Where Did Yoga Begin?
Many things come and go with changing fashions, but yoga has survived for thousands of years, and it is still gaining popularity. Today, it is widely practised across many parts of the world. Your local gym may offer Yoga Classes as part of their weekly fitness timetable.
But what you don’t often hear about is the history of yoga. Where does it originate? How did yoga begin?
After spending a lot of time in yoga schools and retreats in India, I became interested in the history of this ancient exercise. With new techniques and styles emerging, it made me think about how yoga had evolved to become the exercise we see today.
What Is Yoga?
Though many people in modern times think of yoga as just a physical exercise to become healthier physically, the deeper purpose of yoga practice is deeply spiritual and intended to help unite your individual soul with the universal consciousness.
There are many variations of Yoga which can be practised, but some are very different to the Yoga classes I had attended at home. The main styles of yoga that have evolved in modern times include Anusara, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Bikram, Forrest, Integral, Iyengar, Jivamukti, Kripalu, Kundalini, Power, Prenatal, Restorative, Sivananda, Viniyoga and more recently, Ariel yoga.
Let's look at the history to learn how yoga has evolved.
What I learned about the History of Yoga in India – Where and How it Began
Yoga originates from Northern India and began over 5,000 years ago. This is why it is so widely practised across the country, more so than in any other part of the world. Many Indians keep to their traditions from thousands of years ago and some researchers believe yoga began up to 10,000 years ago. Some of the information I researched sounded a little obscure and this could be why it is so difficult to trace back to exactly when it first began (5000 – 10000 years is quite vague).
The early writings on yoga were transcribed on palm leaves which can easily be lost or damaged. Some information I found suggests that yoga teachings were secretive and shared only by voice.
Officially, the word yoga was first mentioned in the Rig Veda, the oldest sacred texts of rituals and mantras used by Brahmans (Vedic priests). Yoga was then slowly refined and developed by the Brahmans who documented their practices in the Upanishads (a huge work containing over 200 scriptures). The most famous Yogic scriptures is the Bhagavad-Gîtâ, and was created approximately 500 B.C.E. The Upanishads took the idea of ritual sacrifice from the Vedas and taught the sacrifice of ego through self-knowledge, wisdom (jnana yoga) and action (karma yoga).
How Yoga Developed to the Modern Day
The early stages of yoga were a mix of beliefs and techniques. The first systematic presentation of yoga was written by Patanjali’s Yoga-Sûtras, in the second century, which describes the journey of Raja Yoga, or sometimes referred to as "classical yoga".
Patanjali defined the "eight limbed path" steps and stages towards achieving enlightenment or Samadhi. Patanjali is often referred to as the father of yoga and his teachings strongly influence many styles of yoga today. Patanjali, yoga masters rejected the ancient Vedas teachings and instead embraced the body as the way to obtain enlightenment. They developed Tantra Yoga, which includes techniques to cleanse the mind and body. The discovery of practices centering the body combined with physical-spiritual connections then led to the beginning of what is known as Hatha Yoga.
How Yoga Gained Popularity in The West
Yoga masters began travelling to the West between the late 80s and early 90s and began attracting new followers. Swami Vivekananda made a huge impact at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 when he impressed the audience with his teachings on yoga. In India, Hatha Yoga began being strongly promoted between the 1920s and 30s with the work of T. Krishnamacharya and Swami Sivananda who practiced Hatha Yoga. Krishnamacharya opened the first Hatha Yoga school in Mysore in 1924 and Sivananda founded the Divine Life Society at the holy Ganges River in 1936.
Yoga continued to develop very slowly in the West until 1947 when Indra Devi opened her yoga studio in Hollywood. Now many Indian and Western teachers have introduced Hatha Yoga with many schools teaching the technique worldwide.
What do Indians Think Of Yoga In The West?
Although Hatha Yoga schools are available in the West, there are a number of commercialised yoga classes which have gained popularity. So what do Indians think of yoga in the West?
I have spoken to a number of local Indians about this topic and I received a very mixed response. One local told me that nowadays, he believes Westerners are more into yoga than Indians. No one practiced yoga in his family and he implied that only the elderly Indian population continued to practice yoga.
Another local thought differently. He explained that many people, including himself and his family, follow a local TV programme which demonstrates yoga in the mornings. He believes that Westerners visisting India for yoga brings more work opportuntities for the local community. Although some yoga techniques have evolved, his opinion of Westernised yoga was very positive because it encourages more people to practice.
Is Comercialisation Corrupting Yoga?
Another local’s thoughts on Westernised yoga was very different. She believes that commercialisation is corrupting yoga in the West and has lost its original meaning.
“Stressful jobs and a lack of time demands extensive changes to yoga to match modern lifestyle”. She believes this is doing harm to the practice. She went on to explain that most of the ‘asanas’ or yoga postures/poses, are practiced without the faith and understanding, converting it simply into physical exercise.
“True yoga needs deep faith and it aims at spiritual attainment. This has been lost in modern commercialised yoga”
These comments are not my personal opinion, I am simply sharing the opinions of others on this topic.
What are your thoughts on Western modernised yoga?