A short history of Yoga
The word yoga means to unite. The idea being that we are uniting all aspects of our being into one and our being with the universe.
Yoga has a very long history and is steeped in tradition. The first mention of it is in the ‘Rig Veda’ – a collection of sacred Hindu hymns written in Sanskrit. It is one of the oldest texts found in any indo-european language – written roughly 1700 – 1100 BC.
Yoga was a tradition practised by men in India as a form of keeping healthy and obtaining enlightenment. These were times before any medicine was around and I imagine anyone living to old age was thought of as some kind of ‘magic person’. The yoga teachings were passed on by word of mouth from guru to student – probably because paper and pen hadn’t been invented but also to keep the practices secret. Patanjali was the first person to write about yoga in his ‘Yoga Sutras’ written in about 200 BC. The Yoga Sutras are a series of directions about how to practice yoga.
There are other ancient texts which we can study to give us ideas today as to how the old gurus worked, what they had learned and what they believed. Practitioners and teachers take from it what they will and combine elements to give the modern forms of yoga that we find today. There are many, many branches for us to choose from – meaning that there is something for absolutely everyone!
Patanjali was an Indian teacher traditionally thought of as the person who gathered and systematized the teachings of meditation and yoga. He is believed to have lived between 200B.C.E. and 450 C.E. He is credited with composing the small Sanskrit volume of Yoga Sutras from which the modern practice of yoga is derived.
The Sutras laid out a system of practice by which one can attain a pure state – free from any kind of suffering – be it of the body, mind or emotional. The practice begins with the adoption of a personal code of conduct (call yama), —nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, sexual restraint, and non-attachment. It is followed by the adoption of five virtues (niyama)—purity, contentment, austerity, self study, and dedication. By adopting these codes of conduct (rather like the 10 Commandments) it is hoped to counter the negative influences of being in the world. After adopting a lifestyle centered on yama and niyama, one begins the step-by-step adoption of the asanas (postures), breath control, control over the sense, concentration, and meditation, each of which should lead to the goal of samadhi (peace or enlightenment).
There are lots of informative sites across the web about yoga history and philosophy of yoga – these are some of my favourites –
The Wellcome Collection published a wonderful series of articles on the History of yoga which make fascinating reading too –