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Yoga History, Past and Future

Dear friend,

Happy Autumn! Hope you are enjoying the new season coming upon us. The weather seems to be a hot topic, particularly when it's cold, for one who practices yoga it is a useful reminder of the nature of impermanence, all things change, all the time.

This month I would like to share with you a brief and very selective overview of the history of yoga since some of you asked me about it recently. If you scroll down you can also check out some news and updates regarding yoga offerings in the near and less near future.

History is not really an exact science and very often open to personal interpretation, it usually involves highlighting some events and ignoring others or even modifying some facts in order to support a particular narrative. One example of that is a common claim that yoga is 5000 years old which sounds very cool and may even give it a stamp of validation but unfortunately is a blunt case of taking things out of context and ignoring some serious counter evidence. Yoga history is mostly based on ancient texts that for one reason or another survived, many of which were transmitted orally for many generations. That is all to say that my overview is limited, subjective, and coming from a non-historian point of view, therefore it is recommended that you take it with a grain of salt. For anyone curious about this topic I highly recommend you do your own research, there are many books and online resources out there that you can check out and go much deeper into it.

The question of when yoga started can only be answered with theories and speculations, there are no clear evidence about prehistoric times and even trying to understand what exactly happened going back just a few thousands of years can be very murky. In my opinion this inquiry must start with an understanding of what yoga really is in essence. To my understanding yoga is primarily a contemplative practice and philosophy attempting to understand the human condition at the deepest level and coming up with ways in which one can fulfil their potential to live well free from all internal sources of unhappiness.

When viewing yoga from this perspective we can assume it probably started about the same time as fire was discovered. When humans started using fire for protection, heat, preserving food and other survival necessities they probably started having time to ponder about topics beyond basic survival. It is very likely that leisure and perhaps even boredom led to creating art, culture and very probable also contemplative explorations. There are some evidence that support this claim, particularly regarding the creation of art.

The first time the word yoga appeared in a known scripture was in the Rig Veda which was written around 4000 years ago. However, it was used in completely different context such as describing a link between a horse and carriage (yoga means to "link together" in Sanskrit). The Vedas were scriptures written in ancient India that mostly dealt with religious rituals and sacrifices.

The Upanishads were a series of scriptures that came after the Vedas and started exploring basic contemplative ideas and practices. They are considered as predecessors and major influences on early yoga, containing some concepts and insights that appeared later in classic yoga texts.

The way I see it yoga as we know it started around 500-600 BCE when a social movement called Śramaṇa (Shramana) started to spread all over India. The Śramaṇa was a counter-culture movement rebelling against social injustice and corruption of the higher casts (sound familiar?). The people who joined this movement chose to abandon conventional societies living in ancient cities and found seclusion in forests or other remote places in order to seek for truth. They created an infrastructure of Ashrams (coming from the term Shramana), which were communities of like minded people who were eager to follow the contemplative path. The word śramaṇa is derived from the root śram, meaning "to exert effort, labor or to perform austerity". The earliest forms of formal contemplative and meditative practices were very likely created in these communities.

The Buddha, who was born as a prince named Siddhartha Gautama, was one of the seekers who came upon some of these Ashrams and studied with some of the prolific masters of the time. He was not able to find what he was seeking for there and went on his own journey to eventually discover the middle way and then started teaching others what he discovered. His teachings spread all over India like fire and had a huge impact on what eventually became yoga.

After the time of the Buddha there were other schools of thought that seemed to influence what yoga came to be. The Bhagavad Gita was one of the earliest texts that presented yoga as a practice and a way of life. The Samkhya school of thought also laid down some of the essential principles of what would become classic yoga.

The most important text in yoga history was written sometime between 200 BCE to 200 CE, it is the Yoga Sutras which was written by Patanjali, a mysterious figure who is believed to be an author of other Sanskrit texts on grammar, ancient medicine, and other topics. He was a skilled editor who put together the teachings of yoga in a unique and coherent way based on the accumulated spiritual and contemplative wisdom of the time. He also came up with a system of yoga practice which he named Ashtanga Yoga, the eight-limb yoga path, as well as the concept of Kriya Yoga (yoga in action). Many commentaries on the Yoga Sutras were written along the centuries which are the main source of interpretation of the original text that is very difficult to decipher directly. Patanjali's essential concepts and practice are still at the heart of most schools of modern yoga.

Yoga started expanding and evolving after Patanjali and naturally was inspired by other schools of thought that had similar interests. There were profound dialogues and influences between early yogis and Buddhists, particularly from the Mahayana traditions. Tantra schools and traditions started to emerge in different areas of India in the first few centuries of the common era, they had new ideas and somewhat different points of view on the nature of reality and the Self. Many different techniques and practices came out of these traditions, many of which turned out to be the foundation of what yoga came to be. In this short paragraph I have blatantly skipped centuries of rich and diverse spiritual progress and a variety of different traditions and scriptures, feel free to inquire on your own if this era is intriguing you, it was definitely a very interesting era. 

Around the 11-12th century a new system of yoga emerged which was based on Tantric practices and classic yoga principles. It was named Hatha Yoga. It was emphasizing the practical aspects of yoga revolved around working with the gross and subtle body and resolving dualistic misperceptions which are ingrained in human nature. The word Hatha can be defined in two main ways - Ha means "sun" and Tha means "moon", it can also be translated as "force". Early Hatha Yoga texts there prescribed particular yoga postures (Asana) as well as breathing techniques (Pranayama) and also other forms of practice, and gave some explanations on how to practice them. The most important text written on Hatha Yoga is Hatha Yoga Pradipika which was written in the 15th Century. 

Hatha Yoga continued to develop along the centuries but by the 19th and 20th centuries it was somewhat outcasted in India and mostly practiced by hermits and recluses. 

In the early 20th Century a man named Paramahansa Yogananda was the first prominent Indian yoga master to teach in the West, he was teaching what he called Kriya Yoga. Later on he wrote a book called Autobiography of a Yogi which was a corner stone in the spreading of yoga all over the world and becoming mainstream.

Around the same time a man named T. Krishnamacharya, who grew up in a family of priests and studied Sanskrit as a kid, decided to follow his heart and intellectual curiosity and pursue yoga despite his family's background and upbringing. His quest for yoga led him to the Himalayas where he found a mysterious teacher named Ramamohana Brahmachari and stayed with him for seven and a half years, supposedly in a cave at the foot of Mount Kailash where the master lived with his wife and three children. There he was studying a unique system of yoga and became proficient in all forms of its practice and philosophy. According to Krishnamacharya's son Desikachar, at the end of his studies with the guru, Krishnamacharya asked what his payment would be. The master responded that Krishnamacharya was to "take a wife, raise children and be a teacher of Yoga". And so he did..

Krishnamacharya ended up becoming a renowned Sanskrit and Indian philosophy scholar, Ayurveda healer and a great yoga master. He came to be known as the "father of modern yoga" as some of his students became yoga's most renowned and influential teachers of the 20th century, such as Indra DeviPattabhi JoisB.K.S. Iyengar, his son T.K.V. DesikacharSrivatsa RamaswamiA.G. Mohan, and others. 

Krishnamacharya's teaching had different phases. In his early days he was teaching mostly young and fit people and later on, after he moved from his home town Mysore to what was then called Madras (today's Chennai), he started teaching yoga with a more therapeutic approach. He always put an emphasis on yoga as an holistic practice that includes all eight limbs of Patanjali's Ashtanga yoga system, and also as a way of life in context with Indian ancient scriptures.

Here are some essential themes of Krishnamacharya's teachings:

  • Yoga is primarily a healing methodology which is meant to heal on all levels (body, breath, mind).

  • Yoga should always fit the needs and capacity of the individual (and not the other way around).

  • The breath is the main tool used in all forms of yoga practice.

  • Vinyasa is the main tool used in yoga Asana practice which is in this context the link between breath and movement.

  • Vinyasa-Krama, which is an intelligent step-by-step progression, should always be applied in all practices.

  • Yoga should always be practiced in the right context with the right understanding of yoga philosophy.

  • He believed Yoga to be India's greatest gift to the world and advocated its spreading all over the world.

In the late 20th century yoga in the West was dominated by a few main schools such as Ashtanga-Vinyasa, Iyengar, Sivananda, and their Western variations such as Vinyasa (flow), Power Yoga, Jivamukti, Anusara, Integral yoga, and others. Each of these styles of yoga seemed to reflect the personality of its founders and offer different approaches and flavors to yoga practice. Yoga started to explode and spread all over the world in the late 80s and early 90s of the previous century leading to many millions of people around the world who are currently practicing yoga.

The future of yoga is uncertain as every other day a new take on yoga seems to emerge, most of which seem to also disappear quite fast. The way I see it, history is meant to teach us about the past but also to help us understand better where things are headed to. I hear murmurs from some of the old guard who are worried that contemporary yoga has very little to do with the transformative and contemplative practices that evolved along the centuries, which is probably true. Despite that, I suspect that effective yoga practice will continue to be offered, at least for a while, even if it is on the outskirts of the yoga scene practiced by only a few seekers. Maybe it's just my wishful thinking.. What I do know is that most things that are presented as yoga, whether fitness oriented, new-age-watered-down or any short lived passing trends, are very likely to give at least some benefits to those who participate in them even if they simply ask them to pay attention very briefly to their breath.

Always happy to hear your thoughts on this topic or any other!

If you find yourself curious about these kinds of topics - join a workshop, a retreat, or any other event on offer.

May you all enjoy prosperity, peace and love!

Looking forward to sharing yoga with you in October.

With love and gratitude


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