The mind, left to its on devices, is scattered and fragments itself into thousands of little pieces. When we loose unity in the mind, we loose sight of our authentic Self. The practice of yoga (meaning to join “yoke” or bring together) is the practice of bringing that sense of fundamental unity, balance and equanimity back into our lives. That is the only purpose of yoga.
Little is known about the beginnings of yoga; however we do know it originated in India some 5000 years ago…
During the British colonization of the early 20th century, India was exposed to substantial archaeological research. In the 1920’s a dig lead by John Marshall unearth the 5000 year old Indus valley civilization, where evidence, such as seals, drawings and statues representing yogic posture, connected archaic yoga to Indian culture.
The Indus civilization revealed their spiritual insight through sacred scriptures called the Vedas, the word Veda meaning knowledge. Four (4) types of Vedas thus came into existence.
Known as the oldest sacred scriptures, contained hymns of a higher power.
In which the scriptures embodied the knowledge of sacrifice.
The knowledge of the role of causality.
Contained the knowledge of rituals and incantations for everyday life.
In the beginning, when man was dependent on the elements, mastering the “outside world” was the focus of his attention. Historians do not know exactly how it happened but it is synthesized that the Vedic sages of the Indus civilization realized that comprehending and controlling only the outer world, did not help them in understanding the profound mysteries of life. Their essential focus thus shifted toward comprehending the reality of the “inner world”. Subsequently, the sages became involved in techniques to focus the restless mind. Practices like meditation and contemplation repositioned their attention toward the inner world, where the path to higher consciousness is cultivated. Accordingly, this became the foundation of Yogic discipline. It is understood that the Rishi’s (yogic sages) came to remarkable insights by practicing deep meditation and were known as the architects of information on a variety of subjects like philosophy, medicine, astrology, music and science.
The Upanishads are rich texts about the wisdom and understanding of the Vedic cosmology, which moved away from Vedic ritualism, towards the analysis and critique of mans’ inward journey to the Self. The end of the Upanishad (Epic Period, 600 BC) gave rise to the Bhagavad Gita, yoga’s most beloved philosophical poem. It is the story of Lord Krishna’s pupil Arjuna who is encouraged to keep following the yoga of wisdom, selfless action and devotion, during the time of war.
It is at this junction in the development of Indian civilization that some yoga masters felt it necessary to be more concise in their expression of philosophy. Out of this need grew the six Orthodox schools of thought, yoga being one of them. All of these schools have their inception in the Upanishads, including Buddhism and Jainism which formed two unorthodox religions.
These six (6) systems of thought interacted and cross pollinated one another with their emphasis on speculation and experience. It is during this historical period that Patanjali synthesised his treatise of assorted verses from the Upanishad called The Yoga Sutras. The Sutras meaning “thread” is acknowledged as the canonical book of yoga. Patanjali encapsulated in his epitome the wisdom of the Upanishad scriptures by interweaving a methodized version of yoga. It was assembled as a guidebook into the process of human liberation from psychological, emotional and spiritual suffering. Essentially, the sutras were written so that the “threads”, containing rich information about the archetypal understanding of the mind, could be unweaved under the tutelage of a guru (teacher). It is said that the simple verses of the sutras can be studied and pondered for an entire lifetime.
Crucial to the yogic school of thought, are the different branches of yoga. The goal of all the different types of yoga approaches is the realization of higher states of awareness, the development of consciousness and the liberation of human suffering.
The yoga of devotion, worship and veneration of the Divine Source.
The yoga of selfless action.
The yoga of the mind, discernment and perception.
Or Royal yoga is the yoga of Patanjali, working primarily with meditation and higher states of consciousness. Raja yoga has eight distinct steps.
The yoga of health and well being.
The yoga of connecting to higher realms of perception.
The yoga of discipline and rejuvenation.
By the end of the 1800s, India was firmly under the grip of the British colonial rule. With this came different value and education systems as well as a slow undermining of traditional Indian culture. Lifestyles like yoga became almost extinct. Only a few Hindu faithful like Swami Sivananda, Sri Aurobindo and krishnamacharya, kept the fragments of yoga alive.
krishnamacharya, known as the most important Yoga master of our time, is in short, the individual responsible for the yoga that we know and have embraced today. krishnamacharya’s work and efforts form the foundation of every type of yoga practiced in the world. His four pupils, Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, Desikachar (krishnamacharya’s son) and Indra Devi, are responsible for introducing yoga to the western culture.
It is clear that the entirety of yoga’s history cannot be summarized in an article. I invite you to watch the movie Yoga Unveiled for a deeper understanding of yogic history and more details on the Bhagavad Gita, the Sutras, Krisnamacharya and the meaning of yoga. I also recommend the book The Heart of Yoga by Desikachar and suggest the new translation of the Bhagavad Gita by Stephen Mitchell as well as the interpretation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras by Mukunda Stiles.