“All the four Vedic Samhitas refer directly or indirectly to the yoga system and the yoga traditions. In the first three Samhitas there are direct as well as indirect references to Yoga.
But the ATHARAVAVEDA gives the clear conception of Yoga describing the eight mystical circles (Chakras) and the nine gates of the human body – the golden sheath and the mystical wheel containing the thousand spokes. Therefore, it may be held that the Vedic seers and sages were aware of the nature, importance and implication of the practical aspects of Yoga.”
More Classical Literature Also Reveals the Origin of Yoga
The classic literature of India exemplifies yoga. We see ample evidence of the Vedic origin of yoga at the very beginning of the written tradition, in one of the oldest extant books, the Ramayana, authored some 7,000 years ago.
The Ramayana is an allegory for the principles of yogic living, with many ‘yogic lessons’ presented throughout this epic masterpiece. In essence, it is a practical yoga manual showing mankind how to live a spiritual life, with countless lessons illustrating the proper attitudes to take towards all the challenges of worldly life.
… is the second great yogic allegory of ancient Indian literature, written some 5000 years ago. It tells the story of the struggle of every human soul to overcome the animal passions and enable the triumph of the divine qualities of our innate, higher nature.
Embedded within the Mahabharatha is most famous scripture of Indian history, the Bhagavad Gita, which itself is the ultimate textbook of yoga.
The Bhagavad Gita is comprised of eighteen chapters, each one title a specific ‘yoga’, a collective discourse in which Lord Krishna instructs the warrior prince Arjuna on the yogic attitude to take towards every human crisis.
Within these teachings are explanations on karma yoga (selfless action), bhakti yoga (devotion), jnana yoga (knowledge/wisdom) and sannyasa yoga (renunciation), along with the principles of Transcendental Mind (vijnana yoga), devotional service to the Absolute (taraka-brahma yoga), the principles of meditation (dhyana yoga), and the principles of the Divine Manifestation and its extensions (vibhuti yoga).
As the most read piece of literature ever, the Bhagavad Gita takes its proper place, along with the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, as one of the most important writings related to the science of yoga.
The Upanishads (also known as the books of the vedas) also reveal this same vedic origin of yoga.
There are numerous Upanishads, created at various times ranging from several thousand years to several hundred ago. At essence, these texts provided explanations of the mystic concepts of the Vedas in more concrete, less abstract form, and together represent the second most important repository of yogic thought.
Some of the Upanishads with particular relevance to the teachings of yoga are among the oldest, dating from the 9 to 7th century B.C., such as:
- The Katha Upanishad
- The Prasna Upanishad
- The Mundaka Upanishad
- The Chandogya Upanishad
- The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
- The Shvetasvtara Upanishad
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
The first complete, detailed, well organised, technical presentation of practical yoga as practical spiritual science was the Yoga Sutras of Maharishi Patanjali. There is much debate over the date of this work, but it is commonly believed to be at least 2500 years old.
The Yoga Sutras has become the most authentic scripture detailing the principles of Ashtanga Yoga, but this classical text is certainly not the origin of yoga itself.
Though many call Patanjali ‘The Founder of Yoga’, he was not. He was instead the first codifier of principles which were part and parcel of the spiritual life of his time… those foundations, beliefs and practices which had evolved and were passed down throughout many thousands of years from the very beginning of vedic times.
The Real Origin of Yoga
So you can see that the origin of yoga extends back as far as modern history can really take us… and even then, further still.
Its philosophy is not rooted in a physical culture of health and wellbeing alone, as is most emphasised today… but instead it springs forth from an entire approach to existence, which was based upon higher values…
… values upon which the entire fabric of the vedic culture of ancient India itself was constructed.