What is the history behind Yoga?

A few years ago I joined the hype and loved practising Yoga and meditation. It really helped me after I had a breakup and needed to clear my head with what direction I should take after I finished my media degree. I suppose you could call it a little soul searching.

It all started before this though, when I stumbled upon a Yoga school in Leeds called Yoga Kula, the more I enjoyed the practice the more I questioned the physical movements and chants. Asking am I now a Buddhist if I do Yoga? Or am I practising a Hindu chant? These all became very confusing questions in my head halfway through a class.
Until my first semester of my 3rd year of uni, I had the freedom to explore the transmission of any chosen topic. With this, I decided to try and locate the true beginning and ask, where does yoga come from, and is Yoga religious?

 

What is the history behind Yoga?

Here is a snippet of the piece I wrote. It’s far from perfect or finished, but I found a lot of really interesting details that fellow yogis might find interesting.
Yoga is an umbrella term, including religion, philosophy and practices: “derived from the Sanskrit root Yuj means to yoke or union” (Sulik, 2010). Yoga focuses on a balanced union of mind, body, and spirit. Typically, it uses a variety of movements and breathing exercises that incorporate meditation and relaxation but also increased flexibility and strength.
The first textual documentation and understanding of where the practice fits within history and the timeline of religion are limited, with only small mentions of the practice in a book of Mantra, known as The Rig Veda, predating 2000 BCE/BC, and the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.
It is defined as “the oldest book in Sanskrit or any Indo-European language. Its date is debatable [but] modern Western scholars tend to date it around 1500 B.C” (Hindunet.org). The Rig Veda is one of the primary source texts of the creation mythology of the Indus Valley civilisation dating back to a similar time period of the peak of ancient Egyptian civilisation.
This slight mention of yoga is found in the Kesin hymn, however many critics argue there is no clear teacher-student lineage documented. It leaves yoga students past and present, with an antiquity of the asanas on faith, much like the Christian belief that lifted much of the mythology from another popular, largely lost religion, Mithraism.
However, within Indian philosophy, “most aspects of Vedic science like the practice of yoga, meditation, mantra and Ayurveda can be found in the Rig Veda and still use many terms that come from it”. (Hindunet.org).
Evidently, the further textual evidence is seen in the second century within Hindu philosophy, in the guidebook known as Yoga Sutra, with one hundred and ninety-five sutras compiled by Maharishi Patanjali. It is a known Hindu story that Patanjali was sent to earth, to give knowledge of yoga, gathering a thousand people south of Vindhya Mountains to listen to him. Orally not physically transmitting his knowledge to all that gathered. This is in contrast to the now known practice of yoga, the guidebook does not mention any physical poses, only seated meditation postures.
This again is a lack of clear historical lineage of where contemporary poses and practices come from in the 20th century, as yoga is now mentally but mostly physically taught transmission. Suggesting that the structure of yoga’s transmission is not easily analysed. This evidence shows that yoga is an ancient tradition, incorporating a mix of religions, cultures and class from an early stage but has, and continues to transform throughout history.
In 2016 yoga is practised as a form of subculture. Yoga can now be a hobby, mental and spiritual help or a way to help with injuries and gain physical strength. It has become increasingly popular, as a health modality, and the NHS now refer patients. The level of commitment is also a key factor for passing these practices throughout time and importance of materials.

 

yoga girl

What is Ashtanga Yoga?

A popular style of yoga throughout time and my personal favourite is Ashtanga Vinyasa, is a style of yoga that is allegedly based on ancient, palm leaf manuscript called the Yoga Korunta, discovered by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya in the National Archives of India in the early 20th century. However, there is no physical evidence that this document existed, as it is reported the manuscript was eaten by ants.
A further critique from the scholar (Singleton, 2010) who also doubts the manuscript ever existed, is the argument that Krishnamacharya did not list the writing in his voluminous bibliographies of texts that influenced his work, as he never mentions quotes from the manuscript. For this reason, Ashtanga’s cultural transmission and textual history again are hard to analyse with only the assumption of oral teachings handed down over generations.
Debray (1997, pg.2) notes that “transmission can serve as a regulatory and classificatory term in view of its tripartite signification: material, diachronic, and political”. Unlike validated, ancient Chinese texts seen within Zen Buddhism, which appears to have an unbroken chain of transmission of teachers to student lineage through centuries. Modern Ashtanga incorporates mind, body and spirit, using traditional names for positions and sequences throughout the practice.
Evidently, this and the use of the Hindu, OM mantra at the start and finish of the practice has no documented, religious connection with Ashtanga. As a result of this, the history and origin of yoga is no longer the key factor within this practice.

history of yoga

Yoga in the 21st century

 

Yoga has become widely diverse, especially with the advancement of technology influencing the transmission on a larger scale. Social media and celebrities are a primary, inescapable focus in most people’s lives in the 21st-century, with the widespread use of mobile apps like Instagram and online media platforms such as Youtube. They have created a new wave of Yogi, such as Instagram’s Rachel Brathen, known as yoga girl, who has 1.4 million online followers. It appears that as the society and the world becomes a more stressful, work orientated place, people are seeking relief and mindfulness not only fitness. Furthermore, clinical trials have recently revealed evidence that yoga improves a variety of physical and mental conditions.

 

The combination of breathing techniques and yoga postures affect their musculoskeletal system by improving flexibility, strengthening and toning muscles. There has been scientific evidence found regarding cancer patients that practice yoga have “reported significant improvements in overall sleep quality compared to controls, including falling asleep more quickly, sleeping longer, and using fewer sleep medications” (Bower, 2005, pg. 3) illustrating the scientific advancements of yoga in the 21st-century. Demonstrating a beneficial human activity, despite the religion and ethnicity you are, as this has previously caused problems between faiths, suggesting why the transmission of yoga has dramatically changed over time. The more physical styles are often used in generic gyms and as after-school activities, with no mentions of religious terminology only physical positions and postures, unlike when reviewing the transmission of the Christian Church, even as modern life changes, the religious fundamentals still stay the same, allowing the lineage to continue throughout time.

 

A further example of this is seen in textual evidence, showing that ancient yoga would be practised naked or in a loincloth with “skin smeared with ashes from the cremation pyre to remind themselves of the body’s impermanence, their foreheads painted with the insignia of Shiva, the god of destruction”, (Cushman, 2007) a paradox of tradition as today’s expected outfit is mostly Lycra leggings and a yoga sports bra. Modern times focus mostly on positions and postures and the goal of physical fitness, which contradicts the historical teachings and appears to mislead people about the authentic yoga practice of meditation. Scholar(Ricci, 2007) historically notes “Westerners fascinated with Indian culture since the time of Alexander the great who tried to convince a yogi to become his spiritual counsellor”.

 

Yoga has become accessible to everyone, from stay-at-home mums in after school halls, the retired elderly people at the local gym and the spiritual, meditating yogis found in dedicated authentic establishments and traditional ashrams. With each practice contradicting the transmission of yoga. However, the key link appears to be the concept of community, and the cultural capital available with practising yoga. With this in mind, it is important to look directly at (Debray 2003, pg.11) explanations of transmission, supporting evidence that Yoga conflicts with his analysis using Mediology “to communicate means to transport information in a space within one and the same space-time-sphere. To transmit means to transport information in time between different space-time-spheres. Communication is a moment in a longer process and a fragment of a larger whole, that we call transmission”.

 

The early 1900s, Guru Krishnamcharya incorporated specific techniques drawn from British gymnastics. In the 1920s he was introduced to the Mysore Palace in southern India, to start a yoga school where the young Prince had previously hired a British gymnast and gymnastic equipment that Krishnamcharya used as yoga props after he was given access to the Western gymnastic manual.
Around the same period the USA, Yoga suffered a period of backlash due to immigration. It wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that yoga began to gain popularity and acceptance due to celebrity endorsements from celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, as before the 20th century it was practically unheard of for women to do yoga. Monroe told the press in 1956 that yoga was a permanent part of her workout regimen (Syman, 2010, p.186).
Additionally, the 1930s women’s gymnastics incorporated stretching exercises which influenced the formation of modern yoga getting popularity by the 1960s and 70s when Swami Satchidananda, one of the most famous, Indian religious teachers and spiritual masters, who gained fame and following in the West appeared at Woodstock Festival.
The issue with researching into the history of yoga is that the transmission of texts throughout time have not been preserved well and cannot rely on a single manuscript to read and understand. Using several manuscripts in order to piece together a coherent version or rely on the idea of oral transmission of student- teacher lineage. But it is clear to see there is surprisingly no one monolithic yoga tradition.
Yoga has hundreds of branches each supporting many texts, teachers, and traditions, often influencing one another, just as often contradicting one another. Secondly, yoga and the practice has dramatically transformed throughout time, due to issues of faith, culture and class. The physical practice of yoga has overshadowed the original concept of mind, body and spirit.
With the practice having such diverse meanings to different people, “Like life itself, [Yoga] is infinitely creative, expressing itself in a multitude of forms, recreating itself to meet the needs of different times and cultures. It’s liberating to realise that the yoga poses are not fossils—they’re alive and bursting with possibility” (Cushman, 2007). As a result of this, the new use of social media within yoga is continuing to transform the transmission of yoga. The accessibility of reaching a more traditional student-teacher lineage is now possible due to the advancements of video calling and visual imagery and video apps. The days of travelling to India for an organic experience of yoga can now be created in someone’s living room by a skype or FaceTime call, having a one-on-one lesson, with a chosen guru.

 

Further to this new styles are been adapted and tweaked such as Bikram, which uses a sauna temperature room, to enhance the physical effects of yoga, simulating the muggy temperatures expected when practising in India. This once again illustrates the lost transmission due to the need for a fitness practice. “What matters is our devotion to the awakening that energy and expressing it in physical form. Yoga is both old and new—it’s inconceivably ancient, and yet fresh every time we come to it” (Cushman 2007).

 

Meditation and music

If you are looking to try out meditation or practice some of the illustrated moves above, a great website I use for setting a relaxing atmosphere is

www.asoftmurmur.com 

 

You can adjust each sound to your own preference. If you find your inner relaxation with the sound of fire and coffee shops or birds in the rain. This experimental medley is great.

a soft murmur

 

If you’re interested in trying yoga. I cannot recommend Yoga Kula Leeds enough. But if you’re a little scared to go straight to a class try an Ashtanga sun or moon cycle on youtube.
Heres a great place to start.

 

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2 Comments

  1. 23rd July 2017 / 6:43 am

    857569 371653I dugg some of you post as I thought they were really valuable handy 37431

  2. 3rd August 2017 / 12:31 pm

    this was so interesting for me, I’ve been doing yoga for about 3 months now almost every day and I love it but never really read anything about the history of it!
    xoxo,
    Victoria
    http://vickyweek.com/index.php/en/

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