What is Yoga? History & Origins

“Yoga is a series of practices that release extra-ordinary capacities in the mind and body”

Chase Bossart

Yoga. Almost everyone thinks they know what it is, but surprisingly few know the full story. The common perception in the western world is that yoga = exercise. In reality, the physical practice – asana – is only one part. One eighth in fact! To understand what yoga really is we need to go back in time.

Why you should know Yoga’s backstory

If you Google “yoga” the first thing that comes up is picture of people in handstands, arm balances or contorted sitting positions. And that’s not a new phenomenon of the Instagram era! We find the same in 19th and 20th century photographs, and even further back, in ancient South Asian paintings and carvings. Yoga imagery has always focused on the poses because they are the only performative aspect of yoga. It’s the only part where there’s something to see! Throughout history, demonstrating fantastical poses has been the main way for teachers to showcase yoga and attract new people to the practice.

B.K.S. Iyengar demonstrating Paripurna Matsyendrasana
Image courtesy of Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute
16th century relief statue in Achyutaraya temple, Hampi Karnataka
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

This imagery is misleading. It gives the impression that yoga is only the poses. Not to mention the widespread belief that you have to be flexible to do yoga! While the physical practice is definitely good for you, you won’t uncover yoga’s true essence by doing a headstand. To do that, you need to understand the full wheel of yoga and where it came from.

The origins of yoga

Yoga is an ancient discipline that incorporates philosophy, ethics and guidance for living. It originated in India some 5,000 years ago, pre-dating Hinduism and Buddhism. Concepts from yoga are found in both religions.

Traditionally a person would become a yogi by studying with a teacher or “guru” for many years, with knowledge passed on by word of mouth. The first written source that mentions yoga is the Vedas. 

The Vedas are a collection of songs, mantras and rituals associated with the Vedic religion that was practiced in ancient India. They were written in Sanskrit over 3000 years ago. The latter part of the Vedas, the Upanishads, contains many interesting rituals, such as how to obtain a particular kind of son or daughter. 

Over time, ritualistic practices fell out of favour and people started to turn inwards to explore their personal spirituality. A key text that shows this is the Bhagavad-Gita. It was written between 400 BCE and 200 CE, and is the first major text on how to integrate spiritual values into life, so as to lead a calm and peaceful life. 

Early yogis who followed these texts were called ascetics – people who renounced possessions and lived outside of normal society, often has hermits, nomads and sometimes, even mercenaries. Despite their goal of living a peaceful life, they were often perceived as dangerous, probably because they were very misunderstood!

These three seminal texts contain many references to yoga, but they were often hidden in stories and fables, making them difficult to understand without a teacher. The first text that clearly codified what yoga is and how to practice it was the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Written around 1,700 years ago, the Sutras are a collection of 195 “aphorisms” or statements that give definition to yoga. Each pithy statement has played a part in helping yoga transcend the centuries. 

Modern yoga practices can be directly traced back to the Sutras. 

While the Sutras are the undisputed guidebook for yoga, they don’t perfectly answer our question: “what is yoga?” Why? Because they’re written in Sanskrit; nuances of translation have a big impact on the meaning of each sutra.

To see this, let’s examine the first two sutras.

1.1. atha yoganusasanam – here begins the authoritative instruction on Yoga

1.2. yogasgcittavrttinirodhah – Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direct without any distraction.

from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Translation by T.K.V. Desikachar in The Heart of Yoga

The second sutra is broadly understood to mean that the goal of yoga is to achieve a state of tranquility of the mind, allowing one to perceive the world as it truly is. How you define the last word – nirodhah – has an enormous impact on how the goal of yoga is defined.

If you translate nirodhah as “directing the mind” this implies the goal of yoga is to control the fluctuations of the mind towards a point of focus.

However, if you translate it as “stilling the mind” this implies the goal is to cease the fluctuations of the mind altogether and reach transcendence. A notion I find pretty scary!

Differences aside, one thing all yogis share is the eightfold path (or the eight limbs). Defined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, the eightfold path is an all encompassing blueprint to living an enlightened life. You need to understand and embrace all parts to fully appreciate everything yoga can teach us.

To put the recent focus on poses into context, asana is only one of the eight limbs, and is only mentioned in three out of the 195 sutras.

What is the eightfold path?

The eightfold path sets out guidelines for living a meaningful and purposeful life. It covers mental and physical health, spirituality, ethics and morals. By following the eightfold path, you will develop a strong connection between mind, body, soul and the world around you.

We will explore the eight limbs separately (because explaining them in the depth they deserve would turn this article into a book).

More recent history

Until the late 19th century, followers of the eightfold path would practice all eight limbs equally to reach samadhi. The yamas, niyamas, asana and pranayama were practiced to help prepare the body and soul for meditation. Pratyahara, dharana and dhyani were practiced sequentially to prepare the mind for meditation with the goal of reaching a level of super-consciousness or enlightenment.

This is still the case for ascetic practitioners, but is unusual in the modern western world where the focus is predominantly on one limb.

During the latter years of the 19th century, the novel concept of exercise swept the world. While humans have always understood the value of exercise, it was as late as the 20th century that science provided evidence for this. Following the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, the world became obsessed with physiology and the positive effects of exercise. Military training programmes were overhauled to include more physical exercise. Gymnastics and bodybuilding exploded in popularity. A new cult of celebrity was created of professional athletes and bodybuilders.

As this wave of physical culture swept across the world and reached India, it inspired yogis to revisit their own traditions and reflect on the role asana could play in developing a healthy, strong body. The resulting reformation of asana in the 1920s and 1930s created the modern forms of yoga classes, and most of the poses that are so popular today.

So despite having over 5,000 years of history, the yoga commonly thought of today only came about in the last two centuries! I don’t know about you, but realising this blew my mind, and made me question why so many classes and teachers choose to focus only on 4% of what yoga has to teach us!

So why does history matter?

Knowing a little bit of the history of yoga gives important context to your practice. With it, you can see how the physical practice is only one part of a much greater whole. Without it, it’s all too easy to get hung up on whether you can do a headstand.

Of all the different definitions of “yoga” out there, my favourite is a simple, modern one.

Yoga is a series of practices that release extra-ordinary capacities in the mind and body.

Definition given by yoga scholar Chase Bossart, on the J Brown Yoga Podcast, episode 179. Chase is the founder of the Yoga Well Institute and long time student of T.K.V. Desikachar.

When you know the history you can see beyond the performative aspects of yoga, and appreciate that it doesn’t matter whether you prefer Ashtanga, Bikram or any other style of yoga class.

What truly matters is how you put the practices of yoga together to unlock the ordinary and extraordinary powers of the mind, body and spirit.

Join the doYoga.MS community to learn more about how to use the tools of yoga to live well with MS.

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