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History of yoga practice

Yoga And Meditation

The History of Yoga Practice: From the Stone Age to the 21st Century

It is no exaggeration to say that yoga culture and practice as we see know it today would be completely unrecognizable to the original practitioners, or Yogis, of times past. Some might attribute this to the superficiality of modern yogis or the need to dilute the essence of yoga principles to make them more palatable to a technologically-advanced civilization, but this is not the case, at least not entirely. Neither of those perspectives considers the very nature of yoga and its foundations. Not only have the original ideas and concepts proffered by the swamis of ages past been adapted and altered much through the generations, the very words, and terms used to describe the practice of yoga have a decidedly malleable nature and offer great flexibility. Many of the terms and concepts are seen in Yoga are the product of other traditions and practices covering an extensive history and innumerable developments. It could be said that flexibility is the very nature of yoga because nature favors the flexible.

yoga practiceSanskrit: The Language of the Gods

Delving into the history of yoga requires understanding how vast the concept can be. A single concept or term like “Yoga”, “Upanishad” or “Veda” can have many definitions and meanings compacted within, like seeds in a pod waiting to germinate in the fertile mind. This innate capacity is due to the special language used to record and transmit the rich Vedic Culture. Much of what we know about the ancient practices of yoga come from texts recorded in Sanskrit, a language that is more significant than many people understand.  Even the English language contains words with roots in this ancient language. The words “father”, “mother”, “love”, “cow”, and “name” all originated from Sanskrit and were passed to English through Germanic Languages. “Yoga” is about the most commonly used Sanskrit term today and has a definition that has been adapted several times since its origins in the early agricultural age. The modern definition of “Yoga” could be defined as “balanced”, “formed” or, more commonly, a practice of exercise based on the principles of Yoga.  The term “yoga” is also the action of “hitching” a large beast of burden to its load. Indeed the word “yoga” is a cognate of the English word “yoke,” the harness which allows human endeavors to be boosted through animal power. In ancient Sanskrit, this term could be used to describe “putting something to intentional use” or “to concentrate through joining”. You may begin to see how all of these definitions have an important significance in the enduring practice of yoga.

yoga practiceWhat is Yoga?

Long before Stephen Hawking described the origins of the universe in his “Big Bang” theory, Vedic traditions described the birth of the universe in a similar event and a brilliant flash. According to Vedic lore, the sound of the universe exploding into existence still resonates through everything and is even reverberating through the human body. It sounds something like “Aum” or “Om” and is the Sanskrit word for “to sound loud,” kind of like the onomatopoeia for the Big Bang. Divine knowledge was born then and transmitted in Sanskrit from the devas or gods to humans in an epic tale that merges the Shamanistic times of Prehistory with the dawn of recorded civilizations. Yoga is a branch of this divine knowledge that describes a variety of lifestyles that can be adapted to cultivate a greater harmony with the self, other humans and the universe as a whole. Through yoga, the mind, body, and spirit can be connected. Yoga calls its yogis to seek and cultivate the mystical link between the seen and the unseen, the inner with the outer and the finite with the infinite through harmony with natural forces. The teachings of yoga illustrate a great many ways in which this harmonious state of being can be achieved. The asana (postures), pranayama (breathing techniques), and Dharana (focused concentration) seen in yoga studios are mere slivers of a much larger culture focused on balance and harmony. The practices of yoga touch all aspects of human life, health, and social order. It is likely you are a yogi yourself and possibly practice some form of yoga in your day to day actions, possibly unaware. For example, if you draw on your inner reservoirs of love to fuel and sustain the activities you perform moment to moment, you are a karmic yogi. If you maintain your peace and composure even when all around you is freaking out and blaming you for the chaos, you are a powerful yogi of the greatest kind. The Bhagavad Gita, written in the 2nd century BCE, describes yoga as “skill in action and expression”. A moment’s reflection on the application of that simple concept idea illustrates the yogi’s approach to themselves and their universe.  This concept does not just apply to the way you move your body and draw breath for an hour each day in a yoga studio, but the way of life and method of handling all human affairs great and small.

The Abridged History of Yoga

The earliest records of the practice of yoga are contained in the eldest of the Vedas, the Rig Veda. There is evidence to suggest this production was completed around 8 to 10 thousand years ago. But, even though the Vedas were significant to future generations, they were also the culmination of thousands of years of prehistoric cultures whose practices were codified into the Vedas. Many historians and experts associate the earliest yogic practices with Stone Age Shamanistic Cultures. During these early stages of human history, yoga was the practice of addressing good health and social skills and was deeply rooted in religious tradition. These traditions may have been designed to direct and engage entire communities rather than a means of seeking personal development. The existence of yoga culture in its primordial form is a subject of great speculation, but the official timeline of yogic history contains four important epochs beginning with the Vedic Period in Northern India.

Yoga in the Vedic Period:

“Let us adore the supremacy of that divine sun, the god-head who illuminates all, who recreates all, from whom all proceed, to whom all must return…” Gayatri, Rigveda (8,000 / 10,000 BCE) While historically the Vedic Period is between 1500 and 150 BCE, in yogic tradition the timeline begins closer to 5000 BCE and ends at around 1500 to 1000 BCE with the Period of Pre-Classical Yoga. Brahmanism was the established religion during the Vedic Period and set the benchmarks for Hinduism and much later Buddhism. The holy writings of the Brahmans were collected into compiled teachings called the Vedas, a Sanskrit word for “knowledge” or “wisdom”. The Vedas were collections of hymns, mantras, and teachings that were passed by word of mouth instruction from yogis to their disciples. The objectives of these teachings were to build awareness of the almighty power and convey functions and practices that broadened the mind. Yoga is not mentioned in the Vedas in any way that might be associated with modern yogic practices, nevertheless, it is imperative to understand how the practice may have evolved greatly but how the essential goals have always remained the same. In the Vedas, the cultivation of divine knowledge and universal harmony is practiced through meditation, more specifically, through Mantras. The Rigveda, the oldest of the four Vedas, is devoted entirely to mantras and mantra Yoga may be among the oldest forms practiced in ancient times. Reciting the Vedas was and is the cultivation of Mantra Yoga and practiced by the earliest holy men who passed their teachings to their chosen students. During the Vedic Age, yogis and holy men had a place of great respect among the populace who would gather to hear instructions and strive to meet the standards of holiness set forth by these scrubby forest dwellers. Most yogis were committed to seeking a deeper understanding of their yogic path through seclusion in the woods and ascetic lifestyles. After consistent exposure to today’s yogic culture, it can be difficult to identify the yogic culture found in the Rigveda, especially due to the absence of any breathing or exercise. But, this is not just because the practice and role yoga played back then was very different, but because what we see in modern yoga is only a small portion of what yoga is all about. While asana and pranayama are important aspects of yoga, they rarely amount to more than a small fraction of content in all the Vedas, Upanishads, and Sutras which discuss Yoga in its entirety. Yoga is more about the cultivation of an important connection with the self, world, and universe as a whole.

Yoga in the Pre-Classical Period

"All this that we see in the world is Brahman… Brahman is Reality, Knowledge, and Infinity." - the Upanishads. The Pre-Classical Period of yogic culture lasted around 2000 years and was characterized by the Upanishads. Upanishads is the Sanskrit phrase meaning “to sit down beside” or to “sit near” and refers to the traditional practice of sitting at the instruction of a guru or spiritual teacher. Like the Vedas, before them, much of the Upanishads were imparted from teacher to student through oral instruction like this. The Upanishads were codified into a collection of 200 sacred writings which discuss the commitment to Brahman and how the yogi’s central perception of reality relates to their commitment. Other significant lessons of the Upanishads include the principles of the Atman (the superior self), Brahman (highest reality) and the dynamics between them. Another important way the Upanishads altered the practices of the Vedic Periods was the practice of sacrifice. Animal sacrifice from the Vedic times was internalized during the Pre-Classical period and manifest as the sacrifice of the self or the ego. This could be achieved through Jnana yoga (wisdom), Karmic yoga (action), self-knowledge, etc. Through the study of the Upanishads, a more cultured understanding of the Vedas may be achieved.

Yoga in the Classical Period

“Be happy for those who are happy, have compassion towards the unhappy, and maintain equanimity towards the wicked.” - Patanjali Classical Yoga is most commonly associated with the name Maharishi Patanjali. While history is still not sure who this greatly celebrated physician and philosopher was, or if it may have been a group of people, Patanjali is accredited with the creation of a large number of Sanskrit works, including the Yoga Sutras and the Ashtanga, or Eightfold Path The Ashtanga includes eight steps or principles that the yogi must observe to live a meaningful and purposeful life. These could be considered a prescription for a healthy moral code, high-quality conduct, and auspicious self-discipline. The eightfold path is one of healthy living in both physical and spiritual existence. The third limb of the Eightfold Path describes the Asanas of a healthy body. As the temple of the sacred spirit, yogis must observe the conditions of the body in their path to spiritual awakening. Through the committed practice of asana, the yogi builds their capacity for concentration and reserves of physical strength and endurance. These are essential qualities which can improve meditation exercises and the cultivation of harmony. Patanjali teaches that yoga is important to the destruction of the ego because it neutralizes feelings that are directed to and from the self. Through yoga, stillness is cultivated; this stillness leads the practitioner to a greater understanding of their true self as an extension of the infinite. More importantly, the yogi can see that it is the illusion of, or obsession with, a limitation that hides this truth from the awareness. Patanjali instructions touch on a wide range of other topics of yoga practice and even more specific points on how to deal with stress and anxiety. The aphorisms Patanjali used to convey these philosophies and teachings from the foundations for subsequent yoga practices and literature.

Yoga in the Post Classical Period

“Let my idle chatter be the muttering of prayer, my every manual movement the execution of ritual gesture…” - Adi Shankaracharya, The Saundaryalahari During the centuries that followed Patanjali and the period of Classical Yoga, the focus of swamis and yogis was to increase life and rejuvenate the body. This began a major shift from the traditions of the ancients and Vedas and cultivated the study of the physical body and its sensations as potential paths to enlightenment. The interest was in seeking to escape the body consciously and merge with the spirit beyond. This led to the development of new philosophies and practices that merged with concepts of alchemy and attempted to adjust the fabric of matter in an effort to reach immortality. While immortality may not have been achieved, the inclination to energize the body led to the production of Tantra Yoga and Hatha Yoga, some of the most well-known practices of yoga today.   Post-Classical Yoga is perhaps the most significant era as it demonstrated the fundamental flexibility of the yoga practice in its teachings. Yogis and swamis were encouraged to embrace the central perception of reality as opposed to seek escape.

Yoga in the Industrial Age

“Silence is the communion of a conscious soul with itself.” - Henry David Thoreau (1816-1872) By the 1600s, European trade with the Indian subcontinent was in full swing, but it wouldn’t be until the Industrial age that the greatest minds of the West would turn their attention to Eastern Philosophies. When the Industrial Revolution arrived, ideas and philosophies no longer had cultural bound and could be spread rapidly across the world by telegraph, printing press and steam engines. Yoga found its way into the Western World at the pinnacle of the scientific Golden Age and was analyzed and studied by some of the greatest minds of the time. During the 1900’s, the sacred texts of the Vedas, Upanishads, and Sutras were translated from their original Sanskrit into European Languages and eventually into English. The teachings of these texts took a firm hold in the transcendental communities that supported the view that the personal link with the universe is more important than religious tradition. This was a fairly revolutionary notion in the West, and its arrival began the exploration of new routes of spiritual thought in the Eastern United States. Among the many influential characters of the Transcendental movement was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who showed a special interest in studying the yogic scriptures and cultivating his own path of yogic experience. One of Emerson’s most significant works, “Nature”, is deeply philosophical and underscores his personal belief that God and the universe are one and the same. The following portion of this work has been studied and reflected upon by many great minds and sounds like something you would expect from a half-dressed holy man in an Ashram rather than a Harvard Educated lecturer. This further exemplifies the adaptive and all-encompassing nature of yogic teachings. history of yoga practice“Nature is a language and every new fact one learns is a new word, but it is not a language taken to pieces and dead in the dictionary, but the language put together into a most significant and universal sense. I wish to learn this language, not that I may know a new grammar, but that I may read the great book that is written in that tongue.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson One of Emerson’s close friends and associates was known as the “First American Yogi”. Henry David Thoreau was arguably one of the most significant minds of his time and wrote extensively on political, philosophical and spiritual topics. According to some accounts, Thoreau’s neighbors would be confused and even alarmed to see their mentally-healthy friend sitting in meditation and yogic posture from sunrise until noon. This absurd behavior was most uncharacteristic of a 19th-century gentleman. When inquired about these antics, Thoreau would give an important response that rings true for all who walk this path. “My time [practicing yoga] is not subtracted from my life but what is allowed above and beyond the life I have. Through [yoga], I have understood what the Orientals meant by the forsaking of works” While many Western minds were influential in introducing the essential principles of Eastern thought and philosophy in the West, it was the various Swamis, Yogis and Gurus of the 20th century that were most influential in building the colorful yogic culture we can experience today.

Yoga in the Modern Age

“Arise, awake and do not stop until the goal is reached.” - Swami Vivekananda (1863 - 1902) The first Hindu Swami to visit the United States was Swami Vivekananda when he spoke to an assembly of the world’s leading religions held in Chicago in 1893. This began a long line of yogic teachers and spiritual instructors who would transmit the teachings of yogic practice to modern practitioners. This naturally called for some flexibility in the approach to centuries-old practices, yet the essential goals and principles of yogic practice remain unchanged. Paramahansa Yogananda was the first teacher to establish a permanent practice of yoga instruction in the United States. Yogananda was instrumental and a perfect example of making teachings and yogic content accessible to the age in which he lived. For example, Sunday is not a holy day in any Hindu culture, yet a very significant holy day for most Western religions and traditions. Therefore, Yogananda merged the two traditions by incorporating “Sunday Worship” into the practice of yoga and the teachings of spirituality.   Swami Sivananda was another instrumental figure in the rise of modern Yogic Culture and was responsible for the establishment of many Yoga Schools in Europe and the US. Sivananda codified teacher training and developed a yogic system, based on the Five Principles of Yoga. This was much like a writing a prescription for good spiritual, physical and mental health in the environments he personally observed. Sivananda’s Five Yoga Principals include relaxation (Savasana), positive thinking (Dhyana), physical exercise (Asana), proper breathing (Pranayama), as well as meditation and healthy eating as vital components of the yogic practice. The practice of yoga today is the product of many millennia of evolution and adaptation to the need of the times. Yoga and its various practices, techniques, and traditions are subject to change as needed yet the underlying movements, goals, and ideas remain much the same as they have since the Stone Age. It is the refusal to be tied down in dogma and the dichotomy of right and wrong that provides the non-judgemental attitude from which enlightened practice and instruction flow. While many of the ideas and concepts have been taken from yoga and applied to martial arts, exercise styles, spiritual pursuits, political tactics, and even military planning, no other practice has replicated the special function yoga plays in sustaining human life.  

history of yoga practice Guide to Various Schools of Yoga Available Today

Thanks to the rich culture and adaptive qualities of yoga, as well as the cooperative guidance of great teachers, the practice has blossomed into a multi-faceted culture with something for everyone. There are even sub-branches to many of the schools of yogic practice that emphasize more specific disciplines or principles of their more general branch of yoga. The path of yoga is a very personal one and should be selected for the individual based on their styles, tastes, and interests. But, the sheer vastness of the options available and the potential for future experiences can make the whole ordeal a little daunting for the beginner. Considering that yoga presents challenges and exercise to the mind as much as the body, it’s advisable to approach the practice of yoga as you would any discipline or training. After taking a closer look at some of the more established schools of practice, the aspiring devotee will have a better idea of what each provides to ongoing practice. Naturally, yoga is not a “one-size-fits-all” practice and carefully matching the practice to the desired outcome will avoid discomfort, frustration and potential injury. The needs of a hypermobile and athletic individual will be very different to someone who has not paid much attention to their physical conditions. By the same measure, those with a history of mindfulness practice and meditation may be more attracted to a certain type of class, like Kundalini or Yin Yoga. Those looking to increase flexibility and sculpt the body may be interested in something more kinesthetic and physical without the profound spiritual content.    To provide some scope on the many MANY styles of yoga available to the modern yogi, the following section will include a small glimpse necessary to make a relatively enlightened selection. The yogi should remember that as a living, breathing culture, the practice may change as the needs of the yogi change. Carefully matching the practice to the practitioner is an important part of successful self-improvement. Important Note: While yoga is a very safe and gentle form of physical exercise, those suffering from health conditions, recovering from injuries, or over the age of 60 should begin physical fitness routines only under the advice of qualified medical professionals.

Popular Yoga Styles of the 21st Century

Hatha Yoga

“Hatha” refers to the sun and moon in Sanskrit and is also the term for any type of yoga that involves proper positioning and breathing. Hatha Yoga is a slower, softer style of yoga which is perfect for entry-level practitioners developing a taste for balancing energies and understanding how physical practice plays an important role in harmonizing the negative and positive. Those recovering from injury have also found Hatha Yoga ideal for gradually regaining strength and endurance.

Vinyasa Yoga

The Sanskrit term “Vinyasa” refers to an “orderly manner of arranging” or “a way to order things or events” much like the way the positions of the body and the breaths must be formed and sequenced in a soft choreography. Unlike Hatha Yoga, Vinyasa Yoga is a dynamic activity where a pose won’t be held long and may even be set to the rhythm of music like a dance. Vinyasa Yoga is an excellent way to get in shape while getting in touch with the body in graceful motion. This is also a popular choice for sports enthusiasts looking to fine-tune their physical condition.

Iyengar Yoga

Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar (1918-2014), better known as BKS Iyengar, was the yogi responsible for founding Iyengar Yoga. BKS Iyengar was considered by many to be the foremost yogi of his time and called practitioners to pay closer attention to alignments and anatomy. Because of this, Iyengar Yoga is a more disciplined style of the practice. Precision forms will be the path to excellence and postures will be maintained for much longer in order to achieve this perfection. Iyengar could be considered an advanced yogic practice, but still accessible to those with little yoga practice, so long as they are inclined to a culture of perfection and excellence in performance. Iyengar yoga introduces itself easily and gradually. Practitioners will use yoga blocks, yoga straps, blankets, and rope walls to a certain extent in their practice. Instruction with a qualified yogi is a must as many of the finer aspects of this detailed discipline may not come naturally to all. Iyengar is also safe and easy to practice at any age, even those recovering from health conditions and accidents can practice Iyengar.

Ashtanga Yoga

The Ashtanga system was transmitted to the world by the renowned yogi Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009). The practice involves the execution of a series of postures selected for their capacity to boost the body’s internal heating elements. By the induced perspiration, increased heart rate and synchronized breathing exercises, the body are purified of toxins. Improved circulation and clearer thinking are some other benefits of the Ashtanga Method. Ashtanga is another practice that is guided by a detailed process and attention to certain guidelines. As with many styles of yoga, beginning training with a qualified instructor helps to avoid the learning curve.

Hot Yoga

Hot yoga brings the steamy temperatures of the tropical zone and increases the flexibility in muscles and the metabolism with a series of yoga postures. During the Vinyasa style routine, the elevated temperatures of the studio can help the body loosen up and make muscles seem more limber. Experts caution against dehydration and heat exhaustion that can result from taking too much on before personal capacity has been improved. For this reason, it is advisable to seek out a qualified Hot Yoga Instructor before beginning any dedicated practice.

Kundalini Yoga

Kundalini, literally “the coiled one” in Sanskrit, refers to an ancient Hindu concept of energies sequestered in the body. In this case, “Shakti” is the primal energy that exists in all humans and is located at the base of the spine. The goal of Kundalini Yoga is to access or awaken this source of power through various yoga practices including mantra chanting, yoga, breathing practices, and meditation. Kundalini is considered to be one of the more dangerous types of yoga and can result in Kundalini syndrome if proper attention and respect for subtle energies are not applied generously throughout cultivation. The danger does not come from the energy released but by not properly or effectively applying this energy. Symptoms of Kundalini syndrome include near-death experiences, intense trauma, prolonged seemingly unbreakable meditation, nervous breakdowns and other conditions that have only been described as “spiritual conditions”. With proper instruction and guidance, Kundalini meditation is both inspiring and invigorating to build vitality and increase one's awareness. The breathing exercises and meditation might be the toughest aspects of the practice, but tapping into inner reserves of energy is certainly worth all that.

Yin Yoga

Those looking to counteract the stress and anxiety that has become a standard component of professional and academic practice should consider all the advantages of Yin Yoga. Yin Yoga is much like Hatha Yoga in the sense that the breathing is kept slow and deep and postures are held for up to 5 minutes at a time. The time spent in these postures is applied to meditation and reflection on the switch between Yin and Yang. When considering Yin Yoga, practitioners are advised to do a number of sessions over a few weeks as the subtle benefits of Yin Yoga are not always as dynamic as some of the other styles. But, over a week or two, the stress-reducing effects are more tangible.

Other Types of Yoga

In the end, the aspiring yogi must think on what it is about yoga that inspires their practice and seeks a style that supports this. No yoga style is superior or inferior to any other; they are more like paths you can take to explore a largely undiscovered country while collecting some terrific benefits along the way. Physical yoga practices that are common today are only a part of a much larger system of traditions, practices, and philosophies. If the physical practice seems daunting, there are many other yogic practices and yogis that provide instruction on them.

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