The Meaning of Yoga, Its Origin and History

For much of Yoga's history in the Western world, it was seen as a mysterious Eastern practice that only weirdos and hippies did. Now, it seems like every other person and their mother does Yoga, with Yoga studios popping up on every corner like wildflowers in spring. You have probably heard people greeting each other with "Namaste" and prayer hands, while rocking a tank top with a lotus or Om symbol (ॐ) on it. Maybe you went to a Yoga class and saw people twisting their bodies up, like a pretzel, or chanting mantras, while performing mudras with their hands. Perhaps you even went to a breath focused class and witnessed people breathing oddly, crying or having their bodies begin to shake. With all of the Sanskrit terms and a bewildering array of styles of modern Yoga, it can be rather confusing and leave us scratching our heads, wondering what is Yoga anyway? 

This is the first in our series of blogs on Yoga. In this blog, we will go over what Yoga is, its origin and history, as well as modern yoga. In later, upcoming blogs in this series, we will look at different types of Hatha Yoga, the eight limbs of Yoga by the sage Patanjali, sacred Yogic texts, Hinduism and Hindu Deities, Ayurveda, Yogic practices, Yoga teacher trainings and much more. 

What is Yoga?

So what is Yoga? Is it exercise? Is it a religion? Is it a spiritual path? Is it a way of life? The answer is, it is all of those things and more, depending on whom you ask. Yoga is a path of self realization. "Yoga" means to yoke or unite, but to unite with what? To many, it is considered a way to unite your body and your mind, as well as your breath with your movements. Traditionally, it was seen as a way to unite your small self with your big self.

In Hinduism, your small self is the ego and personality. Your big self can be a god, like Shiva, or something like nature, the universe, etc. take your pick. However, over the years, Yoga has become more and more secularized, losing much of its traditional spirituality and practices, as it has been adapted and commoditized for the Western audience.

What many people call "Yoga" today, has come to be known as "Yoga As Exercise." A modern form of exercise, with a heavy focus on posture, mobility and flexibility; that may or may not include focus on the breath, energy practices and elements of meditation and mindfulness. In a historical sense, this is actually just one part, of one form of yoga. You may have heard the Sanskrit word "Asana," which is related to body manipulation and postures and is one of the eight limbs of Yoga, as taught by Patanjali (However, he was more referring to a seated meditation posture. It was not until the advent of Hatha Yoga that Asana took on its modern meaning.). As such, it might be more accurate to say that we are going to an "Asana class" rather than a "Yoga class" and that we did a Yoga Asana Teacher Training. 

Origin and History of Yoga

Yoga has its roots in India and Hinduism. Yoga and Hinduism were developed by the ancient Indus river civilization, which is where the name comes from (Indus-Hindus), but they originally called their way of life Sanātana Dharma, which loosely means Eternal Law or Eternal Way. 

The word "Yoga" was first mentioned in the Rig Veda, which is believed to be from 1,500 BCE, but you may have heard that Hinduism is over 5,000 years old. Some people even claim longer amounts of time, like 10,000 years or more. However, the Hinduism of this period was pre-Vedic and is very different from later Hinduism, which focuses on the Trimurti- Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu, as well as the feminine aspects, known as Shakti or Kundalini. Interestingly, Yoga and Yoga Asana were originally designed for and practiced by men. 

During the history of Yoga and Hinduism, six distinct orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy were developed. They are known as Yoga, Samkhya, Vaisheshika, Vedanta, Mimamsa and Nyaya. Each of these philosophies or schools of thought lead to the development of many different sects within Hinduism. 

    Although Yoga's goal, in all its various forms, has always been the same (union with the divine), how Yogis viewed the divine and went about this union varied from era to era. The different eras of Yoga are as follows:

    • Pre-Vedic: These were semi-nomadic people that not much is known about, aside from what archaeologists have been able to scrap together. The recent excavations at Harappa and Mohenjodaro have found depictions of Yoga like postures, but we have no written recording from this chapter of Yoga.
    • Vedic: This era is where the four Vedas (The Rigveda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda and the Atharvaveda) come from and where the era got its name. The Yoga in this chapter of Yoga is quite different from what we would call Yoga today. It focused on the use of ritual worship and sacrifice.
    • Pre-Classical Yoga: This is the era where the Upanishads and Mahabharata came from. It is also where the three traditional paths of Yoga developed (Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga).
    • Classical Yoga: During this chapter of Yoga, Patanjali formalized and outlined Ashtanga Yoga (The Eight Limbs of Yoga), which later became known as Raja Yoga.
    • Post-Classical Yoga: During this time, both Hatha Yoga and Tantra were developed.
    • Modern Yoga: Some people end yogic history with the post-classical era and some scholars have added modern yoga as a distinct era within yogic history. During this chapter, we saw the development of modern, postural Yoga (as exercise). During this time Yoga also left India and was brought to the western world. 

    Raja Yoga, Hatha Yoga and Modern Yoga (as Exercise)

    Raja Yoga is based upon the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga, which are the Yamas and Niyamas (lifestyle), Asana (poses), Pranayama (breath practices), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (concentration of the mind), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (absorption).

    Hatha Yoga is often practiced before one embarks on the path of Raja Yoga.

    “Yoga is the cessation of the movements of the mind. Then there is abiding in the Seer's own form.”

    You can think of these as a sequential, step by step process to reach Moksha or self realization. First you practice Hatha Yoga to prepare your body. Then, you start your journey with the first two limbs of Yoga- You follow the Yamas and Niyamas to live in a good way, then you find a comfortable and stable yogic posture to prepare for sitting and meditation. Next, you do breathing techniques to clear blockages and channel your energy or prana. Then, you withdraw your senses or focus on the external world, focus your mind and meditate until you reach absorption or union with nature, god, yourself, the universe or whatever you would like to call it. We will go into the eight limbs of Yoga in more detail in a later blog post.

    “All this bringing of the mind into a higher state of vibration is included in one word in Yoga- Samadhi.”
    -Swami Vivekananda

    Raja Yoga was brought to the United States by Swami Vivekananda. Swami Vivekananda was a Hindu Monk and philosopher who studied under Ramakrishna. Swami Vivekananda helped raise interfaith awareness when he brought Hinduism to the west in 1893 and presented it to the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. 

    "Master your breath, let the self be in bliss, contemplate on the sublime within you."
    -Tirumalai Krishnamacharya


    Traditionally, physical practices were less of a focus in Yoga. Starting in the early 1900s, Yoga Asana became more formalized and taught for its reported health benefits by Yoga Gurus like Shri Yogendra and Swami Kuvalayananda. From the 1930s to the 1950s, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya of Mysore revolutionized physical yoga asana (Often referred to as Hatha Yoga) and created many of the poses we practice today. He used both traditional yoga asanas, as well as movements from both gymnastics and wrestling.

    "My body is my temple and asanas are my prayers."
    -BKS Iyengar
    Later, in the 1960s, BKS Iyengar formalized yoga asana with his 1966 book, Light on Yoga. From these roots, all types of modern yoga have been developed, leading to everything from Power Yoga, to Restorative, Vinyasa Flow, Yin Yoga and the various newer, trademarked brands of Yoga.


    We here at Lotus Tribe fell in love with Yoga and are forever grateful to both Mama India and all of the great teachers that have helped craft and develop Yoga over the years. We too came to yoga as a form of exercise, but it is hard to not have your Yoga practice spill off of your mat and onto the rest of your life and we believe in the power of Yoga to nourish, heal and connect.

    For those who think you cannot practice Yoga because you are not Indian, because you are not flexible, or because you are not Hindu or spiritual; rest assured, you can practice yoga. Not being flexible enough to do yoga, is like being too dirty to take a bath. With practice, flexibility will come. Not being Hindu or spiritual is ok too, even secular yoga has the power to transform your life and for those interested in the spiritual, it is open to all. In fact, India views Yoga as its gift to the world. Indian Prime Minister, Narenda Modi, has said that the entire world should benefit from their knowledge of Yoga and Ayurveda; and we whole heartedly agree. They have even created a ministry dedicated to furthering yoga and Ayurveda, he has created his own series of yoga videos (In multiple languages), Yoga with Modi, and he is trying to bring yoga to the world at large.

    We hope this blog has demystified and helped you understand Yoga a little better and that you will continue to practice yoga, or if you do not already practice yoga, we hope that you will give it a try! It just might change your entire life, as it has for us

    "Yoga shows us the road from stress to strength and from negativity to creativity. Yoga tells us that so many problems might be out there, but we have infinite solutions within ourselves. We are the biggest source of energy in the universe."
    -Prime Minister Narenda Modi