A Short History of Yoga

Yoga is a culmination of spiritual and physical systems practiced by and evolved from Buddhists, Jains, and Hindus. They intertwined and supported the evolution of this practice.

During the 6th century BC, Buddha lived and delivered his teachings into India. The interpretation of Buddhism emphasized  meditation and  ethics. Some took this philosophy to an orthodox extreme where all things physical where deemed unimportant or as “un real”. The extreme sense of this led to a deep overall lack of consideration for the world and for the human body as a “whole”; basic decay ensued.

Five hundred years after Buddha, a system developed out of Buddhism called Hinayana or “Narrow Path”. However, as a result of this orthodox path, another branch of Buddhism started called Mahayana, meaning “Great Path”, as a response to the strict practices of the Narrow Path. This path was very liberal in its practices and philosophies, and added Tantra into its practices, creating scorn by some.

During the 4th, 5th, and 6th, centuries A.D., dedicated Yogis decided to “Clean up, purify and organize” the ancient Yoga practices and philosophies; to balance the concepts of mind, body and energy (Prana). A Yogi named Matsyendranath started teaching very specific ideas that later created the theme of Hatha Yoga. He taught that before meditation, one needed to purify the body.

When Hatha Yoga is practiced, it prepares one for Tantra, Raja, Kundalini, and Kriya Yoga. It is a science and therapy in which to balance the physical body, the mind body and energy body (Prana). We then awaken the channel of Sushumna Nadi, to evolve our consciousness. It is taught that this Nadi is the main energy route in line with the spine. We “awaken” the dormant snake of Kundalini that then travels up the main channel to wake the sleeper, or our dull consciousness. This is like cleaning the lens of true vision, seeing the world as it truly is.

Sanskrit words are like phrases. Hatha can be split to mean, ha= Prana (Vital Breath), tha=mind; joining mind and breath to create a deeper consciousness, to the self and to the witness of our lives. The word Hatha can also be translated as Sun/Moon, like a blending of Yang and Yin.

Hatha Yoga is often mis-understood in our Western world. It is often thought of as a means to physical health, which of course can be a byproduct but not its entire sum. Hatha Yoga is a science of physical and mental health practices that purifies us for deeper self-awareness, like polishing a silver coin and we are the coin.  Hatha Yoga initiates its practices with Shat Karma, a deep cleaning of the impurities from our bodies.

Examples of Shat Karma are Neti, Dhauti, Nauli. (See Hatha Yoga Pradipika for details). Our bodies may need to be “clean” to handle and cope with the strong energy potential that we can move through and or contain in our body.

The next practices in Hatha Yoga are, Asanas (postures), Pranayama (breathing practices), and Mudras (seals or duality dissolvers, performed with hands or with body postures). It is explained in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika that when these are practiced, it induces Pratyahara (Withdrawal from the senses), Dharana (Fixing the mind to a single object), Dhyana (uninterrupted thought to an object), and then Samadi (Enlightenment, Connection with all, a non-dualistic state).

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras was a teaching created closer to the orthodox Buddhism time, expounding a different Hypothesis; that the Hatha Yogis later developed into. Patanjali advises that one should first seek to purify ones life with restraints and observances. Yamas and Niyamas. His Method brings the student to start living in “right Action”, before starting Asansa and Pranayama, etc…

In Hatha Yoga, one is cleansing the body to clean the mind, and in Patanjali’s Sutras, the emphasis is on cleaning the mind and then moving on to Enlightenment, to find T.S. Elliot’s “still point of the turning world”.

There are 8 Limbs in Patanjalis sutras: Self-restraints, Observances, Postures, Regulation of breath, Abstractions, Concentration, Contemplation and Trance. (Translation form Baba Hari Das, Salt Spring Centre of Yoga)

The five restraints (yamas) are: Non-violence, Truthfulness, Non-steeling, Sexual continence, and Non-Possessiveness.

The five Observances (Niyamas) are: Purity of mind and body, Contentment, Austerity, Self Study, and Surrender to Higher consciousness.

Some Yogis learn to memorize the entire Yoga Sutras (196 aphorisms), as this was the regular practice to pass down the information. They would be chanted with a specific cadence and tone, to help memorize them. Also, it was a way to remember the lengthy meaning of each Sutra, as the chant would bring the teachings to mind for easy recall. The sound of Sanskrit words are considered to raise ones personal “vibration” and inner self-wisdom. To simply utter the Sanskrit word, the sound has the vibration to prepare one for Enlightenment.

Classical Eight-Limbed Ashtanga Yoga (as taught by Bab Hari Das of Mount Madonna and Salt Spring Centre) tends to combine Hatha Yoga with the Patanjali’s Sutras, balancing the need for mind and body purification. Also, combining lifestyle guidelines, in the Yamas and Niyamas, with asanas and breath restraints. These practices then lead to the deeper concentration and single pointed focus to meditate, connecting with all things.

These ancient practices continue to be handed down in our modern age. The lineage that takes us to modern influences is as follows:

Sri Aurobindo (Aug 1872 to Dec 1950), Was an Indian born man educated in England. Sri Aurobindo took his modern English education back to India where he delved deeply into Indian nationalism, and Yogic Philosophy. He was unique to believe and teach that to be a Yogi one need not live in a cave, but can be a “house holder”. This helped bring the concepts of Yoga to increased numbers.

Krishnamacharya is considered to be the “father” of modern Hatha Yoga. (He lived Nov  1888 to Feb 1989) He is famous for teachingt 6 devoted and capable students that brought his teachings into the world, out of India. They are,T.K.V. Desikachar (his son), Indra Devi (one of the first influential woman Yoginis, B.K.S. Iyengar (his brother in law), K. Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga Yoga), A.G. Mohan, and Srivatsa Ramaswami.

We may be best acquainted with B.K.S. Iyengar for his Alignment oriented “Iyengar Yoga”, and K.Pattabhi Jois for his ‘flow” sequencing of “Ashtanga Yoga.” It was B.K.S. Iyengar who taught Donna Holleman in the sixties, (see Dancing the body of Light), that influenced the Vijnana Yoga taught today by Orit Sen-Gupta.

We can ask what is in a name and how can it define Yoga as a product. Srivatsa Ramaswami (One of Krishnamacharya’s students), teaches that Krishnamacharya instructed; there isn’t one form or system to teach to all students, but the teachings must be individual for each student. Yoga can not be contained as one thing or another, we see that it evolves through hundreds of years as it also evolves for the individual Yogi on the matt daily.

When Orit Sen-Gupta realized the “need’ by her students to come up with a name for her Yoga philosophies and practices, she hesitated, not wanting to box in the teachings that came to her or the teachings she herself gave forth. In time she was inspired by a term from the Taittiriya Upanishad; Vijnana. One of Orit’s spiritual models, Sri Aurobindo, described Vijnana-Maya Kosha or the Wisdom sheath of our selves, as seeing the truth of things.

Naming the style of teaching as Vijnana Yoga was a natural consequence. The name implies that the Yogi practices from the place of inner Wisdom, allowing the practice to be individual and self inspired. Orit says Vijnana Yoga is “practicing form the inside”.

See Yoga Philosophy and Vijnana Yoga for Details on practicing from the inside.