The first question that comes to many people’s mind when beginning to practice yoga is the question of where, when, and how this popular practice originated. Yoga is by far the most enigmatic of all exercise programs, primarily because the postures, or asanas, popularized in modern culture are only a small snippet of a much larger practice.
The traditional practices of yoga have applications in every walk of life and are the product of over 8,000 years of history. Yoga has been kept alive because of the many physical, mental and spiritual benefits it provides for everyone, no matter their age or level of physical fitness.
Even though the practice and principles of yoga are seen everywhere, and most people are familiar with what yoga is all about, understanding a little about the roots and foundations of yoga can shed light on the practice. By increasing appreciation of the nature of yoga, it is easier to make this beneficial practice a more regular part of modern life.
Where Did Yoga Originate?
Yoga, according to some of its proponents, is older than civilization itself and was possibly practiced by tribal human ancestors as far back as the Stone Age. However, archaeological evidence to support these notions is lacking.
The earliest evidence of yogic practice is seen on stone seals and clay tablets dating about 3,000 BCE, but there’s reason to believe that the practice predated these records, possibly by a millennium. Experts have pointed out that many yogic practices, including chanting and disciplined breathing, are similar in many ways to shamanistic rituals. Shamanistic rituals themselves were designed to seek favor with the unseen world for the purpose of improving general physical health and well-being.
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To better observe the nature of yoga history, experts have split the subject into four periods that are distinguished by important works and revolutions. These are the Vedic, pre-classic, classic, and post-classic periods.1
In around 2,400 BCE, the Vedas were compiled and set the foundation for the cultures to follow. The Vedas were the sacred scriptures of Brahmanism, the religion that gave rise to Hinduism as we know it today. These works are a collection of hymns and verses that praise the divine power, and the very first yogic teachings and concepts are illustrated in these works.2
The rituals, ceremonies, and mantras taken from the Vedas make up what is now called Vedic yoga, which is comprised of practices designed to surpass the limitations of the mind.
During the Vedic Period, the yogic instruction was provided by the rishis who were dedicated to the yogic practice and a life of divine harmony. Individuals looked to the rishis for guidance and their capacity to visualize ultimate reality through spiritual practice. These early spiritual teachers, or gurus, lived ascetic lives in the wilderness and forests believing that secular pursuits clouded spiritual vision.
The pre-classical era of yogic culture was ushered in with the creation of the Upanishads, a collection of 200 scriptures that expound on the teachings found in the Vedas. Upanishads means “to sit down nearby” and describes the instructions that were passed from teachers to devotees in this manner.
Because yoga played an important role in Brahmanism, these principles of yoga are found not only in Hinduism but Buddhism, Jainism, and many other schools of thought and philosophy that were born from yogic culture during the pre-classical age. In fact, the Buddha, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, was a student of pre-classical yoga before his enlightenment.3
During the period of classical yoga, the Yoga Sutras were written by Patanjali who may have been a great philosopher or possibly a name given to several individuals instrumental in this production. Either way, the Yoga Sutras outline the eightfold path to enlightenment.
In summary, the eightfold path includes:
- Yamawhich: Being trustworthy, honorable, and doing no harm.
- Niyama: Connection with divine power purity of mind and body, and self-discipline.
- Asanas: Physical postures and poses that we all know and often practice.
- Pranayama: Discipline of cultivating and regulating the breath.
- Pratyahara: Cultivation of the meditative states and the precursor to meditation.
- Dharana: Practice of holding the mind’s focus or awareness on a single point.
- Dhyana: Meditation and interactions between the true self and energies of the universe.
- Samadhi: State of ecstasy from being at one with the cosmic soul.
Patanjali proposed that the human is made of both matter and spirit. While yoga before the classical period had emphasized the union of body and spirit, Patanjali suggested that the two must be separated in an effort to keep the spirit pure. This marked a shift from dualism to non-dualism in the yoga practice.
Post-classical yoga saw some of the greatest shifts in perspective and practice. As opposed to the prior goals of surpassing the limits of the mind, cultivating enlightenment, or even communing with higher powers, the focus was now on the present. The teaching became that building acceptance and awareness of the present moment is the best way to survive and thrive.
When the Industrial Age arrived, new mechanized transportation and the printing press allowed books and cultures to be distributed far and wide. This was when the Sanskrit Vedas, Upanishads, and Sutras were taken to the west and studied by some of the most brilliant minds of the times. By the 1930s, Eastern philosophies had found a strong community of supporters in the West, and the practice practiced in the East for hundreds of years began to spread.
Yoga would be practiced and studied throughout the 20th century by some of the most famous names in music, sports, science, technology, and politics. Today, the study and philosophies of yoga continue to evolve and change with the billions of people who rely on its fundamentals for health and balance.
Understanding the Fundamentals of Yoga for Modern Devotees
All you have to do to be a yogi is dedicate yourself to the practice of yoga every day. There are many different yoga practices to choose from, each with their own specific details and benefits. Despite their differences, all yoga practices for better health and mental balance involve some standard principles that should be understood for best results.
Though there are many different types of yoga like Hatha, Ashtanga, and Kundalini, they all teach the principles of breath work for successful practice and proper energy flow. The breath is what links the mind to the body and therefore plays a central role in the conscious part of the exercise.
As you approach your practice, it will be essential to keep an open mind and intuitive approach. Unlike weight training which involves muscling-through the pain, yoga takes a gentle approach. The positions and forms themselves can be adjusted to the needs of the yogi. By keeping an open mind, you will find it easier to choose what works and what doesn’t.
The connection made with the ground supporting you is essential for building balance in yoga, which leads to better form and overall strength. Whether you are standing on one foot or sitting down, be sure that your connection to the Earth is solid.
Once you find the right form for you and the position in which you are most comfortable, get into it. Accept that there is no finish line to the process, and the process itself isn’t perfect.
While you may not be interested in the spiritual side of the exercise, the simple exercise of mindfulness is just another way of building awareness. While maintaining the contemplative mindset, the link between the mind and body is consolidated.
As evidenced above, yoga can provide a range of benefits to both your mind and body. Now that you know the origins of this popular practice and some of its basic principles, try it out for yourself and reap the health benefits that it provides.
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