Yoga is a well-known term these days. But where yoga originated is rather uncertain. We do know, though, that its origin comes from India from more than 5,000 years ago. In the early 1920s, archaeologists found the Indus civilization. They also discovered carvings inscribed on soapstone, which resembled yogi-like figures. The word yoga itself first appeared on ancient and sacred texts of Hinduism – the Vedas. To be specific, the Rigveda, the oldest of Hindu scriptures. In the yogic traditional wisdom, Shiva, the principal deity of the Hindu Mythology, is the first yogi or Adiyogi. He is also the first Guru or Adi Guru.
Let’s rewind a bit and start with the fundamentals.
Shiva is the first yogi or Adiyogi and also the first Guru or Adi Guru.
What is Yoga?
The word yoga is acquired from the Sanskrit word “Yuj” meaning “to yoke”. Yoking was a practice to connect and harness two animals. They would be “yoked” together (typically at their necks) to be able to perform tasks (such as ploughing a field). So, essentially, to yoke is to create a union, of mind, body and soul. For a yogi, it is the way to break the illusion of separation and achieve ultimate nirvana. The ultimate purpose of yoga is uniting two things that were never actually separated. (Source)
A Bit of History of The Origins of Yoga
Some legends say that several thousand years ago, on the banks of the lake Kantisarovar in the Himalayas, Adi Yogi poured his keen insight into the mythical “Saptarishis” or the “seven sages”, as commonly referred. These sages carried yogic science to different parts of the world, including Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa and South America. Scholars have observed close similarities in different folk tales from all over the globe. (Source)
Traces of ancient yoga practices and much of what’s known today can be traced back to the earliest of folk traditions, Indus valley civilization, Vedic and Upanishadic heritage, Buddhist and Jain traditions, Darshanas, epics of Mahabharat and Ramayana, theistic traditions of Shaiva’s, Vaishnavas, and Tantric traditions.
Hindu ancestors practiced Yoga under the direct guidance of a Guru. Those were the times when the spiritual value of yoga had special importance. The great Sage, Maharshi Patanjali, systematized the then Yoga practices through his Yoga Sutra.
The “Yoga Sutra” is a 2000-year-old monograph on yogic philosophy. It guides one to master the mind, control the emotions, and grow spiritually. The Yoga Sutra is primarily the oldest organized record of yoga. Patanjali’s yoga sutra is mainly identified with the eightfold path of Yoga and forms the basis for all modern yoga. Yoga Sutra is a collection of timeless teachings. Hence, it is a treasure for the seekers of the spiritual path. If you want to explore the earliest yoga practices, you will definitely need the Yoga Sutra.
Yoga During Different Eras
To understand where yoga originated, historians have divided the history of yoga into the following periods:
1. Pre-Vedic and Vedic period or Vedic Yoga
Rigveda, the oldest and most sacred Vedic text, believed to be written somewhere between 3000-1900 B.C. or prior, is the main source from which we get most of the information on where yoga originated. It is a collection of hymns that are in praise of a higher power. The book also contains information about yoga practices and the related literature of this period.
The other three Vedic texts are the Yajur-Veda (Knowledge of Sacrifice), Sama-Veda (Knowledge of Chants), and Atharva-Veda (Knowledge of Atharvan).
Vedic Yoga revolved around the idea of focusing the mind for an extended period of time. It is also known as Archaic Yoga. Sages perceived it as a means of uniting the material world with the invisible world of the soul. Such inner focusing for the sake of surpassing the limitations of the ordinary mind is the root of Yoga.
2. Pre-Classical Period
This period extends for approximately two millennia. The pre-classical period marks the creation of Upanishads. These are ancient Sanskrit texts that explain in detail the ultimate unity of mind and spirit. There are over 200 Upanishads of which Bhagwat Gita is the most remarkable scripture. It is an epic poem which takes place in a battlefield in Mahabharata, and is often believed to be a metaphor for the “battlefield of the mind.”
The Pre-classical Yoga is inspired by many epics. The teachings of these epics are present in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These various pre-classical texts explain all kinds of techniques for achieving deep meditation. Yogis can transcend the body and mind to discover their true nature through these techniques.
3. Classical Period
The period between 500 BC – 800 A.D. is known as the Classical period. It is also the most fertile and prominent period in the history and development of Yoga. This period is dedicated to two great religious teachers of India: Mahavir and Buddha.
Buddha: One of the great religious teachers in India.
The concept of the five great vows and the eightfold path explains the early nature of Yoga Sadhna. These are “Pancha Mahavrata” by Mahavir and “Ashta Magga” by Buddha. We find their explanations in Bhagwat Gita, which gave birth to the concept of Gyan yoga, Bhakti yoga and Karma yoga. These three types of yoga are considerably the most historical and common example of human curiosity. Even today, people find peace by following these methods, as shown in Gita. We’ll talk about different types of yoga later.
4. Post-classical Period
The period between 800 A.D. – 1700 A.D. is known as the Post Classical period. During this period, many sages contributed to the continuation of Yoga (Raja yoga and Jnana yoga). Sri Adi Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, Madhavacharya being a few among the most popular. They did this by adopting and building upon the teachings and techniques of ancient yoga.
The teachings of Suradasa, Tulasidasa, Purandardasa, Mirabai also took place during this period. Matsyendaranatha, Gorkshanatha, Swatmaram Suri, Shrinivasa Bhatt are some of the prominent figures in the yogic world of Hatha Yoga Tradition who promoted Hatha yoga practices.
5. Modern Period
Where yoga originated in ancient times may be a subject surrounded in mysteries. But, the history of modern Yoga is thought to begin with the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. It was when Swami Vivekanand made a lasting impression on the world about the science of Yoga.
The period between 1700 – 1900 A.D. is known as the Modern period. A vital role in the development of Raja yoga was played by renowned Yogacharyas (teachers) such as Ramana Maharshi, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Paramhansa Yogananda, Vivekananda, etc. Vedanta, Bhakti yoga, Natha yoga or Hatha yoga flourished during this age. (Source)
Swami Vivekanand was the person that made a lasting impression on the world about the science of Yoga.
Yoga, then and now
Yoga practices have come a long way. We must wonder about how many times they were adapted and by how many civilizations. Despite its existence from immemorial times, yoga practices have evolved to a great extent. Also, their purposes have developed various perspectives.
Ancient yoga practices were concerned with building and maintaining the connection between oneself (body and mind) and nature. Whereas modern yoga practices have been mostly used as a means of treating/curing diseases, physical fitness, and to achieve freedom from stress.
Yoga is not just Asanas or poses, which are quite popular among modern fitness enthusiasts, through practices like Hatha yoga. These poses are essential in achieving the ultimate goal, i.e. enlightenment. However, these poses are actually a means to an end. This is, they are part of a preparatory process to strengthen the body and increase its energy levels so it can get into meditative state and sustain longer meditations.
To attain enlightenment and oneness with the universe, it is essential to first understand, and then practice yoga. Once you attain this state, you will be free of all worldly sufferings and have better physical, mental, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional health.
Asana poses are port of a preparatory process so one can get into meditative state.
Too many paths and one destination
Different Philosophies, lineages and Guru-student traditions of Yoga have led to the emergence of many traditional paths of Yoga. Jnana yoga, Bhakti yoga, Karma yoga, Dhyana yoga, Patanjali yoga, Kundalini yoga, Hatha yoga, Mantra yoga, Laya yoga, Raja yoga, Jain yoga and Buddha yoga to name a few.
Bhagwat Gita, however, stands tall due to its ancient roots and wisdom. It is undoubtedly a marvel on spiritual liberation. It elaborates the most effective and explicit explanation of Yoga. Lord Krishna, in this case, teaches his student (Arjuna) the three main paths or Margas of yogic philosophy to attain enlightenment or moksha (Source):
- Bhakti Yoga is the path to be travelled with love and devotion. It is the unconditional love for your personal god that gives you pure joy and priceless enlightenment. Bhakti yoga is considered to be the oldest of all yoga practices. Some of the hymns or prayers used in this practice are over 4 millennia old. The yogi who practices Bhakti Yoga is called a “bhakta” or devotee.
- Gyan Yoga or “jnanamarga” is the path of wisdom and self-realisation. It is the practice of meditation and introspection to understand the true nature of reality. Ancient Indian scriptures “Upanishads” contain Maha-vakyas which are sentences with great admiration and respect among the scholars. These Maha-vakyas, when meditated upon, answer the golden questions, such as Who am I? What is my purpose? What is reality? And so on. These basic questions are in the mind of every Gyan yogi. One must practice Hatha yoga, Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga prior to practicing Gyan yoga. The aim of the approach is still the realization of divine oneness.
- Karma Yoga is the path that requires selfless service and actions for the right motives. Karma yoga is the acceptance of duty, and surrender of ego, attachment, and expectation of reward. The original ideas of Karma Yoga can be traced back to ancient Upanishads, such as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. In Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna, ‘Do your work, it’s your duty and leave the result of work on me (God)’.
But fitness comes first
In modern times; however, the more commonly walked yoga path is Hatha Yoga. It is the branch of yoga which deals with the practice of asanas (yoga postures) and pranayama (breathing exercises). The goal, though, is to align your mind, body and soul, and prepare for a longer duration of comfortable meditations.
In ancient times, yogis used to go to forests to avoid interruption in meditation. Longer sessions of meditation resulted in physical fatigue. But yogis were wise men and they quickly learned the solution to their problem from nature. They started imitating the physical movements of animals and trees and plants. They stretched their limbs, moved their bodies, or stood still like a rock or a tree and gradually learned how to control their breath. Knowingly or unknowingly, they were using the geometrical aspects of bends and twists to their advantage. That’s how asanas and hatha yoga were born with the primary goal of preparing the mind and body for intense meditation. (Source)
Asanas were the result of ancient yogis finding ways to avoid getting physically fatigued in long uninterrupted meditation.
Some widely practiced Yoga practices (Sadhanas) for health and wellness in contemporary times are Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana (Meditation), Samadhi/Samyama, Bandhas and Mudras, Shat-karmas, Yukta-ahara, Yukta karma, Mantra japa, etc. Yoga education these days is being passed on by many notable Yoga Institutions with different areas of expertise.
With this brief revision of the origins and evolution of yoga we want to show you that, while physical and mental health is a natural effect of yoga, the goal of yoga is far more reaching. Yoga is about getting in sync with the universe. It is the science of aligning your geometry with the universe, to achieve the highest level of perception and harmony.
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