Yoga is the oldest life science known to human beings and is one of the indispensable contributions of India to the world in terms of both whole health and spirituality. The legend has it that the knowledge of Yoga was first offered by Lord Shiva to his wife Parvati and then passed on to the world.
In whatever form the Yoga is viewed or practised today (because of practitioner’s innate nature and approach) it is the inseparable part of a our journey to the evolution and self-realisation which all of us have to address in one life or another.
Yoga was a part and parcel of a culture which existed on the banks of Saraswati and Sindhu (Indus) rivers during the Vedic period from around 7500BC to 1900 BC. The word Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word “Yuj” which means to yoke or unite. It is the union of body, mind and soul; the union of two Pranas – the Apana and the Udana; and the union of individual consciousness (Jeevatma) and the Universal Consciousness (Paramatma).
Yoga is one of the Shad Darsanas or Six schools of philosophy in India. The six schools of philosophy are the six instruments of true teaching or the six demonstrations of Truth. Each school has developed, systematized and correlated various parts of the Veda in its own way. Abundant reference of Yoga can be found in the Vedas, Bhagavad-Gita and the Puranas.
Yoga in Pre-Vedic Era
In the Pre-historic era, the teachings of sacred texts and the Yoga were based on oral transmissions. Hence the ‘exact year’ of emergence of Yoga before Vedic period could not be ascertained. However, it is now being widely thought that it might date back to 10000 BC.
Yoga in the Pre-historic period appears to have been more or less a series of practices. The earnest desire for enjoying a greater freedom (from the bondage of the cycle of birth and death), optimum health and the intent for understanding the self gave birth to this divine system of physical and mental exercise among the people lived in the Sindhu – Saraswathi vallies / regions before the Vedic period. The system included various practices for concentration, regulation of the breath, self-discipline and chanting. The seekers were driven by sincere intent to experience the reality that lies beyond the limitations of ordinary sense-bound experience. As all the teachings were oral and based on a Guru-disciple and one-to-one teaching in a Gurukula system, the intent of practising Yoga became a divine art of learning. However, such nature of yoga and the Guru-disciple relationship limited the access of Yoga only to serious students who displayed purity of mind and character, and whom the Guru considered capable enough to apply the teachings in life.
Yoga in Vedic Period and After (7000 BC – 300 BC)
Towards the beginning of the Vedic period, the methodology of teachings changed from oral to written.
The first available recorded information on the Yoga was found in the Vedas of which period existed during the Sarasvati-Sindhu (Indus) civilization. The then teachings were written down mostly on the palm leaves. There are many references of Yoga found in the Rig Veda, Bhagavad-Gita and Puranas. The Vedas are a collection of texts containing hymns, mantras and rituals to be used by Brahmans, the Vedic priests (not caste but profession). The Vedas do not mean by books but the treasure of knowledge discovered by the Rishis (the seers of the truth) of ancient India in their deepest meditation. The Vedas are identified and respected as the oldest scriptures in the world.
Throughout the period of the history of yoga in the Vedic period, the purpose of yoga remained the high desire for liberation from the bondage, known as ‘self-realization’, or ‘enlightenment’. The intimate manner of teaching between the guru and student was still prevalent. Though the teachings were written down, they were done so in a highly secretive, coded manner, that only those who had been properly initiated by a Guru would be able to understand them. This has kept the Veda inaccessible to the public even after the Vedic period.
From BC7000 to BC 300 we can find a rich tradition of classical literature which explains yoga, such as the Upanishads, the Yoga Vashishta, and the Bhagavad Gita.
Yoga in Medieval India
During the period from 11th century to the late 18th century, due to the constant invasions of India by the foreigners yoga suffered its worst period of suppression. The foreigners who conquered India and established their kingdoms viewed yoga in line with Hindu religious practices to which they had hostile approach. This has forced many yoga practitioners and ascetics to practise in a secluded places; and yoga being confined to such individuals. This seclusion of yoga and spiritual teachings led the mass to rely upon rituals and customs where the essence of spirituality – as the purpose of life -was overlooked by the practice of deity worships. Also, the inimical atmosphere created by the invading forces demanded the mass to concentrate on safeguarding their material interests, and their very life itself. All this bogged down yoga and its way of life in the morass of uncertainty and anarchy.
Yoga Modern Period – In India and West
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Vedic scholars and yoga masters began to travel to the West, attracting attention and followers. This began at the 1893 Parliament of Religions in Chicago, when Swami Vivekananda wowed the attendees with his lectures on yoga and the universality of the world’s religions.
In the 1920s and 30s, Hatha Yoga was strongly promoted in India with the work of T. Krishnamacharya, Swami Sivananda and other yogis practising Hatha Yoga.
T. Krishnamacharya opened the first Hatha Yoga school in Mysore in 1924 and in 1936 Sivananda founded the Divine Life Society on the banks of the holy Ganges River in Rishikesh. Krishnamacharya produced three students that would continue his legacy and increase the popularity of Hatha Yoga. They are B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar and Pattabhi Jois.
Swami Sivananda was a prolific author, writing over 200 books on yoga, and established ashrams and numerous yoga centers located around the world. His famous two disciples in yoga were Swami Vishundevananda and Swami Satyananda Saraswati. While Swami Vishnudevananda established the Sivananda Ashrams in Kerala, India and in the West, Swami Satyananda Saraswati established his own Ashram in Bihar, India which is known as Bihar School of Yoga, India.
The popularity of hatha yoga in the West started with Indra Devi, who was the student of famous Sri T Krishnamacharya, opened her yoga studio in Hollywood in 1947. Since then, many more western and Indian teachers have become pioneers, popularizing hatha yoga and gaining millions of followers.
Hatha Yoga now has many different schools and styles, all emphasizing the many different aspects of the practice.
Yoga in Upanishads
The word Upanishad means learning by sitting down near the Guru the secret and sacred knowledge about the Self, and the metaphysical of the universe. It points to a period in the history when a group of students would sit near a Guru and learnt from him the secret teachings in the quietude of forest ‘ashrams’ or hermitages.
Many Upanishads written between 900 BC and 100 BC emphasize on the importance of Yoga and meditation practices in order to experience our own self which is beyond the perception of ordinary senses.
The Chandogya Upanishad states that meditation is higher than thought”. Katha Upanishad makes a detailed reference to yoga, as adhyatmayoga (the yoga of the self): It states that : “By the study of the yoga of the self, the wise one knows as god that which is hard to see, that is deeply hidden” (II.12);
The Maitrayaniya Upanishad, written between 200 – 300 BCE, describes in detail the six disciplines – Shadaanga – or six limbs of early yoga such as control of the breath (pranayama), withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), contemplation (tarka) and absorption (samadhi).
Although there are more than 200 Upanishads, only thirteen are considered to be the most important ones which provide the teachings of Hinduism. They are the Chandogya, Kena, Aitareya, Kaushitaki, Katha, Mundaka, Taittriyaka, Brihadaranyaka, Svetasvatara, Isa, Prasna, Mandukya and the Maitri Upanishads.
Yoga in Bahgavad-Gita
The Bhagavad-Gita with its 18 Chapters and 700 verses forms the integral and most valuable part of the Bhishma-parva, (from chapters 25 to 42 of the Mahabharata ). The text contains the exact words that Lord Krishna spoke to Arjuna in Sanskrit on the battlefield of Kuruksetra, India over five thousand years ago in 3137 B.C. This date is arrived at by the astrological calculations of Lord Krishna’s birth as clearly mentioned in the Mahabharata and also the date of the Mahabharat war at Kurukshethra (today’s Haryana, near to New Delhi).
Since the message of Bhagavag-Gita is very condensed an average reader who lacks analytical mind and philosophical intelligence might fail to understand it in depth. This caused many scholars to make commentaries, among which the commentary of Adi Sankaracharya is the most profound one.
Lord Krishna by revealing the science of Yoga to Arjuna (which He says was first instructed to the mankind at the very beginning of their existence ), teaches that the purpose of life is to realize divine within the mankind and experience the highest nature of consciousness while living in this material world. Thus, Bhagava-gita by its yogic teaching serves as manual for the perfection of humankind.
The term Yoga in the Bhagavad-Gita covers a wide range of metaphysics and the secret of universe; the nature of un-manifested and manifested as ‘Purusha and Prakriti’; the three Gunas (elements of universe), the Sattva, Rajas and Tamas; etc, Lord Sri Krishna also teaches four main divisions of Yoga – Karma Yoga, (Selfless service and skill in work); Jnana Yoga (yoga through knowledge); Raja Yoga (through the control of mind and its modifications) and Bhakti Yoga (yoga of devotion or unconditional love for god and all other creatures).
According to Lord Krishna, the root of all suffering and discord is the agitation of the mind caused by ‘Kama’ the selfish desire. The only way to douse the flame of desire is by self-discipline; selfless service to others; knowledge of real and unreal; control of the mind and unconditional love for God and the humanity.
In totality, according to Bhagavad-Gita the purity of the mind is the condition of the Yoga and for experiencing the higher consciousness, the divine within us.
Hatha is derived from the Sanskrit words ‘Ha’ (the sun – Soorya in Sanskrit) ‘Tha’ (the moon – Chandra in Sanskrit), representing opposing forces which need balance in order for someone to raise their level of consciousness. This also represents the Nadis – Soorya Nadi (the right Nostril) and Chandra Nadi (the left Nostril). (When both the Nadis function properly at a time – by intense practise of yoga – a third and the vital nadi emerges which is called ‘Sushumna Nadi’. This is the channel of energy by the ‘Kundalini’ (the dormant power in the human beigns) flows towards the Shasrara Chakra.
Origin of Hatha Yoga
While going back to the history of Yoga, we discover that Yogi Gorakhnath (Goraksanath in Sanskrit) is the founder of traditional Hatha Yoga and the author of the first treatise on Hatha Yoga, which is now lost. Among various expositions of the practices and mystic doctrines of Hatha Yoga, the most important are the Siddhasiddhanta-paddhati and Goraksa-sataka both originally written in Sanskrit. Gorakhnath was an important disciple of Matsyendranath who was one of the 84 Mahasiddhas (great adepts) in India and lived in 9th-10th century.
The Siddhasiddhanta-paddhati covers the theory of the anatomy of the subtle body and draws a series of correspondences between the universe as macrocosm and the body as microcosm. The Goraksa-sataka, Hundred Verses of Goraksanath, is a basic Hatha Yoga text and describes the six ‘limbs’ of yoga: asana, postures, pranayama, control of the breath, pratyahara, sense withdrawal, dharana, concentration, dhyana, meditation, and samadhi, cosmic consciousness.
Since many of the Indian studies have been really ancient and the knowledge has been passed down to generations after generations from several thousands of years BC and some in pre-historic period; and the absence of their accurate chronological order lead to reliance on linked historical and contemporary events/facts to arrive an exact date. This is evident from the Hatha Yoga dating. Many scholars date hatha yoga`s initial years somewhere between AD 9 and 10 as Matsyendranath and Goraksanath lived in between 9 and 10 AD; and many researchers and practitioners of yoga existed during that period. However, some expert view the existence of hatha-yoga to be a tradition whose roots extend back at least several thousand years, with its earliest known authentic text being the Yoga-Karunta. This work took its shape in Varanasi.
The most popular text on which today’s Hatha Yoga is based is Hatha Yoga Pradipika originally written by Swami Swatamarama.
Swatmarama is considered to have lived in 11th century, if not early, as his guru Gorakhnath is said to have lived in 10th century. Though some scholars state it 14th or 15th century. Neverthelss, Hatha yoga known today has originated and evolved through generations to generations with no fixed measure of time.
The best-known treatises on hatha yoa are Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika, Gheranda-Samhita and Siva-Samhita. Like other yogic traditions, the early sages who practised Hatha Yoga lived in caves in or near the Himalayas, often renouncing material life to adopt instead, the life of a sannyasin, or one who gives up all worldly pleasures to seek wisdom through meditation and contemplation.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes in detail the Hatha yoga practices. Swatmarama in his Yogic system introduces the preparatory stage of purification of the body needed for higher level of Yogic practices as described in Raja Yoga. Hatha Yoga comprises of asanas (postures), pranayama (breathing techniques) and Shatkarma (purifications processes). Swami Swatmarama followed the Natha Tradition of Yoga. Hatha Yoga follows the same teachings of Raja Yoga outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.
Of the theoretical 84,000,000 asanas, 84 are said to be the best, and 32 the most useful for good health. The asanas often incorporate the postures of animals (cow, peacock, locust, lion, etc.), plants, (tree, lotus), and tools (plow, bow). An asana is considered mastered when the yogi can maintain the position without strain for three hours.