Yoga – history and tradition from India

Where Did Yoga Originate? The History Of Yoga in India

Unfortunately when it comes to anything India, history is often vague, and rarely precise.
However, it is clear that yoga originated on the Indian subcontinent. The basic meditation pose for which yoga is best known, is found on the early Indus Valley seals – about 3000 BC.

The most famous text devoted to Yoga practice is the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. Scientists estimate that he lived in the second century before the Christian Era. However, it is clear that the text codifies practices that were already classic at the time. Patanjali merely organized them. The text reads like a very concentrated catalog in places.

Yoga definition

Though I’ve talked a bit about what’s known about yoga here, the fact is – the history of Yoga is hard to tell, partly because it’s not very well defined.
The word ‘yoga’ or ‘yog’ is used in every major religious movement that started on the Indian continent. Buddhists use it, Hindu’s of course, but also Jains and Sikhs. There is even a philosophical school named after Yoga.

The word Yoga is usually used to describe a path to enlightenment, or God (or both). Very different methods will be used in each of those paths – from devotion to God, to thinking clearly, to meditation – and last but not least – yoga practices close to what westerners do as ‘yoga practice’, which is called Hatha Yoga when people want to be precise.

Patanjali defined yoga as the cessation of the movement of thought. Sounds more like meditation doesn’t it?

So what is yoga?

Yoga is a path to enlightenment. The word ‘yoga’ is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj, to join, to unite, to attach. The English word yoke is cognate with the Sanskrit word yoga. The discipline originally aimed at achieving a state of perfect spiritual insight and tranquility. The practice (or collection of practices) goes back to India: before the start of the Christian Era. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (written somewhere between 300 BC and 200 AD) are usually seen as the text that codifies yogic practices, but many of the practices themselves are definitely older.

Of course (hatha) yoga can be practised without any reference to its Indian roots or the spiritual system behind the practices. Following Mark Singleton, one might call this ‘posture yoga‘.

Types of yoga in Hinduism

Information on hatha yoga and the other classic types of yoga. In Hinduism there are various types of yoga, but in the West Hatha Yoga has become most popular and well known. When we say ‘yoga’ we usually mean ‘Hatha Yoga’. Some Hatha Yoga gift ideas.

Silent 1938 yoga film

Showmanship in complicated yoga poses. This is how it’s done 🙂 (not that I could do this)

Hatha Yoga – Classic Yoga (1)

Yoga as exercise (or asceticism)

Hatha yoga is the type of yoga where you have all kinds of postures (assana’s) to go through. In hatha yoga there isn’t a lot of movement, except the breath and a few advanced postures.

These postures were held motionlessly by Indian Sannyasins for years. There are stories of Sannyasins being carried by their disciples to the river for a bath – while the sannyasin stayed in position the whole time.

Most people who do hatha yoga in the West would find this a bit odd to say the least. We do yoga to stay flexible, find peace of mind and learn to control our breathing. Where the Sannyasin would get away from the world, most of us use yoga to be more integrated IN the world.

Yoga has become a part of a healthy lifestyle instead of a religious practice that serves to develop the mind at the expense of the body.

Don’t just do something — Sit there!

(a yoga joke)

Basic yoga – good for beginners and people getting back to yoga after the holidays

This teacher hurries through the poses a bit. You might want to try each yoga pose a few breaths longer than is shown here.

Jnana Yoga – Classic Hindu Yoga (2)

Jnana = knowledge

Jnana Yoga is about finding insight in meditation. This type of yoga has nothing to do with yoga postures or exercise. Instead it is about meditation and contemplation. For instance: if you read a spiritual book and contemplate on whether it is true what you read – that’s Jnana yoga.

Smiling and stretching

Remember, it is more important for a smile to spread over your chin than it is to get your chin closer to your shin.

– Stuart Rice

Bhakti Yoga – Classic Yoga (3)

The most popular type of Hindu Yoga

Bhakti is a religious movement in India where devotion to a God (usually Krishna or Shiva) is the way to salvation. This type of Hinduism is closest in form to Christianity as it involves a monotheistic outlook: that One God is the ultimate source of everything. The big difference: that One God will include all other Gods as emanations. In this way Hindus can easily say that Jesus was also an avatar (emanation) of God.

Bhakti Yoga is the method of reaching salvation through devotion to a specific god. Bhakti is the type of religious yoga that is most popular in India itself. It could be said to be the main type of yoga in Hinduism.

Yoga headstand

Great introduction into yoga headstand. With great explanations of what to look out for to keep it safe.

Karma Yoga – Classic Yoga (4)

This one will surprise people who feel that Hinduism is less about compassion than other religions (like Buddhism and Christianity).

Karma Yoga is all about right action: purifying your karma by doing right by others, being compassionate, being generous etc.

The Bhagavad Gita stresses action without regard for consequences. This does NOT imply acting without regard for ethics. Instead it is about doing what you need to do without taking into account whether you will succeed or not.

Breath – it’s a yoga joke

In Yoga, it’s just one thing after another

— breath, breath, breath

Raja Yoga – Classic Yoga (5)

Yoga as a way of life

Raja Yoga is the royal yoga. It is the crown of the classical types of yoga and involves meditation and right living. Raja Yoga includes all of the above. Described as ashtanga yoga (eightfold yoga) in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – it has eight aspects:

1) Yama refers to the five abstentions. These are the same as the five vows of Jainism.

  • Ahimsa: non-violence, inflicting no injury or harm to others or even to one’s ownself, it goes as far as nonviolence in thought, word and deed.
  • Satya: truth in word & thought.
  • Asteya: non-covetousness,, to the extent that one should not even desire something that is not his own.
  • Brahmacharya: abstain from sexual intercourse; celibacy in case of unmarried people and monogamy in case of married people. Even this to the extent that one should not possess any unholy thoughts towards any other man or woman except one’s own spouse. It’s common to associate Brahmacharya with celibacy.
  • Aparigraha: non-possessiveness

2) Niyama refers to the five observances

  • Shaucha: cleanliness of body & mind.
  • Santosha: satisfaction; satisfied with what one has..
  • Tapas: austerity and associated observances for body discipline & thereby mental control.
  • Svadhyaya: study of the Vedic scriptures to know about God and the soul, which leads to introspection on a greater awakening to the soul and God within,
  • Ishvarapranidhana: surrender to (or worship of) God.

3) Asana: Discipline of the body: rules and postures to keep it disease-free and for preserving vital energy. Correct postures are a physical aid to meditation, for they control the limbs and nervous system and prevent them from producing disturbances.

4) Pranayama: control of breath. Beneficial to health, steadies the body and is highly conductive to the concentration of the mind.

5) Pratyahara: withdrawal of senses from their external objects.

The last three levels are called internal aids to Yoga (antaranga sadhana)

6) Dharana: concentration of the mind upon a physical object, such as a flame of a lamp, the mid point of the eyebrows, or the image of a deity.

7) Dhyana: steadfast meditation. Undisturbed flow of thought around the object of meditation. The act of meditation and the object of meditation remain distinct and separate.

8) Samadhi: oneness with the object of meditation. There is no distinction between act of meditation and the object of meditation. Samadhi is of two kinds:

  • Samprajnata Samadhi conscious samadhi. The mind remains concentrated (ekagra) on the object of meditation, therefore the consciousness of the object of meditation persists. Mental modifications arise only in respect of this object of meditation.
  • Asamprajnata Samadhi supraconscious. The citta and the object of meditation are fused together. The consciousness of the object of meditation is transcended. All mental modifications are checked (niruddha), although latent impressions may continue.

You will recognize some of these from regular (hatha) yoga practice: postures and breathing. But what is usually not taught in the West is the yama and niyama: how to live. Yet this is the part that is actually more about a way of life. Charges of selfishness of the yogic discipline become meaningless in the light of the rules of life included in yama.

The Lone Bat – A yoga joke

A group of bats, hanging at the ceiling of a cave discovers a single bat STANDING upright underneath on the floor of the cave.

Surprised by this unusual behavior, they ask this fellow: “What’s wrong with you? What are you doing down there?”

And the fellow shouts back: “Yoga!”

More on meditation in Hinduism and Yoga

A Yoga Joke

Question: What did the sign in the window of the yoga master searching for a new disciple say?

Answer: Inquire within!

After reading all that, test yourself: How well do you know Yoga Philosophy?

Learn more about Yoga

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