To fix a date as to the origin of Yoga is to try to fix a date to the origin of Man’s endeavour to know Himself really. Given that, let’s understand as much as we can of how Yoga evolved from the ancient Sages to the modern-day Yoga phenomenon that we are witnessing worldwide. That’s about 5000 years, and counting!
Ancient History of Yoga: The first historical references of Yoga are from the seals found in the ruins of the Indus Valley Civilization (in modern India & Pakistan), circa 3000 BCE. These seals depict Yogic-type postures. Pashupati is the deity often depicted which various scholars connect to Shiva in the later traditions; also known to yogis as Adiguru (first teacher) of Yoga.
“Yoga” derives from the Sanskrit word “Yuj” which literally means “to yoke”; and in terms of philosophy it is very similar to Sankhya philosophy. While there are no direct references to Yoga in the ancient Indian texts of wisdom called the Vedas; the abstract philosophical ideas put forth are the same that yoga would later assume. The first literal references to Yoga-like practices as a means of meditation appear in early Buddhist works; whereas in Hindu scriptures the word ‘Yoga’ first appears in the Upanishads (around 400 BCE). Yoga-related practices are also discussed in Jain texts.
The influence of the Buddha: Gautama Buddha lived in India around 600 BCE and hisEnlightment and teachings set the stage for a revolution to India’s ritualistic traditions. He challenged and influenced the spiritual landscape of ancient India; and His greatest contribution to the development of yoga as such was the focus He brought to Meditation as a means of liberation.
Patanjali Yoga Sutras: The next major step came with Patanjali and his profound treatise ‘Patanjali Yoga Sutras‘. For the first time the practices of Yoga were codified, organised and Yoga was given a definition and structure that guides us even today. In fact all that we know of Yoga today is based on the tenets of Yoga (called Raja yoga) that Patanjali laid. The yoga sutras were passed on verbally from Guru to student and thus the knowledge was kept in tact; later to be printed in countless books.
The great yogi defined Yoga as such: “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah“. In four eloquent, terse words he described the end-result of Yoga: ‘Yoga is the cessation of all modifications of the mind’.
He also laid out an 8-step process of attaining Yoga; which included Yama (5 abstentions), Niyama (5 observances), Asana (meditative sitting posture; and not the physical postures we know today as asanas), Pranayama (breath & life-force control),Pratyahara (sense-withdrawal), Dharana (single-pointed focus), Dhyaan(meditation) and finally Samadhi (liberation).
Bhagawad Gita: In Yoga we say that the next most influential text is the Bhagwad Gita (circa approx 100 BCE). This Philosophical /Spiritual poem of 700 verses is found within the larger poem (the largest in history) called Mahabharata. The Bhagwad Gita is the pre-dominant book for Hindus today; and also is a veritable treasure trove of Yogic knowledge. In fact in the discourse given by Sri Krishna to Arjuna (on the battlefield of Kurukshetra – a strange place for a spiritual discourse!); for the first time we are introduced to various forms of Yoga such as Karma Yoga (the path of Action); Bhakti Yoga (the path of Devotion) and Jnana Yoga (the path of Knowledge) to compliment what Patanjali had spoken of as Raja Yoga (could be thought of as the path of Meditation).
As India evolved and went through a golden period under the Maurya and Gupta dynasty; Yogis everywhere in the mountains and forests were experimenting more with practical Physical and Mental techniques with the goal of liberation (Moksha in Buddhist terminology).
Medieval Times: By the 15th century; many yogis felt that while the ideals of Meditation as Buddha espoused were good; there was also a need for focussing on the preparatory practices – namely, working on the Physical body, on Breath and so Yoga as we know it saw a revival throughout India. “Hatha Yoga Pradipika” written by Swami Swatmarama became an influential text.
Also in medieval India, Bhakti Yoga was practiced fervently by such adepts as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and others.
Revival at the end of the 19th Century: Over the next 300 years as the British ruled India; yoga and other Indian traditions lost respect as might be the case for the culture of any country that is ruled over by another. The turning-point came in 1893 at the ‘World Parliament of Religions’ in Chicago. The world listened in wonder as Swami Vivekananda, representing India spoke eloquently about the universality of religious endeavour. He spoke on Hinduism and also Buddhism. This sparked immense interest in the Eastern traditions in the West
The Birth of Modern Yoga: The revival of Yoga itself is often attributed to the tremendous work of T Krishnamacharya; along with Swami Sivananda and others. Krishnamacharya adapted ancient yogic practices along with some practices from prevalent physical cultures.
His 2 prominent students BKS Iyengar (founder – Iyengar yoga) and Pattabhi Jois (founder _ Ashtanga yoga) took yoga to the West and they helped create the yoga boom! In fact most of the yoga practiced in the world today is based on Jois’ Asthanga yoga flows.
In the 1960′s as America was experimenting with counter-culture and exploring more in terms of spirituality Yoga was like manna to many tires souls. It gave them a framework to work within. Famously, the Beatles sought out Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his TM (traveling and living in his ashram in India) to cope with their demi-god status!
Also in the 60′s such luminaries as Paramshansa Yogananda, author of the mesmerizing ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ brought Kriya Yoga to western audiences. Later Swami Rama was the first Yogi to be tested under laboratory conditions and the results were startling, making modern psychologists re-think their fundamentals.
The Current Yoga boom! The main proponents of yoga today are Baba Ramdev (with the Indian masses), Bharat Thakur (Artistic Yoga) with urban Indians; and in the west the likes of Bikram Chowdhury (Hot yoga) have proven to be extremely successful commercially. Others include people like John Friend (Anusara Yoga), perhaps the best-known non-Indian yoga teacher; and Shiva Rea (perhaps the best-known female yoga teacher); and many thousands more!
As a wealth of research is showing the Health benefits of Yoga; we find Yoga is becoming more mainstream than ever before in its 5000 year history. In fact, Yoga which was once only practiced by serious spiritual aspirants and yogis, is being done by common folks all over the urban world. The Health benefits are tremendous as is the positive effects on a person’s Outlook to life. All this points towards a brighter future for the world; at least in part! And who’s to say what YOGA will look like 5000 years from today?