The word ‘Yoga’ comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Yuj’, which means ‘to join’ or ‘to unite’. Yoga and Ayurveda have a close historical connection and have evolved together since ancient times.
The History of Yoga
Yoga is an ancient practice that originated thousands of years ago, even before the existence of religions and belief systems. It is believed to have started with the dawn of civilization. In yogic legends, Shiva is considered the first yogi or Adiyogi, and the primary guru or Adi Guru.
Several thousand years ago, on the shores of Lake Kantisarovar in the Himalayas, Adiyogi shared his profound knowledge with the legendary Saptarishis, or “seven sages.” These sages then spread this powerful yogic science to various parts of the world, including Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and South America. Interestingly, modern researchers have observed similarities between ancient societies across the globe. However, it was in India that the complete expression of the yogic system was found. Agastya, one of the Saptarishis, traveled across the Indian subcontinent, establishing this culture based on a core yogic lifestyle.
The presence of yoga in ancient India is evident from the number of seals and fossil remains discovered from the Indus Saraswati Valley civilization, depicting figures engaged in yoga practices and reflecting yogic thought processes. The phallic symbols and seals of mother goddess idols suggest the presence of Tantra Yoga. References to yoga can be found in folk traditions, Vedic and Upanishadic texts, Buddhist and Jain teachings, philosophical systems (Darshanas), as well as in the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana, and the mystical traditions of Shaivas, Vaishnavas, and Tantrics. There was also a primordial or pure form of yoga present in the mystical traditions of South Asia.
During the pre-Vedic period (around 2700 B.C.), yoga was practiced under the direct guidance of a guru, and its spiritual significance was highly regarded. It was an integral part of religious rituals and ceremonies, with the sun being of utmost importance during the Vedic period. The practice of Surya Namaskar (sun salutation) may have originated due to this influence. Pranayama (breathing exercises) was part of the daily rituals and offerings. While yoga was practiced even before the Vedic period, the great sage Maharshi Patanjali systematized and classified the existing practices, their significance, and related knowledge through his Yoga Sutras. After Patanjali, numerous sages and yoga masters contributed significantly to the preservation and development of the field through their well-documented practices and literature.
The period from 500 B.C. to 800 A.D. is considered the Classical era, which is recognized as the most fertile and prominent phase in the history and evolution of yoga. Commentaries on the Yoga Sutras by Vyasa and teachings such as the Bhagavad Gita emerged during this period. This era is associated with two great religious teachers of India, Mahavir, and Buddha. The concepts of Mahavir’s five great vows (Pancha Mahavrata) and Buddha’s eightfold path (Ashta Magga) can be seen as early forms of yoga practice. The Bhagavad Gita elaborately presents the concepts of Jnana Yoga (path of knowledge), Bhakti Yoga (path of devotion), and Karma Yoga (path of action). These three forms of yoga still serve as remarkable examples of human wisdom, and people find inner peace by following the techniques taught in the Gita. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras primarily focus on the eightfold path of yoga. Vyasa’s commentary on the Yoga Sutras also holds great significance. During this period, the importance of the mind was emphasized, and it was effectively addressed through yoga practice, bringing both mind and body under control to experience equanimity.
The period between 800 A.D. and 1700 A.D. is known as the Post-Classical period. Great teachers like Adi Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, and Madhavacharya made significant contributions during this time. Surdas, Tulsidas, Purandardasa, and Mirabai were notable contributors as well. The Natha Yogis of the Hatha Yoga tradition, such as Matsyendaranatha, Gorakshanatha, Cauranginatha, Swatmaram Suri, Gheranda, and Shrinivasa Bhatt, played a crucial role in popularizing Hatha Yoga practices.
The period from 1700 A.D. to 1900 A.D. is considered the Modern period, during which great Yogacharyas like Ramana Maharshi, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Paramhansa Yogananda, and Vivekananda made significant contributions to the development of Raja Yoga. This was a time when Vedanta, Bhakti Yoga, and Natha Yoga or Hatha Yoga flourished. The teachings of Gorakshashatakam (Shadanga Yoga), Hathayogapradipika (Chaturanga Yoga), and Gheranda Samhita (Saptanga Yoga) formed the foundations of Hatha Yoga.
In contemporary times, yoga has gained widespread popularity for its health benefits. It has spread throughout the world through the teachings of renowned personalities such as Swami Sivananda, Shri T. Krishnamacharya, Swami Kuvalayananda, Shri Yogendra, Swami Rama, Sri Aurobindo, Maharshi Mahesh Yogi, Acharya Rajneesh (Osho), Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, and many others.
Yoga’s long and rich history can be divided into four main periods of innovation, practice, and development:
1. Pre-Classical Yoga
2. Classical Yoga
3. Post-Classical Yoga
4. Modern Period.
It continues to evolve and be embraced as a valuable practice for overall well-being.
- Pre-classical Yoga
Pre-classical Yoga began over 5,000 years ago in Northern India with the Indus-Sarasvati civilization. The word “yoga” was mentioned in the ancient sacred texts called the Rig Veda. The practices and beliefs of yoga were refined and recorded by the Brahmans and Rishis in the Upanishads, which contained over 200 sacred scriptures. The Bhagavad-Gita, written around 500 B.C.E., is a well-known text from this period that emphasizes self-knowledge, action, and wisdom.
2. Classical Period of Yoga
The Classical period of yoga was defined by Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras, written around the second century. Patanjali organized the practice of yoga into an “eight-limbed path” leading to enlightenment. His teachings greatly influenced modern yoga styles, and he is considered the father of yoga.
3. Post-classical Period of Yoga
In the Post Classical period, yoga masters developed Tantra Yoga, which focused on purifying the body and mind to achieve spiritual enlightenment. They emphasized the physical body as a means to attain higher states of consciousness.
4. Modern Yoga
During the Modern period, yoga masters began traveling to the West to spread their teachings. Swami Vivekananda’s lectures on yoga at the 1893 Parliament of Religions in Chicago attracted attention. In the 1920s and 30s, Hatha Yoga gained popularity in India through the work of T. Krishnamacharya and Swami Sivananda. Krishnamacharya’s students, including B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, played significant roles in popularizing Hatha Yoga. Indra Devi opened a yoga studio in Hollywood in 1947, further increasing yoga’s popularity in the West.
Today, there are many different schools and styles of Hatha Yoga, each emphasizing different aspects of the practice. Yoga continues to be practiced by millions of people worldwide for its physical and spiritual benefits.
Types Of Yoga
There are different types of yoga that offer various benefits and approaches to the practice:
Hatha Yoga: This is one of the oldest forms of yoga, involving physical postures (asanas) and breathing exercises (pranayama). It brings peace to the mind and body, preparing for deeper practices like meditation.
Vinyasa Yoga: It is an active and athletic style where movement is synchronized with the breath. It involves a rapid flow through sun salutations and continuous transitions between poses.
Ashtanga Yoga: This system includes six series of asanas, always performed in the same order. It is a fast-paced and physically challenging style of yoga.
Power Yoga: It is a vigorous and dynamic form of yoga, often based on vinyasa-style sequences. The intensity may vary, so it’s important to consult the instructor beforehand.
Bikram Yoga: This practice consists of a specific sequence of 26 postures and two breathing techniques. It aims to flush toxins, manage weight, and deepen flexibility.
Jivamukti Yoga: Created in 1984, this style incorporates chanting, meditation, readings, and affirmations.
Iyengar Yoga: Known for its focus on precise alignment, poses are held for longer durations. Props like blocks and blankets are used to assist in proper alignment and accommodate individual needs.
Anusara Yoga: It emphasizes alignment principles while encouraging flowing movements and following one’s heart.
Sivananda Yoga: It begins with relaxation and breathing exercises, followed by a set of 12 asanas designed to strengthen and increase flexibility. Chanting and meditation may also be included.
Viniyoga: This approach adapts the practice to an individual’s unique condition, needs, and interests, promoting self-discovery and personal transformation.
Kundalini Yoga: It incorporates movements, breathing exercises, chanting, meditation, and mantras to awaken the energy at the base of the spine and move it through the chakras.
Yin Yoga: This slow-paced style involves holding poses for extended periods to apply moderate stress to connective tissues, increasing joint circulation and flexibility.
Yoga works on the body, mind, emotions, and energy. It can be classified into karma yoga (using the body), bhakti yoga (using emotions), gyana yoga (using the mind and intellect), and kriya yoga (using energy). Traditional teachings emphasize the importance of practicing under the guidance of a Guru who can provide appropriate guidance based on individual needs.
Yoga has been preserved and promoted by great Yoga Masters throughout history. Nowadays, millions of people worldwide benefit from practicing yoga daily, contributing to its growing popularity and vibrant community.
Benefits of Doing Yoga
Doing yoga offers numerous benefits for both the body and mind. Here are some of the key advantages:
Physical Fitness: Yoga helps improve flexibility, strength, and balance. By practicing different poses and movements, you can enhance your overall physical fitness and range of motion.
Stress Relief: Yoga promotes relaxation and reduces stress. Deep breathing exercises and mindfulness techniques, calms the mind, release tension, and foster a sense of inner peace.
Mental Clarity: Regular yoga practice enhances mental clarity, focus, and concentration. It can help improve memory and cognitive function, allowing you to think more clearly and make better decisions.
Improved Posture: Yoga strengthens the muscles that support proper posture. By practicing various poses that engage the core and back muscles, you can develop better posture and alignment.
Increased Energy Levels: Engaging in yoga regularly can boost energy levels and combat fatigue. Yoga poses, breathing exercises, and meditation techniques help rejuvenate the body and mind, leaving you feeling more energized and revitalized.
Better Sleep: Yoga can improve the quality of your sleep. The relaxation techniques and calming effects of yoga help reduce insomnia and promote a restful night’s sleep.
Stress and Anxiety Reduction: Yoga has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety levels. Incorporating breathing exercises and relaxation techniques helps calm the nervous system and induces a state of relaxation.
Emotional Well-being: Yoga promotes emotional well-being and a positive mindset. It can help manage emotions, reduce symptoms of depression, and increase feelings of self-acceptance and contentment.
Increased Body Awareness: Through yoga, you become more attuned to your body and its sensations. This heightened body awareness can lead to improved self-care, better body-mind connection, and a greater sense of self-confidence.
Overall Health Benefits: Regular yoga practice has been associated with a range of health benefits, including improved cardiovascular health, reduced blood pressure, better immune function, and enhanced digestion.
It’s important to note that individual experiences may vary, and it’s always recommended to consult with a healthcare professional before starting a new exercise or yoga routine.
Types of Yoga Asanas
- Mountain Pose (Tadasana): Stand tall with feet together, arms relaxed by your sides. This pose improves posture and promotes grounding.
2. Tree Pose (Vrikshasana): Stand with one foot rooted to the ground, and the other foot placed on the inner thigh or calf. Balance and focus are enhanced in this pose.
3. Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana): Start on all fours, lift your hips upward, and straighten your legs, forming an inverted V shape. It stretches the whole body and strengthens the arms and legs.
4. Warrior Pose (Virabhadrasana): Stand with feet wide apart, lunge to one side, and extend arms outstretched. This pose strengthens the legs and improves balance and stability.
5. Child’s Pose (Balasana): Kneel on the floor, sit back on your heels, and fold forward, resting your forehead on the ground. It promotes relaxation and releases tension in the back.
6. Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana): Lie face down, place your hands under your shoulders, and lift your chest off the ground. This pose strengthens the back muscles and improves spinal flexibility.
7. Bridge Pose (Setu Bandhasana): Lie on your back, bend your knees, and lift your hips off the ground. It strengthens the core, glutes, and legs while opening the chest.
8. Corpse Pose (Savasana): Lie flat on your back, arms relaxed by your sides, and close your eyes. This pose promotes deep relaxation and allows the body to rest and rejuvenate.
9. Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana): Sit on the ground, extend your legs forward, and fold forward, reaching for your feet. It stretches the back, hamstrings, and shoulders.
10. Cat-Cow Pose (Marjaryasana-Bitilasana): Begin on all fours, arch your back upward (cat pose), and then lift your chest and extend your spine downward (cow pose). It helps to improve spinal flexibility and releases tension in the back.
Remember, it is important to practice yoga under the guidance of a qualified instructor and listen to your body’s limitations. Each pose has variations and modifications, and it’s essential to honor your body’s abilities and avoid any discomfort or pain.