History and Origin of yoga | From local to global

History and Origin of yoga | From local to global

Yoga. The word sounds ancient just as it sounds recent.

Without any doubt, we all know that yoga has been around for a very long time, dating millennials ago. But, what is the history and origin of yoga? Do yoga and India have anything in common? And how did it shine a spotlight on itself world over?

Almost everyone has come across at least one person who does yoga or is interested in yoga. I know I have. What is interesting is, how has this ancient practice got such a grip on today’s society?

Dear reader, you have come to the right place to find the answer.

What is yoga to begin with?

Well, yoga is a discipline or practice that aims to bring the mind and body at the same centre of gravity, both being in harmony with each other. It goes far beyond the poses or asanas that have nowadays become the poster picture of yoga.

Well then, what does “yoga” mean?

So, the word “yoga” originated from Sanskrit, which is perhaps the oldest language in the world, although this remains debatable considering the tracks of broken records.

Nonetheless, yoga comes from the Sanskrit word “Yuj” which means “to join”, “to combine” or “to unite”. It just becomes more apparent that yoga has been around for a very long time and by the looks of things, it will still be keeping its grounds for many, many more years to come.

How is yoga practised?

The yoga scenario has changed dramatically over time.

At the very beginning, yoga is practiced between a Guru (teacher) and a yogi (male student) or yogini (female student). 

The Guru guides the student and under his watch, the student learns step by step according to his/her preparedness, as he/she unveils the stage of Nirvana or Moksha, the transcendental state.

Today’s scenario paints a very different picture of how yoga is practiced. Whether it is at a yoga center, a studio, a yoga festival or retreat, or just by yourself, yoga has become more of a self experience.

History and Origin of yoga

Now that you know what yoga means and where the word comes from, let us dive into the history and origin of yoga.

The reel is rewined and we are back to 2700 B.C. History tells us that yoga originated during the Indus Saraswati Valley Civilization- dating back to 2700 B.C. 

It was believed to have originated before any religion ever came to be and its origin is paralleled with the start of civilization.

Many historical artifacts uncovered from the Valley had figures depicting Yoga Sadhana while some had symbols of the mother Goddess suggestive of Tantra Yoga. 

The spell of yoga intertwined folk traditions, it influenced the Indus Valley civilization, graced the Vedic and Upanishadic heritage, touched the Buddhist and Jain customs and held a scene in the sagas of Mahabharat and Ramayana amongst others.

In the yogic legend, Shiva, god of destruction, meditation, yoga, time and dance is heralded as the first Guru or Adiyogi. He was not viewed as a God but as the principal Guru. 

Upon his realization, Shiva had bounts of stillness and passionate dancing, which became a sight to behold for the other Gods, since they knew he had attained something they have not got their hands on.

Thus began the voyage of yoga.

Yoga and India

Before going any further, I have a question for you.

Have you ever just over your head connected yoga to India? I know I have, before I ever knew of the whole story.

Be it the picture of a sadhu (a sage) or the sight of a mala (prayer beads), we seem to naturally associate yoga and India.

But is the truth equally telling?

Well, it was in Northern India at the foothills of the Himalayas on the banks of Lake Kantisarovar where Shiva or Adiyogi passed on his knowledge to the “seven sages” or the legendary Saptarishis. However, his very first student was none other than his wife, Parvati.

The knowledge he passed depended on the readiness of the pupil in front of him, never too fast nor too slow.

Then after, it was the sages who now have acquired the knowledge of their Guru, took this message to other parts of the world like Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa and South America.

Without a doubt it can be said that India was the land where yoga was born into.

Yoga capital of the world

Where in this vast world can we find the treasure of yoga?

Lying in the foothills of the Himalayas in Northern India is a city called Rishikesh, also considered to be one of the holiest places for Hindus is known world-over as the yoga capital of the world.

The city also known as Yoganagari, which means the ‘City of Yoga’, sits between the river Ganges and has long been a place where saints practised yoga and meditation.

Rishikesh is a home to many well known spiritual leaders like Guru Vashishtha, Swami Shivanand, Swami Dayanad Saraswati and many more.

The city of yoga had also caught the attention of many celebrities like Mia farrow, Mike Lee, Mick Jagger and yes, The Beates who visited the city in 1968.

Vedic Yoga

Moving back in time.

The Vedic Age in India was extremely pivotal in laying the foundations on which the country stands on to this day. It was the transition age between the Indus Valley Civilization and “urban literate civilization.”

But where does yoga come into the picture?

Historical evidence has shown the existence of yoga during the Pre-Vedic period (2700 B.C). Yoga has been widely mentioned in the holy books - the Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita and during those times, knowledge is passed on orally only.

 These holy books have become the main sources of information about yoga and the literature of that time.

This just goes to show how yoga has stood the test of time.

The parallels between yoga and Hinduism and Buddhism

Earlier we had come to know that yoga came into existence before any religion was there. So, how and from where could there be any relation between yoga and religion?

So, it goes.

The Vedic Age can be considered as the age of spiritual awakening. Religious culture started to blossom and three closely related religions came to be - Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Yoga is one of the six schools of thoughts in Hinduism. Yoga has itself been printed on the pages of the holy books; Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita.

Lord Krishna, god of compassion mentioned the four types of yoga - hakti (devotion), jnana (knowledge), karma (action), dhyana (concentration) - in the Bhagavad Gita.

Patanjali, a Hindu god, crafted the Yoga Sutras, an aphorism. He saw that the scriptures were too complex and diverse for the common man to comprehend.

 So, he came about with many Sanskrit works, the most famous one being the Yoga Sutras; a version which can be understood by everybody. Pantanjai is seen as “the father of yoga” by many. 

Now, where do Yoga and Buddhism draw a connection?

History tells us that the Buddha attained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, a state in Bihar, India. He spent a good amount of time in India, between 563 to 483 B.C. He practised yoga and was influenced by Vedantic philosophy.

Buddha seeked to find peace or Moksha/Nirvana in the form of surrenderance. He believed that to find peace, one must renounce all material and worldly things. This is the only way one can be at peace and the mind can be in absolute freedom.

Yoga and Buddhism believe in the oneness of body and mind as one seeks to find enlightenment or to enter in the transcendental state.

The journey of yoga

Yoga has stood the test of time. Now, let’s look at the journey it has endured and the fragments of history it carries with it.

1) Pre-classical yoga:

This was at the beginning where yoga originated more than 5000 years ago in India. Yoga was mentioned in many sacred texts - Vedas, Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, which was composed around 500 B.C.E.

2) Classical yoga:

It was a time when yoga was combined with other ideas, beliefs and techniques. This stage was heavily influenced by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. He phrased the practice of yoga into an “eight limbed” path as steps towards attaining enlightenment.

3) Post Classical yoga:

At this time, yoga practice was starting to become more centered around the physical body to attain oneness. Tantra yoga was created and the lessons of old in the Vedas had slipped from the limelight.

4) Modern Period:

This was the time when yoga was spreading beyond its local confinement. In the 1800s and the early 1900s many Yoga masters started travelling to the West and spreading the knowledge of yoga. 

Swami Vivekananda is credited for promoting yoga in the West. Hatha yoga was heavily promoted in India and the first Hatha Yoga School was opened by Khrishnamacharya in Mysore in 1924.

5) Yoga centres

Slowly but surely, many yoga schools and yoga centers in India and around the world were opened. From Iyengar Yogashraya in Mumbai to Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, our Incredible India is home to many ashrams.

Yoga’s venture to the West sped up when in 1947, Indra Devi opened her yoga studio in Hollywood. Since then, many more yoga centers and yoga retreats have opened up, some being one of the most beautiful in the world. 

Feathered Pipe Ranch, Montana in North America, Esalen Institute in California are a few to name. Many yoga conferences, festivals and retreats are hosted around the world.

Did you know? In the US, 36 million people regularly practise yoga.

Yoga, where it stands today.

That was a whole lot of information now, wasn't it?

We see it and we know it,  from the origin of yoga in India to the modern day yogic practices, yoga has established itself globally in the present times.

Yoga has gone beyond the means of peace, oneness and Nirvana.

In the US, yoga is widely advised as a complementary health approach.

There is scientific research that has backed the potential use of yoga to reduce stress, relieve anxiety, reduce risk factors for heart disease such cholesterol and blood pressure, decrease lower back pain, and help prevent heart diseases. 

Studies have also observed that yoga reduces ADHD symptoms, primarily in children.

Yoga appreciation.

Ah, so we have reached the end of the blog.

The history and origin of yoga which sprang from the foothills of the Himalayas has now made its place all over the world. It has traversed from local to global over the period of 5000 years. 

What started with saints and sages is now in reach of every interested human.

From Nirvana to self-love to medical use, yoga has gripped the world and its students.

If there is something to take away from this blog, I would say that we should acknowledge and respect the history of this oh so wonderful gift of yoga!

Share your thoughts on where you first heard about yoga and if you would like to be the next student?

“Yoga is the dance of every cell with the music of every breath that creates inner serenity and harmony.” 

- Debasish Mridha

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ABOUT OUR STAR AUTHOR

Oracle Wahlang is a Botanist by major and a curious learner by nature.  A self-labeled introvert who enjoys learning new things and having discussions with friends. She enjoys reading, sketching, painting, and yes, researching. 

She also sometimes like to think that she clicks good photographs. 


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