A History Lesson in Yoga
Everybody has their own idea of what yoga is; some believe it to be an Eastern religion while others view it as a strenuous workout. Neither perception is entirely true because yoga is many things. Most of us know the 21st century version of yoga, but we may not fully understand the intentions of the people who created yoga many, many years ago. If more people fully knew the foundation of yoga – from beginning to present – more people may be inclined to take up the practice.
Another preconceived notion people have of yoga is that is dates back to the beginning of civilization, although there is only evidence to support the fact that it was developed close to the year 3000 B.C. Yoga poses were illustrated on rocks and dated closely to this year. However, academics suspect yogic roots began in Shamanism of the Stone Age due to the similarities between Shamanism and yoga. 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. When first invented, yogic rituals were directed towards entire communities rather than used as a means of self improvement. Yoga’s history can be defined in four time periods, which are the Vedic Period, the Pre-Classical Period, the Classical Period, and finally the Post-Classical Period.
The first period, entitled the Vedic Period, is defined by the holy writings of Brahmanism called the Vedas that set the tone for Hinduism of today. The Vedas were a compilation of worship songs that recognize an almighty power and encompass the most ancient teachings of yoga. The lessons taught from the Vedas are recognized as Vedic Yoga. In Vedic Yoga, customs and functions that allow the mind to broaden are the most important aspect of all the teachings. The Vedic people welcomed rishis and Vedic Yogis to instruct them on how to live to meet the standards of divinity and togetherness that the Vedas set forth. Rishis also had the power to view the paramount actuality by means of spiritual customs. Yogis felt that they could best express themselves by living in a quiet, secluded place but close to natures so they established their domiciles in forests.
The period that followed the Vedic Period was the Pre-Classical Yoga period that was marked by the beginning of the Upanishads. The 200 sacred writings created by the Upanishads speak of the central perception of reality that comes to one if they are committed to Brahman. Explained are three separate but related principles which are the highest reality (Brahman), the superior self (atman), and association between both of these. The Upanishads also extended peoples’ knowledge of the Vedas and their teachings.
The principles of yoga are closely related to 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 which include engaging in specific postures and meditation. 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. Around approximately 500 B.C., the oldest discovered sacred scripture was composed and named Bhagavad-Gita, which translates to Lord’s Song. Bhagavad-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.
Similar to how the Upanishads gave more insight to the teachings of the Vedas, the Gita integrated the teachings of the Upanishads. Found in the Gita are three aspects that allow one to lead the greatest life. These principles are Karma (generous actions), Bhakti (caring dedication), and Jnana (knowledge). The Gita attempted to bring together the three ideals that formed separate yogas which were Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Jnana Yoga which made the practice more important. The Gita was a communication even between God-man Krishna and Prince Arjuna that was about goodness and the opposition of anything evil.
Post-classical Yoga is found to contrast to the yoga of other time periods because of its teachings. In Post-classical Yoga, yogis are taught to welcome reality rather than stray from it, and live in the present.
Yoga found its way to the Western world in the beginning of the 1800’s and was analyzed after being characterized as Eastern Philosophy. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that yoga was practiced and followed due to its healthy, vegetarian belief system. 30 years later, yoga teachers from India began to explain and teach yoga. Maharishi Mahest focused on Transcendental Meditation and made it popular to practice, while Swami Sivananda opened American and European schools to teach yoga. Sivananda is considered a yoga guru, and began a yogic system entitled the Five Principles of Yoga to better teach his lessons. They are Savasana (relaxation), Asanas (exercise), Pranayama (breathing), Diet, and Dhyana (positive thoughts) as well as Meditation.
Sivananda wrote hundreds of books dedicated to Yoga as well as Philosophy and taught students who branched out and expanded on the practice of yoga. One of his disciples Swami Satchitananda was the man who arranged chanting at the first ever Woodstock and taught yoga to the concert goers. Swami Sivananda Radha conducted research and studied the common bonds between yoga and psychology. Yogi Bhajan began Kundalini Yoga classes for Westerners in the 1970’s.
Yoga has endured time and travel, yet it continues to be a world-wide phenomenon. Different practices and techniques have evolved over time, but the original ideals, customs, and movements have remained intact from the original practice. The attitude of yogis is non-judgmental and accepting which invites a wide variety of people to seek out the practice of yoga. Never before has their been practice such as this that has sustained the elements the way yoga has.