Yoga is an ancient discipline that originated in India thousands of years ago. Although yoga has strong affiliation with Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, it is not generally thought to be a religious practice. It is more so a complementary aspect of certain religions, but can be applied as a non-theistic, practice. In fact, as yoga has crossed cultures, the focus has been on healing through practicing systematic postures (Asanas), breathing (Pranayama) and meditation (Dhyana), without requiring worship of any specific god. Though the date of its inception is debatable, the evolution and dissemination of yoga has gone through at least four main time periods.
Many historians believe that yoga originated over 5,000 years ago. However, describing the chronology has been difficult because yoga principles were originally disseminated through oral tradition, and even the earliest written texts have been wiped out or lost. The word “yoga” was first seen in the third or fourth century in the Upashinads, the sacred writings by Vedic priests (Brahmans). There was also the appearance of the word “yoga” in the Bhagavad Gita, ancient scriptures that use the term yoga in various ways, but overall, in both texts, the term “yoga” points to the process that uses breathing, introspection, control of the senses and meditation to ascend toward a supreme state, where ego is abandoned and self-knowledge and wisdom are obtained.
Though there have been many different texts describing yoga practices, the writing that is accepted as the first collection of systematic yoga philosophy is the “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”, which appeared in the first millennium. In Patanjali’s sutras, also referred to as Raja yoga, the different phases necessary to reach enlightenment are described as an organized “eight-limbed path” including:
Yama- Moral Codes
Niyama- Self-purification and self-reflection
Pranayama- Control of breathing
Pratyahara- Control of the senses
Dhyana – Meditation
Samadhi – Liberation
Post Classical Yoga
Several centuries after the adoption of Patanjali’s sutras, as the principles of yoga, there was a further evolution. These new developments embraced the use of the body in conjunction with meditation and breathing to achieve enlightenment. Unlike, yoga in its earlier stage, the human body was now revered as the sanctuary of the imperishable soul and therefore, the relationship between the physical and the spiritual became the focus of achieving oneness with the universe. It is here that a system of exercises developed and Hatha Yoga was born, which was the predominant form of yoga introduced into Western cultures.
Yoga made its way into Western culture beginning in the late 1800’s, when yoga gurus began to travel and expand their influence across the globe. One notable example is, when the spiritual principles of love, universality and purity, taught by Ramakrishna, were introduced to Americans at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. At this assembly, Swami Vivekananda, a follower of Ramakrishna, presented yoga principles, which would be the beginning of what would become a continual stream of Eastern influence on Western culture. Pioneers of yoga teaching, such as Indra Devi, started to open studios in the United States in the 1900s, where they taught Hatha Yoga. The popularity of yoga as a way to cleanse the mind and body and prolong life and health would only continue to grow and evolve into various forms that concentrate on different areas of the yoga discipline, or even create new teaching styles such as Power Yoga, which mainly focuses on improving fitness.
As you can see, yoga has gone through many different stages and continues to have influence worldwide. There are both positive and negative aspects of global dissemination of yoga. The positive aspects include the utilization of yoga for both, improving fitness as well as bettering health outcomes. There is so much buzz now about the potential health benefits of yoga that quantitative (numerical data-driven) research studies are being funded to look at the systematic use of yoga, as a therapeutic agent for the treatment of chronic pain, high blood pressure, and even obesity. Although yoga is influencing people to improve their health and fitness, one unfortunate reality is that many of the up and coming yoga teachers have inadequate knowledge of the origins of yoga, which some think withholds critical elements of the practice undermining its true essence.