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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. 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. 

Later in the history of Yoga and Hinduism:

  • Six distinct orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy were developed. They are Yoga, Sankhya, Vaisheshika, Vedanta, Mimamsa and Nyaya. 
  • Of these, Yoga is one school of thought, largely based upon the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
  • Originally, there were three Yogas, known as Bakti Yoga (The path of devotion and worship), Karma Yoga (The path of action and good deeds) and Jnana Yoga (The path of knowledge, study and meditation). 
  • Raja Yoga, the Yoga we are usually referring to when we talk about "Yoga," was developed much later than the previous three paths.

Raja Yoga, Modern Yoga and Yoga as Exercise

Raja Yoga is based upon the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga, which are the Yamas, Niyamas, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi.

  • The Yamas and Niyamas are the abstinences and observances, or the things you do and do not do in order to live a good and ethical life.
  • Asanas are the physical postures that many of us are familiar with.
  • Pranayama is an energy practice based upon the use of breath techniques.
  • Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi are all related to meditation.
  • Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses.
  • Dharana is concentration of the mind.
  • Dhyana is meditation.
  • Samadhi is absorption.

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

You can think of these as a sequential, step by step process to reach Moksha or self realization. First you must follow the Yamas and Niyamas to live in a good way, then you must practice yogic postures to prepare your body 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, or Yoga as we know it, 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.

Conclusion

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