In the western world, yoga’s popularity as both a spiritual and a fitness practice has exponentially increased in recent years. This is due largely to how differently the practice is experienced when compared to more traditional forms of exercising and working out considered to be generally more rigorous and demanding (both aerobically and anaerobically). Still, there is more to yoga than meets the eye – including its history and origins, and its philosophical and religious significance.
Admittedly, yoga is not a monolith. Instead, there are many different kinds of yoga that can be practiced. In the west, the form of yoga we are most familiar with (and have used to define the genre) is known as Hatha Yoga. In today’s article, we further explore the different types and roots of yoga as we have come to know it today and the benefits enjoyed from the practice, below.
5000 Years Ago and Counting: The Early, Religious Beginnings of Yoga
It is widely expected that yoga practices find their origins in Northern India and developed by the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, although some researchers believe the ancient practice dates back up to 10,000 years ago. Perhaps much of yoga’s obscurity and discrepancies concerning its history are found in the fact that much of yoga’s transmission of sacred texts was based on oral traditions and the secret nature of the teaching. As far as the early writings are concerned, the teachings were written on fragile palm leaves that could be easily damaged, lost, or otherwise destroyed.
Still, even with facing challenges where its transmission throughout the years has been concerned, there has still been a clear pattern where the clear development of yoga is concerned. It is clear historically that yoga has passed through three clear periods of development before arriving at what we have arrived at in today’s modern period. These three periods are Pre-Classical Yoga, Classical Yoga, and Post-Classical Yoga. We take a closer look at each below.
1. Pre-Classical Yoga
In its early beginnings, yoga was mentioned in a collection of sacred texts known as the Rig Veda, which housed rituals, mantras, and songs designed to be used by Vedic priest known as Brahmans. As is the case with just about every ancient practice, yoga developed and was continuously refined over time by the mystic seers (namely, Rishis and Brahmans). These mystic seers would document their beliefs and practices in the Upanishads which contained more than 200 scriptures. The ritual sacrifice teachings from the Vedas were adopted by the Upanishads, internalized, and used to develop teachings on sacrificing the ego through self-knowledge, wisdom (also known as jnana yoga), and action (also known as karma yoga).
Admittedly, yoga teachings during this pre-classical yoga period were in large part without form. This is as the various beliefs and techniques represented would often conflict or contradict each other. Still, it formed a good foundation for the more streamlined periods of the development of yoga that would follow.
2. Classical Yoga
As intimated above, the Pre-Classical Yoga period would form the base of the yoga periods to follow, starting with the Classical Yoga period. Unlike its much more harum-scarum beginnings during the Pre-Classical era, the Classical era of yoga was defined and represented by the first systematic expression of yoga through the Patanjali’s Yoga-Sûtras text. The Patanjali’s Yoga-Sûtras text — believed to have been written around the second century — describes the classical yoga path, also known as Raja Yoga.
The Patanjali’s Yoga-Sûtras texts brought structure to the practice and laid the foundation for modern post-classical and modern forms of yoga by organizing yoga into an “eight-limbed path” toward enlightenment or Samadhi. His work has resulted in him being considered the father of yoga.
3. Post-Classical Yoga
Patanjali’s work would go on for a few centuries until yoga masters went on to create a system of practices that would rejuvenate the body and consequently prolong life. This was a significant pivot from the classical and pre-classical periods. This is as the new practice took a new path to enlightenment. Instead of the traditionally outlined paths to enlightenment from the early yoga texts, Post-Classical yoga masters focused on embracing and using the physical body to achieve enlightenment. From there, Tantra Yoga was developed.
Tantra Yoga became the defining feature of the Post-Classical Yoga era. It is marked by the development of radical techniques believed to cleanse the body and the mind by breaking down the barriers (or knots) thought to bind us to our physical existence. This was the beginning of the exploration of the mind-body connection practices we have become familiar with today. From Tantra Yoga principles, what we know in the west as Hatha Yoga was developed.
4. Modern Yoga Period
Like Tantra Yoga in the Post-Classical yoga period, Hatha Yoga became the defining yoga practice of the modern yoga era. This modern era of yoga developed as early as the late 1800s and early 1900s when yoga masters began traveling from the East to the West. Specifically, in 1893, Swami Vivekananda presented inspiring lectures on yoga and the universality of religions the world over.
From there, through the work of T. Krishnamacharya and other yogis practicing yoga in the 1920s and 1930s, the popularity of Hatha Yoga would increase at a trickle. In 1924 in Mysore, Krishnamacharya opened the first Hatha Yoga school, while Sivananda founded the Divine Life Society in 1936 on the banks of the Ganges River — a holy site. Three of Krishnamacharya’s students – B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and T.K.V. Desikachar — would go on to spread the practice. Between the three of them, they produced more than 200 books on yoga and established numerous yoga centers worldwide, as well as nine ashrams.
Still, even with the steady progress, it was not until 1947 when Indra Devi opened her Hollywood studio that Hatha Yoga really started to gain significant popularity in the West. Of course, the studio’s location (Hollywood) played a big role in this shift. Since the studio’s opening and the endorsement of more western teachers and celebrities, the practice of Hatha Yoga has continued to grow in leaps and bounds. The practice now has millions of followers in the West, and many different schools and styles that highlight different aspects of Indra Devi’s practice.
Still Spiritual: More Than Physical Exercise
Admittedly, many people in the West practice yoga as a part of their physical fitness routines Still, the history of yoga, as outlined above, makes it clear that yoga is far more than mere physical exercise for the body. Instead, it is clearly spiritual at its core. This is true, even with the pivot to a more physical practice during the modern era.
Admittedly, the implications of the spirituality of yoga are lost on many Western practitioners, it is still reverenced by its eastern practitioners and teachers. After all, for them, the goal is enlightenment and arriving at spiritual truth.
On account of the spiritual foundation, it is recommended that anyone wanting to practice yoga in the West, even for fitness purposes, should bear the spiritual roots in mind. Doing so would help ensure that they understand the spiritual foundations of yoga and the connection to the physical practice they hope to partake in. In other words, would-be practitioners should be careful to approach any yoga practice from a place of knowledge. In particular, from a place of spiritual knowledge.
Well, there you have it. The story of yoga and how it came to us in the West and evolved into the practice we now see popularized in western culture today.