Yoga has become increasingly popular in the west over the past decade. While it is wonderful that this healing modality has spread far and wide benefiting people all around the world, it is important that we acknowledge and understand the roots of this ancient practice. In order to properly practice or teach yoga, we must honor and respect where it came from and the people who brought this beautiful practice to life.
Yoga originated in ancient Northern India over 5000 years ago. The exact year isn’t known and the development of yoga as we know it today is broken up into pre-classical yoga, classical yoga, post classical yoga and modern yoga. The first mention of yoga was in the Rigveda, one of the four Vedas which were four ancient sacred texts written in sanskrit. The four vedas include Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, Atharvaveda. The Rigveda was the earliest Veda and is a collection of hymns and mantras used by Vedic aged priests. Yoga was further developed by the Brahmans and Rishis or sages, who documented their practices and beliefs in the Upanishads, a text containing over 200 scriptures. Yoga is one of the six schools of philosophy in Hinduism, and is also a major part of Buddhism and its meditation practices
The first systematic presentation of yoga was Patanjali’s Yoga-Sûtras. They were written in the second century and describe the path of raja yoga which is considered to be classical yoga. Patanjali organized the practice of yoga into an "eight limbed path" containing the steps necessary to obtain enlightenment. The eight limbs of yoga include the yamas which are restraints, moral disciplines or moral vows. The niyamas which are positive duties or observances to cultivate. Asana or physical posture, pranayama or breath control, pratyahara meaning withdrawal of the senses, dharana which is focused concentration, dhyana or meditation and samadhi which is bliss or enlightenment, the ultimate goal of yoga. Patanjali is often considered the father of yoga and his sutras still strongly influence most styles of modern yoga.
Eventually, yoga masters created a new system of yoga, rejecting Patanjali’s teachings in the sutras. They explored a way to practice yoga that rejuvenated the mind and spirit. This exploration of these physical-spiritual connections and body centered practices led to the creation of what we primarily think of yoga in the West: Hatha Yoga.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, yogis began to travel to the West and began gaining attention. In the 1920s and 30s, Hatha Yoga was strongly promoted in India with the work of Swami Sivananda and other yogis practicing Hatha Yoga. Yoga masters slowly began to open studios in the west and the practice was increasingly gaining popularity. Indra Devi opened her studio in Hollywood in 1947. She was considered to be the father of modern yoga and was a pioneering teacher of yoga as exercise. She pioneered yoga in the west and gained millions of followers, paving the way for others to do the same
Yoga is very different currently in the west than it was when it first originated in Northern India. When being a part of the yoga community and as yoga continues to grow in the west, it is becoming increasingly important to honor and learn about the origins of this healing practice. Understanding yoga means understanding where it came from and it’s original ideals so that we can teach and utilize this ancient practice in a meaningful and respectful manner.