You’ve probably heard of yoga as a spiritual practice but do you know its history? You might be surprised to find that it has quite a history!
The modern yoga era started in the late 19th century when Indian yogis like Swami Vivekananda began traveling to the west. He presented a version of yoga that focused on breathing, meditation and positive thinking.
The word yoga appears in the Rigveda, one of the oldest four Hindu scriptures, which describes physical rituals and meditation. The term yoga may also be found in the Upanishads, the second layer of Hindu texts, which were written between 1500 and 2000 BC.
The yogis of this time would visit a “rishi,” or an enlightened individual, for guidance on their spiritual journey. They would then perform a series of exercises and stretches called yama and niyama, which were intended to create harmony between the body and spirit, and man and nature.
This period of yogic history is known as the Classical Period. As the Vedas were slowly discarded, new texts began to emerge that systematically laid out yoga’s teachings. One of the most influential of these was Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which set out the eight limbs of yoga and how to achieve Samadhi or enlightenment. It is this version of yoga that is largely practiced today.
Yoga was re-popularized in the late 19th and early 20th century by figures like Swami Vivekananda and Krishnamacharya. It was largely brought to the Western world as a physical exercise and stress management practice. It is in this form that it has become most popular today.
This resurgence was closely linked to India’s struggle against British colonialism. A nationalist fervor for physical culture developed in the 1920s that incorporated European gymnastics and weight training with revived Indian techniques for combat and strength. A variety of exercise systems developed that blended these traditions with the yoga asanas.
It is likely that this was the inspiration for a system developed by the Theosophists, including Vivekananda and Blavatsky, that was introduced to the West as “yoga.” In addition, the popularity of yoga in the West is connected to the general vogue for esotericism, Eastern spiritual knowledge systems, and bodywork. The yoga practiced in modern, popular studios is primarily asana-based with more relation to gymnistry and movement therapy than to the medieval and traditional yogic practices of ancient times.
Yoga is a system of spiritual practices that integrates the mind, body and spirit, imparting values and pushing us towards a more sustainable lifestyle. According to a survey, 85% of regular Iyengar yoga practitioners consider themselves spiritual.
The word ‘yoga’ itself is derived from the Sanskrit verb yuj which means to join or unite. The practice aims to connect the different parts of your mind, body and soul into a harmonious whole, which leads to self-actualization, happiness and peace.
The earliest yoga texts were written in classical India around the beginning of the Christian era, although there is evidence that yogic practices existed in South Asia at least two thousand years earlier. Yoga also developed in conjunction with popular occultism and the popularity of health and fitness in Europe at this time. This fusion led to a wide variety of exercise systems that incorporated strength-building Western techniques with Indian ideas of body cultivation. This is how modern postural yoga came to be.
Yoga has been used for thousands of years to treat a number of diseases and physical problems, but the practice also promotes spiritual development. It helps to relieve tension and creates a feeling of connection between the body, mind and spirit.
The oldest mention of yoga was in the Rig Veda, part of a series of ancient Hindu texts from Northern India that date back to around five to ten thousand years ago. At this time, it was predominantly men who were taught and led yoga practices.
Sage Patanjali consolidated much of the knowledge passed down orally and through the Vedas into his Yoga Sutras in what is now believed to be the second century BC. He defined the eight limbs of yoga: yamas, niyamas, asanas, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, and samadhi.
BKS Iyengar, K Pattabhi Jois and Swami Vivekananda all played a role in the spread of yoga to Western societies. They developed a range of therapeutic, slow yoga styles that focused on alignment and the use of props.