In the modern era, yoga history is not given much importance. Now ‘yoga’ has become a veritable household word, yet knowledge of its roots escapes most people, even a significant amount of those who ‘practice yoga’ with regularity. …
For many, yoga history remains rooted in an unfamiliar, even antiquated religious culture of an ancient and far-off land, which to them has little bearing or relevance what-so-ever to ‘their yoga’ today.
But to those who have searched for the ‘heart of yoga’, this attitude of their fellow ‘modern yogis’ is not only short-sighted, but regrettable.
The one who knows the history of yoga sees yoga beyond the context of modern culture and not only understands the depth and profoundness of this vast science — wisdom that is lost on the ‘yoga masses’ today — but recognizes its immense power for both personal transformation and global harmony.
Yoga history is a subject that would take volumes to convey. Never the less, every student, whether seasoned or novice, should have at least a basic understanding of the roots of this profound science in which they are engaging.
The Roots of Yoga
When one attempts to stake a definitive claim to the origin of yoga, much controversy and debate arises. This is of course due to the fact that much of what is being practised under the umbrella of the word ‘yoga’ today stems from a wide variety of people, practices and time periods. As Smt. Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani writes in her essay, “Returning to the Roots; Classical Yoga”:
“Where does the true classical yoga lie? [Historically] yoga was more than a particular teaching. Yoga was a way of life, a culture, a lifestyle which encompassed not just techniques, practices or ideas, but also eating habits, bathing habits, cultural use of the body, prayer, social interaction, and work.
Yoga included a vast body of ‘attitudes toward being’, an ingrained sense of morality and ethics so strongly etched on the character that it would be literally ‘unthinkable’ to transgress the limits set by those moral – ethical rules. Yoga 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 ‘classical yoga’ is to be found.”
The authoritative texts which reveal the cultural foundations of ancient India and yoga’s history are the earliest scriptures known as the Vedas. These volumes, written in the sacred language of India, Sanskrit, were authored by the ancient saints and sages referred to as Rishis, or the ‘vedic seers’. Collectively these texts explain and regulate every aspect of life from supreme reality to all worldly affairs.
Other classical literature to follow, such as the UPANISHADS, bring the lessons and teachings of the hymns and prayers of the ancient vedic texts into the practical realm of day to day life. It is upon this foundation that the science of yoga rests. One could even say that the study of this immense body of ancient literature and of the historical culture of India is in fact the true study of yoga.
Needless to say, many of the types of yoga being done today have moved a long way away from this historical foundation. This unfoldment has been a result of numerous periods of cultural transitions and influence, an understanding of which goes far beyond the scope of this basic introduction to yoga history. The following is very simplistic summary:
Yoga History – The Historical Unfolding
In another shorter composition entitled Yoga in Modern Times, Smt. Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani provides a wonderful overview of the evolution of yoga through to the modern age. Here she breaks down the unfoldment of yoga into the modern age into 3 rather distinct stages or time frames:
Very briefly speaking, the Prehistoric Period of yoga history was the time before the written word, when the sages organized their spiritual realizations into teachings that could be transmitted to their disciples orally, in an intimate, one-to-one manner. The solitary aim of yoga then was moksha (freedom), or spiritual liberation.
The teachings were given only to those who were considered pure and fit (the adhikarin). The relationship was life-long and as sacred as the marriage vow. This was a purely oral tradition, which may stretch back as far as ten thousand years. The ashrams (hermitages) were in forests and other inaccessible places. Very few could even find such places, let alone study there.
The structure was known as the gurukula, which literally means ‘the womb of the guru’, as the student lived in the guru’s home and served him lovingly as part of his family, a selfless service considered essential to higher spiritual development.
In The Historical Period, which is the era in which the teachings were…
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