The ancient art of yoga has been done for thousands of years. That is an amazing amount of time for something to be around.
There is a legend that Bodhidharma traveled from his monastery in India to go to China to the Young Forest Temple south of Sung San Mountain. He was refused entry because the head monk thought he would disrupt the monks who were there. Bodhidharma went to cave nearby for nine years to meditate and then finally was allowed to enter the monastery. He was appalled that young monks were falling asleep while meditating and “their flaccid and emaciated bodies could not stand the test of prolonged mental austerity" (p. 11, Kung Fu: History, Philosophy, and Technique by Chow and Spangler, Unique Publications, 1982). Bodhidharma enlightened them to the fact that the salvation of the soul included the salvation of the body as well, they were inseparable and both had to be invigorated in order for enlightenment to occur. To accomplish this the monks put physical fitness into their routines with a system of exercise to make their bodies and minds stronger. And it has continued to modern times.
Some ancient seals found in the Indus Valley (now Pakistan) had carved figures in the seated lotus pose (Preparing for Birth with Yoga by Janet Balaskas, Element Press Books, Great Britain, 1994) “They date back to between the fifth and second centuries before the birth of Christ.”
Sanskrit hymns called the Vedas (3000 B.C. – 1200 B.C.) and Vedic Hymns of the Upanishads (1200 B.C. – 600 B.C.) had written references. The Vedic Hymns of the Upanishads passed yoga knowledge from teacher to students.
Around 600 B.C. the Bhagavadgita was written and has the yoga philosophy in it. At this time Buddha began teaching yoga and did so throughout Asia.
Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (200 B.C. – 200 A.D.) describes yoga and is considered the classic text on the subject.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika (written in the Middle Ages) was a detailed account of the physical and spiritual aspects of yoga.
Yoga is done all over the world. Its purpose is to enlighten individuals and hopefully help all people to find a healthier way to live.
“Yoga dates back 5,000 years, between 2700 and 1750 BC, on the Indian subcontinent of the Indus Valley where a highly organized civilization flourished.”
Ancient (5,000 year old) archeological artifacts depicting yoga poses were found in the ancient cities of Mojendro-Daro and Harappa.
The 1008 hymns in the Vedas are about cosmology, theology, legal systems, ethics, philosophy, social institutions and science. The Rig Veda is a sacred work of Hindu faith. Its myths, male and female Vedic Gods personify the forces of nature.
The spiritual texts Brahmins (800 – 600 B.C.) have the rules for the rituals of the Brahmin priests and there are over 200 Upanishads.
Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Blessed Lord, 300 B.C.) is a famous spiritual poem about yoga. It is about the ultimate goal of life and is explained by Krishna (the Lord).
Patanjali (200 – 800 B.C.) wrote the complete work on yoga called the Yoga Sutras.
Yoga is popular because it helps relieve physical, mental and emotions problems, such as stress relief, insomnia, anxiety, heart and lung conditions, back pain, digestive problems, immune deficiencies, ulcers, strokes, mental disorders, asthma, allergies, hypertension, and emotional imbalances.
”In 1998, The Harvard Health Letter referred to Yoga as "the ultimate mind / body workout." The benefits of Yoga are astounding. Yoga practice:
provides a soothing massage to the entire body
improves balance and flexibility
lends suppleness to the spine
strengthens the back
firms the stomach
develops and tones muscles
strengthens the immune system
alleviates stress and anxiety
reduces heart rate
increases energy levels
allows deep relaxation
improves concentration and focus
sharpens the memory
produces mental clarity
promotes joy and peace”
Daily practice: in the morning yoga can relieve stiffness, in the evening yoga can relieve the tensions of the day.
This timeline is from Yoga Journal:
Vedic 1500 B.C.E.
Preclassical 800-500 B.C.
Classical 2nd Century, C.E.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
Patanjali’s Kriya Yoga
Post Classical 21st Century
Yoga Comes West
When the Harappan civilization began to decline (around 1500 B.C.E.) the word describing yoga appeared. Invading Aryan barbarians destroyed the sophisticated civilization the Harappan people built. They put the complex Brahmanism religious tradition in its place. These traditions were “based on sacrifice and ritual that formed the basis of modern-day Hinduism, and introduced the concept of yoga.”
The incantations and instructions (poetry and prose) of the sacred scriptures of Brahmanism are known as the Vedas. The Brahmin priests exclusively used the first three books (Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda) and a fourth book (Atharva Veda) gave everyday people “spells and incantations for everyday living.”
Scholars date the Vedas scriptures back about 3,500 years. “The word yoga has its first mention in the Rig Veda, the oldest of the sacred texts.” The Rig Veda is a book with hymns or mantras defining yoga (yoking, discipline) but don’t have any description of a system of practice. Yoga turns up again in Atharva Veda referring to harnessing, controlling or yoking the breath. In the Vratya Kanda (the fifteenth book of the Atharva Veda) a group of men (vratyas) discovered that they could better perform their songs and hold notes longer when they practiced breath control. “This, then, is the very beginning of yoga as we know it, the first mention of a physical action as part of a discipline or practice. Roughly 800 years will pass before history yields more information on yoga's development.”
The Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita (The Lord's Song) is the most famous beloved yoga book. It gives the most complete description of yoga at the time it was written (about third century B.C.E.) and contains the “moral teachings and mystical lore as Lord Krishna instructed his pupil Arjuna on the ways of the world” explaining the three paths to liberation:
karma yoga (path of service, path of action), jnana yoga (path of wisdom, knowledge, meditation) and bhakti yoga (path of devotion). “Using this type of yoga, a practitioner would try to discriminate between real and unreal, in an attempt to separate the Self from the non-Self.
In the Bhagavad Gita karma yoga is the path of action. Someone who is obligated by his karma to be a warrior must be a warrior even if he would prefer to do something else like be a merchant, even if he would do the preferred thing better, and even if he would do his karma obligation poorly. If he does not belong to the merchant class “he has no right to perform someone else's duties. In fact, doing one's duty poorly accumulates better karma than doing someone else's well.” Even if he knows the fighting is wrong the outcome of the battle is irrelevant because it is his duty to perform his karma and fight. People must practice buddhi yoga the “melding of karma (action) and jnana (knowledge) yoga principles” and never be attached to outcome of actions. What matters is not victory or defeat but that duty is performed “and then offer up the fruits of his actions to Krishna, his Lord.”
The Gita also has chapters on bhakti yoga (path of devotion), especially “devotion to Krishna himself. While a yogi could achieve liberation through what the Gita called ‘disinterested action,’ he attained an even higher state of awakening by worshipping Krishna.”
The Upanishads are the sacred revelations of ancient Hinduism (800 to 500 B.C.E.). Upanishads combines the words: upa (near), ni (down), shad (to sit) probably referring to the way a pupil learns the truths hidden in these revelations: sitting at the foot of his guru (teacher). The Upanishads referred to yoga as “a discipline used or path taken to achieve liberation from suffering” and did not refer much to the practice of poses. Two other yoga disciplines did gain prominence at this time and promised liberation or enlightenment: karma yoga (path of action or ritual) and jnana yoga (path of knowledge, intense studying of scripture).
The Upanishads’ secret teachings differed in significant ways from their “Vedic parent texts.” The Vedas preached sacrifice (“external offerings to the gods in exchange for a peaceful and fruitful life”). The Upanishads had personal rituals and sacrifices people had to do so the gods would be pacified and the people free from suffering. The internal mystical expressions of sacrifice was a way toward liberation rather than external expressions of sacrifice.
Gurus (teachers) showed students the Self or ego, rather than animals or crops, should be sacrificed to reach liberation or enlightenment and the way was through knowledge and wisdom (jnana yoga), not with action or ritual.
The Upanishads, offers these basic beliefs:
-your true essence/Self/soul (Atman) is the same as the essence of the universe (Brahman)
-everybody has to go through birth, death, and rebirth and your actions in your present life determine your rebirth (karma). If you do good deeds you will be born again in ggod circumstances and if bad, into bad circumstances.
-bad effects of bad karma can be reversed by specific spiritual practices such as internal sacrifices (meditating, renunciation). “Renunciation allows you to offer up the fruits of your actions and to renounce any actions fueled by desire or passion. In much later Upanishads, yoga became known as the path of renunciation (samnyasa).”
”One of the earliest Upanishads…from the second or third century B.C.E….defined yoga as a means of binding the breath and the mind using the syllable Om….’The oneness of the breath and mind, and likewise of the senses, and the relinquishment of all conditions of existence—this is designated as yoga.’ The Maitrayaniya took the concept of yoga a step further by presenting an actual method or discipline for joining or yoking the universal brahman with the Atman within all beings. This six-fold yoga path includes controlling the breath (pranayama), withdrawing the senses (pratyahara), meditation (dhyana), concentration (dharana), contemplation (tarka), and absorption (samadhi). Elements of this six-fold path expanded somewhat, and would resurface in the second century C.E., in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra.”
The power sound vibrations (for example using Om) and words of wisdom came to refer to “the inner meaning of a yogi's actions.” Then and now a guru imparts wisdom by speaking “to his students and, for the more devotionally adept, chanting the name of a god or goddess remains a powerful vehicle for transformation.”
The Upanishads gave us the idea of universal consciousness also referred to as:
Atman (transcendental Self)
At this time in preclassical yoga “everything resided within this consciousness and nothing existed outside of it. It was both the seer and the seen, and even the act of seeing.”
Purusha, the Upanishads taught, was all-knowing, pure, male, and infinite. Some schools of yoga and Hindu philosophy taught that this universal consciousness manifested itself in everything, beginning with the grossest, most visible realm of the five bhutas (air, fire, water, earth, and ether) and moving into the subtlest realm of the soul or Atman.
During the middle (400 and 200 B.C.E.) of the preclassical time Samkhya, the foundation for more modern yoga, was developed. It taught that renouncing “the world in order to transcend it and be relieved of their suffering” was not enough.
Yogis also had to practice karma yoga (path of action) and jnana yoga (knowledge, meditation) to achieve true liberation or enlightenment.
“Samkhya became radical when it taught that the visible world was not a manifestation of the Divine…Suffering…occurred when the yogi became attached to things that were not the Self, and when he mistakenly identified those things with pure consciousness (purusha). Although this dualistic, rather heretical teaching failed the test of time, the Samkhya tradition created a sophisticated cosmology that explains the difference between the seer (purusha) and that which is seen. Subsequent schools of yoga rejected the Samkhyan's dualistic view of suffering, but borrowed its larger world view, which goes something like this: There are two separate forms of reality or existence—purusha (the pure, transcendental spirit, which is male) and prakriti (matter or nature, which is female).”
Purusha (male, all-knowing, without beginning or end) has no characteristics and is completely immobile existing as pure consciousness, the seer.
Prakriti (female, constant motion, creative, active, distinct, but unconscious) is all that is seen and she created everything in the universe by manifesting herself in three ways (gunas) that exist in various degrees in everything in the universe. “Prakriti dynamically creates these phenomena; purusha passively illuminates them.”
These three gunas are:
Sattva (guna of the mind and senses seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, tactile feeling). The mind combines physical and mental activities and the senses connect us to the external world. Sattva is goodness, pure essence, illuminating and immaculate but a sattvic nature could too easily become attached to the joyful feelings it produced.
Rajas (guna of gross motor responses and physical experience). When this dominates the senses of yearning get activated. This guna makes it possible to have physical experience and controls activity of the body. Raja is bound by and attached to action, dynamic energy, passion greed, lustfulness, desire, possessiveness, passion, and clinging to material goods.
Tamas (guna of darkness, inertia). When this dominates five subtle elements are activated (they are “the potential of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, which give rise to the structure of existence”). Tamas is an obstacle could bind a yogi to a life of sloth, heedlessness, and despondency because its energy is heavy, slow, and thick. These gunas also are in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra.
Samkyha taught “that the only way out of this erroneous attachment to objects and desires was for the yogi to renounce the world completely.” By doing this the yogi attained universal consciousness and foreswore the natural world.
Classical Yoga (See Patanjali on main menu)
There are many styles of yoga, all with the same purposes if not exactly the same perspective and approach, for example: Bhakti (emphasizing prayer and mantra chanting), Tantra (sex oriented), Hatha (activity).
Hatha comes in hundreds of varieties each focusing on different physical poses and breathing techniques and is the most popular kind of yoga. Most places that teach yoga teach some form of Hatha. Here is a sample:
At the easier end of Hatha styles are:
Focuses on flexibility, body alignment and joint movement using props (straps, blocks, pillows) if necessary to help achieve the poses, although probably any style practice can be accompanied by necessary props when appropriate because yoga says start where you are and continue sensibly with respect for yourself and the yoga process.
Iyengar explored poses on his own using his body as his lab focusing on precise and internal and external alignment. He analyzed the effects a pose had on organs and the skeleton and when he understood how a pose worked he could make fit his pupils’ needs. “When performed correctly, asana practice synchronizes the rhythms of the body's physical, physiological, psychological, and spiritual components.” Iyengar “is the most well-known style in the world. Even those who teach other methods often credit the Iyengar method with instilling in them an understanding of the body, the architecture of the poses, and the means to modify asanas when necessary.”
Also named yoga of consciousness because people focus on their personal physical and mental reactions to poses in three stages: learn poses, hold poses and combine poses in a “meditation in motion” practice.
Kripalu Yoga was developed by Amrit Desai who was a student of Indian master Kripalvananda (a Kundalini yogi). It encourages beginners to come in and out of the poses as necessary and “advanced students are encouraged to allow the poses to arise spontaneously as they work with their life force (prana) and create their own, unique practice.” The poses, breath work, and flowing style of practice are the same as Krishnamacharya's vinyasa system.
Good for beginners because it releases energy by using stretch poses and breathing combined with chants and meditating.
Yogi Bhajan taught the people of the modern world his type of Kundalini Yoga which combines poses with breath work, chants and meditating “to awaken the Divine energy coiled at the base of the spine.” Bhajan’s Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization (3HO) teaches karma yoga (path of service to community), education, vegetarianism, “and the therapeutic applications of yoga and ayurveda.” Kundalini students learn breathing techniques for clearing and energizing the body.
Custom made for each individual’s needs, emphasizes function over form, key focus is to integrate breath flow with spinal movement
To succeed in being able to teach Krishnamacharya had to accept and figure out how to teach a diverse group of students including those with physical problems and non Hindus.
By working one on one he designed special practices for each person, refining each routine to help the student do better and develop spiritually also.
This technique became the foundation Desikachar's interpretation of his father Krishnamacharya's teachings and he called it Viniyoga. “Viniyoga concentrates on tailoring the yoga sequences to the needs of the individual… Viniyoga's focus lies somewhere between Iyengar's precision and Pattabhi Jois's vigorous movements. A Viniyoga class is slower than Ashtanga, though it coordinates the breath with the movement. Like Iyengar Yoga, it is known for its therapeutic applications, though Viniyoga concentrates less on alignment and more on varying the length and tempo of the inhalations and exhalations. Although not yet as popular in the United States as Iyengar and Ashtanga Yoga, Viniyoga has touched the lives of countless practitioners all over the world.”
A form of yoga that is moderate difficulty is:
Lifestyle is the key focus of this style: emphasis on poses, breathing, relaxing, vegetarianism, scripture study. Sivananda is the most popular style of yoga practiced in the world.
Yoga styles with an emphasis on challenging the practitioner are:
Ashtanga Vinyasa (modern form, not Patanjali’s Ashtanga)
Also called Power Yoga, is a modern form of yoga, gives a strong workout because strength, stamina and flexibility are developed by practicing poses one immediately after the other combined with breathing exercises. Athletes and dancers are recommended to take this form rather than the average person.
This method by Pattabhi Jois teaches a preset series of postures linked by breath in order to create heat in the body (tapas) which cleanses and purifies. Ashtanga type classes include a vinyasa of Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar) and then go from first series (beginning level – focusing on forward bends) to second, third, and fourth series sessions (with more difficult backbends, standing poses, twists, and arm balances). “Combining the physical poses with attention to the breath brings the modern-day ashtangi steadiness and ease in the body, increased awareness in the mind, and more openness in the heart.”
Variation of Ashtanga emphasizing spiritual training (chants, meditations, readings).
Bikram Choudhury teaches this form, also called Hot Yoga. The room is warmed to help create an environment that helps the body stretch and move more flexibly. There are 26 poses done in a systematic order to help the body go through the workout.
More on yoga:
Patanjali describes kriya yoga in the Yoga Sutra. It involves the ability to change to a higher form (transmutation action) by using internal karma yoga to perfect the “self-disciplines of Patanjali's eight-limbed path.”
Indelible memories or subliminal activators of the subconscious “propel the conscious mind to act…dictate a person's birth, life experiences, and death…cause the constant chatter or fluctuations in the mind.” The subliminal activators are karma scars resulting from behavior (good or bad). Bad subliminal activators keep the conscious seeking “experience outside itself” and good subliminal activators stop the conscious mind from wanting this type of life and bring “true liberation.” Austerity, self-study, devotion to the Lord erase subliminal activators from a person’s subconscious mind.
Ashtanga (Yoga of Patanjali)
Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (eight limbed path toward enlightenment) is has about 200 aphorisms to help guide practitioners to enlightenment. Sutra means thread and these threads are instructions to give people “knowledge and wisdom through the discipline meditation… Patanjali believed that each individual is a composite of matter (prakriti) and spirit (purusha). The yoga students goal was to restore the spirit back to absolute purity.”
Patanjali described Ashtanga Yoga (Raja Yoga, eight limbed yoga) is not the same as the other form called Ashtanga (a modern form of Hatha Yoga).
The eight limbs or stages to self realization are yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. These are Patanjali’s instructions for achieving yoga - the union with the Infinite. The eight limbs/stages of Ashtanga focus on:
1. Yama, control, restraints, “don’ts”
2. Niyama, non control, observances, “do’s”
These focus on outward behavior and the internal attitudes that lead to that outward behavior. The do’s and don’ts are supposed to inspire positive thinking and action. These
do’s and don’ts should be practiced no matter what situations you find yourself in because “these principles allows one to live in deep harmony with the universe.”
3. Asana, body stillness, to be able to sit in a “steady and comfortable” way, “perfected ‘state’ of asana is the ability to sit completely motionless for at least three hours.” Patanjali “didn’t even mention Hatha Yoga in his sutras… only three others refer indirectly to it. Practice of the yoga postures is helpful for achieving the state of asana, but it is not essential.”
Even though “Patanjali gives no detail of specific pranayama techniques” others have specifically taught these techniques. Pranayama, (energy control and techniques) focuses on harmonizing the body’s energy so it can flow toward the Divine Self (instead of toward the senses). The breath and mind connection affects the whole body and teaches practitioners how to control the flow of energy using the breath.
4. Pranayama (breath and energy control) is an important part of yoga practice.
5. Pratyahara, interiorization of the mind (after directing energy inward and up to the brain with breath you must direct the energy into the brain and not to thoughts and restlessness). Pratyahara is withdrawing the mind from outside experience.
6. Dharana, concentration, fixing the mind one-pointedly with no disturbance from the senses or “restless, outward thoughts.”
7. Dhyana, absorption, true meditation, to be absorbed and identify with the object you are concentrating on, expanding your individuality to identify with universal qualities such as “peace, calmness, light, sound, love, joy, wisdom and power. This is the state of true meditation.”
8. Samadhi, Oneness, Superconscious Union of the Soul with God, personal identity becomes “universal and there is a perception of oneness with the whole universe and the Creator of that universe.” The two stages of samadhi are sabikalpa samadhi (remaining in breathless, motionless meditation) and nirbikalpa samadhi (remaining in universal oneness no matter what activity you are doing outwardly).
Vanda Scaravelli created this method when she was 45 years old after she started doing with Iyengar and T.K.V. Desikachar. Her popular book Awakening the Spine and the hundreds of students trained in her method have carried her style of yoga to Europe, Canada, and America.
T. Krishnamacharya’s “life remains shrouded in a fog of myth, fable, fact, and contradictory memories” but he is undisputed father of today’s hatha yoga. No one, not even his family, knows his true journey to yoga but “in the early 1930s Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, took it upon himself to champion the beauty and the benefits of yoga asana…Krishnamacharya's yoga represents a uniquely twentieth-century incarnation of a rich and ever-evolving tradition, the underlying tenets of which have wavered little since the time of the Upanishads.”
Krishnamacharya was influenced by the Sritattvanidhi text (from the early nineteenth century) which was found in a private library near his home and seems to be “the first manual devoted entirely to the physical aspect of yoga. You'll find no breathing techniques, no bandhas or mudras to perform, no chakras to open, and no cleansing rituals to enact. With its 122 postures illustrated and named, the Sritattvanidhi expands the repertoire to include poses we've all grown to love—handstands, arm balances, ashtangi foot-behind-the-head poses, and even rope hangings—and could very well be the proof yogis are looking for that a well-developed asana practice flourished prior to the twentieth century.” This physical exercise “appears to have borrowed heavily from an assorted array of gymnastics moves, wrestling exercises, push-ups, and rope tricks, as well as yoga asanas…this eclecticism inspired and informed Krishnamacharya's teaching… Understanding that his audience came from diverse backgrounds, Krishnamacharya tailored his yoga message to all beliefs and lifestyles, much as Western yoga teachers do today.”