Yoga History - A Complete Overview
We are all well aware of the term yoga, but do we know what it really is? Yoga is more than mastering postures and increasing your flexibility. The true essence of the art of yoga can be derived by skimming through its background and the foundations of it origin.We sure may have a relative idea about what yoga really is, but to understand the true essence of yoga we must take a peek at the journey it has undergone since its time of origin. A swift over view will help us appreciate its rich traditions and may also help us incorporate yoga in our daily lives.
Although yoga is said to be as old as civilization, there is no physical evidence to support this claim. Earliestarchaeological evidence of Yoga's existence could be found in stone seals which depict figures of poses of Yoga. The stone seals place Yoga's existence to going as far back as 3000 B.C!
However, many scholars believe Yoga existed long before that and mapped out its beginnings to Stone Age Shamanism. What really affirmed their faith was that both Shamanism and Yoga arealike in a few respects,primarily, in their efforts to improve the human condition andaiming to heal community members with the practitioners acting as religious mediators.
For a better judgment of the history of yoga, we can classify it into four different periods: the Vedic Period, Pre-Classical Period, Classical Period, and Post-Classical Period.
The Vedic period
The existence of the Vedas marks this period. TheVedic period (or Vedic age) was a period in history during which the Vedas(Sanskrit, 'knowledge'),the oldestscripturesof Hinduism, were composed. Basically it is the compilation of hymns which praise a divine power. The Vedas contains the oldest yoga techniques and these teachings found in the Vedas are called Vedic yoga. This is characterized by sacraments and ceremonies that endeavor to exceed the limitations of the mind.
During this time the Vedic people relied on Rishis(denotes the composers ofVedichymns)or Vedic yogis to teach them about yoga techniques. People thought that rishis were gifted with the ability to see the eventual reality through their intensive spiritual practice. It was also during this time that Yogis living in seclusion (in forests) were recorded.
This covers a broad period of approximately 2,000 years until the second century. The creation of the Upanishads marks the Pre-Classical Yoga. Upanishadsare philosophical texts are considered to be an early source ofHindu religion.The 200 scriptures of the Upanishads (the conclusion of the revealed literature) describe the inner vision of reality resulting from devotion to Brahman. These explain three subjects: the ultimate reality (Brahman), the transcendental self (atman), and the relationship between the two. Yoga shares some characteristics not only with Hinduism but also with Buddhism that are easily traceable in its history. During the sixth century B.C., Buddha started teaching Buddhism, which stresses the importance ofMeditationand the practice of physical postures. Siddhartha Gautama, the first Buddhist to study Yoga, achieved enlightenment at the age of 35.
Later, around 500 B.C., theBhagavad-Gitaor Lord's Song was created and this is currently the oldest known Yoga scripture. It is devoted entirely to Yoga and has confirmed that it has been an old practice. However, it doesn't point to a specific time when Yoga could have started.
The Classical Period is marked by another creation - the Yoga Sutra. Written by Patanjali around the second century, it was an attempt to define and standardize Classical Yoga that expound upon the Raja Yoga and its underlying principle, Patanjali's Eightfold path of Yoga (also called Eight Limbs of Classical Yoga). These are:
Yama, which means social restraints or ethical values;
Niyama, which is personal observance of purity, tolerance, and study;
Asanas or physical exercises;
Pranayama, which means breath control or regulation;
Pratyahara or sense withdrawal in preparation for Meditation;
Dharana, which is about concentration;
Dhyana, which means Meditation; and
Samadhi, which means ecstasy.
Patanjali believed that each individual is composed of matter (prakriti) and spirit (purusha). He advocated that yoga would restore the spirit to its absolute reality.
Post Classical Period
At this point, we see a propagation of literature as well as the practice of yoga. The Yoga of this era was characterized by non-dualistic nature. Post classical yoga differs from the first three phases since its focus is more on the present. Post-Classical yoga does not try to liberate a person from reality but encourages attention on the present, to accept it and live in the moment.Yoga was introduced in the West during the early 19th century. It was first studied as part of Eastern Philosophy and began as a movement for health and vegetarianism around the 1930's. By the 1960's, there was an influx of Indian teachers who expounded on Yoga.
The real evolution of yoga as we see it today came about when Yoga masters designed advanced yogic practices that could rejuvenate the body and prolong its life.Thus, we see that the modern age Yoga is essentially the result of a complex evolution that has been going on for at least 5000 years to be precise!