Yoga is a philosophy, a science, and a discipline. It has many varied branches and sects. It offers a holistic pathway towards spiritual liberation, composure, calmness, and enlightenment. Yoga is not considered to be a religion in its own right, although it developed alongside Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism and therefore contains elements of these three major Indian religions intrinsically woven into its tenets.
Yoga translates as union, yoke, or join together. It refers to the union of mind, body, and spirit as well as the individual soul with the universal spirit.
Paintings of people in yoga poses date back 5,000 years, with the first written references to yoga being found in stanzas of the Rig Veda dating back 3,500 years.
The Vedas were a selection of texts containing songs, mantras, and rituals used by the Brahmans (Vedic priests).
Yoga was slowly developed and defined by the Brahmans and Rishis (mystic seers) who documented their practices and beliefs in the Upanishads, the collection of 200 Vedic texts. The most renowned of the Yogic scriptures is the Bhagavad-Gita (500 BCE). If you haven’t read a version of the Bhagavad Gita, this is one that we recommend.
It wasn’t until 2,000 years ago that Indian Sage, Pantajali, (often considered the father of yoga), systematized the practice of yoga and documented his work, The Yoga Sutras so that others could follow his work. This text describes the path of Raja Yoga - classical yoga.
Patanjali organized the practice of yoga into an Eight Limbed Path containing the steps and stages towards obtaining Samadhi or enlightenment. Each limb is an aspect of the path of yoga, and offers us guidance within our practice and our life, both on and off the mat - but let’s take a moment to consider that alignment-based recycled-material yoga mats weren’t a thing back then and only 3 of the 196 sutras actually mention asana!
Following Patanjali, yoga masters created a system of practices designed to rejuvenate the body and prolong life. They started to dismiss the teachings of the ancient Vedas and embraced the physical body as the means to achieve enlightenment. Tantra Yoga was born during this period as well as Hatha Yoga - the exploration of physical-spiritual connections and body-centered practices that we primarily think of as yoga in the West.
Hatha translates as force, or sun and moon, and dates back to the 10th century.
Ha refers to the hot sun energy, which flows through Pingala nadi (right nostril).
Tha refers to the cool moon energy which flows through the Ida Nadi (left nostril).
Modern yoga is now more widely known as the form practiced in studios, gyms, and homes across the world under the umbrella term - Hatha Yoga, which is an all-encompassing one, one which can be used to describe almost all physical yoga as we know it in the Western world.
Specific styles of yoga such as Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Bikram, and more, were initially introduced in the yoga sutras.
Modern Yoga in the West is much more aligned with the third limb, asana. This is reflective in the amount of classes available through the many yoga studios and gyms/health clubs we now have. This for many is the initial introduction to the yoga world, but also for many, it stops there. The real teachings and awareness in yoga is not only about the physical/asana practice - it is SO much more than this. It is the union of body, mind, breath, and soul.
Susanna Barkataki - teacher trainer, yoga culture advocate, speaker and author of ‘Embrace Your Roots’, expresses:
“Now, when so much of what the Western world sees as true yoga is beautifully achieved physical postures, (accomplished, photographed and displayed by popular yoga magazines, journals and sites) executed by mostly young, white, stylish-yoga-apparel clad women and men, yoga is going through a second colonization. This colonization is the misrepresentation of yoga’s intention, it’s many limbs and it’s aims.
Yoga was originally intended to prepare the body as a foundation for unity with the spirit. The limb of asana aims at strengthening the body. Asana, along with Dhyana or meditation, aim to harmonise the body with breath in order to attain deeper and deeper states of meditative awareness or Samadhi. The purpose of this kind of meditative awareness is to experience, practice, and live oneness of mind, body and soul with the divine. This kind of freedom is called Samadhi or liberation. It is ironic that practice meant to free us is becoming so confining.”
It is important to pay homage to the values and to all ‘limbs’ of yoga (not just the asana). We must also remember that as we evolve with the ever-changing world, and the practice of yoga grows and encounters new and different cultures, generations, perspectives, ideas, and teachers; we must ALWAYS honor and respect the many teachers who have come before us as well as the traditions and lineage of yoga.
A few links to some amazing books below that give a deeper insight into the history, values, traditions, and evolution of yoga:
✨ The Bhagavad-Gita - Eknath Easwaran
✨ The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali - Sri Swami Satchidananda
✨ Light on Life - B.K.S Iyengar
(you can find many books written by B.K.S Iyengar worth reading here)
✨ Embrace Your Roots - Susanna Barkataki
✨ Yoga: A Manual for Life - Naomi Annand