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What is Yoga? A Brief History

What is Yoga?


Yoga is one of India’s oldest psychospiritual traditions and can be traced back nearly 5,000 years through ancient texts and art. Commonly, yoga is translated to imply the union of body, mind, and spirit.

The word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit word “yuj” which means to ‘yoke or ‘unite. Originally, yoga was used to describe the rigging or of one’s plow to horses or bullocks, often to plow fields or do manual labor. This term changed a bit in the Vedas, Indian religious texts, where it was expanded the term yoga to mean the entire conveyance or “rig” of a war chariot, thus establishing the association of ‘yoga’ with warriors and war time. 

This Vedic interpretation of yoga (to mean one’s war chariot or rig) was then incorporated into much of the warrior ideology of ancient India. Stories were told using yoga in these terms, taking it a step further to suggest that a divine or celestial ‘yoga’ or chariot would carry the warriors up to the heavens at their death. The ancient warriors, who knew they were about to die in battle, were often referred to as yoga-yukta which literally translates to “yoked to yoga”. You could also interpret this to mean “connected to a war chariot”. 

The mean of yoga only started to shift in the Kathaka Upanisad  a Hindu scripture from the third century BCE that tells the of a young boy who meets the god of Death. Death tells the boy about the “entire yoga regimen” and uses the analogy of the rider, his chariot, and the horse/bullock to teach the boy the relationship between the self, the body, and intellect. This text is often thought to influence the idea and practice of yoga for the following centuries, with this same chariot analogy used in much of today’s teachings. 

The main idea that this scripture introduced is the hierarchy of the mind-body constituents, which acknowledged the idea of higher states of consciousness. This could be achieved through chants or mantras, the most popular being OM which is the acoustic form of the supreme being/universe. Mantras would later become more prominently incorporated in yogic practices. 

The period following the Katha Upanisad showed a significant increase in textual references to yoga, introducing much of the basic principles of yoga theory and elements of yoga practice as well as the first yoga systems. Most of these references were found in Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist sources. By the fifth century BCE, much of the core principles, language, and concepts of yoga were established, which influenced the teachings and learning of yoga for the next couple centuries.

It’s at the later end of  this time period, around 500 BCE, that Patañjali establish pātañjala yoga (“Patañjalian yoga”). This is often referred to as “classical yoga” and is based on a list of 8 aphorisms or sutras. These are often referred to as the 8 Limbs of Yoga aka 8 Fold Path which are listed below:


  1. Yamas (moral disciplines)
  2. Niyamas (self-restraint)
  3. Pranayama (breath control)
  4. Asanas (physical poses)
  5. Pratyahara (sensory inhibition)
  6. Dharana (concentration)
  7. Dhyana (meditation)
  8. Samadhi (blissful state)

Tantra Yoga

Tantra yoga developed much later in the tenth century and different in a number of practices in concepts. A major practice concept change was that the practitioner’s goal shifted from releasing themselves from suffering to raising one’s awareness and consciousness to the level of a god. Meditations would focus on the attributes of the deity, such as Visnu. It also introduced the idea of “Kundalini,” a serpentine energy at the root of the human spine that a practitioner would tap into. 

Hatha Yoga

Hatha yoga came about between the tenth to eleventh century and was called the “yoga of forceful exertion”. It focused on the practice of breath control and even outlined specific instructions on how to calibrate the regulation of breaths. In relation to today’s practice of yoga in Western culture, Hatha yoga is known for its use of fixed pastures (asanas), breath control (pranayama), locks (bandhas), and seals (mudras). 

The practice is often called the 6 limb ofyoga, marking it’s difference from the previous practice mentioned above of the 8 limb yoga. Both practices of yoga have a lot of similarities though, with postures, breath control ,and the meditation as a tool to reach samadhi as the major commonalities. 

Modern Yoga 

Swami Vivekananda introduced what is constitutes much of modern day yoga at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Vivekananda termed his practice as “Raja Yoga” which emphasized the genuinely Indian practice as non-sectarian and “not only for national consumption but for consumption by the entire world”. Much of his teachings were derived from the Yoga Sutras.

In the past several decades, yoga has been transformed significantly in Western culture, shifting far from it’s early roots as a religious practice in India. This massive shift and often appropriation of culture spurred the foundation of the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) in India to protect these traditions from being patented by foreign entrepreneurs as their own intellectual properties. It’s vital to keep the history and origins of this sacred practice in mind.

Now a days you can find various forms of yoga in western culture, often promoted through social media and advertisements. From practices of physical effort like hot yoga and silly practices like goat yoga, all the way to adaptive yoga like chair yoga or prenatal yoga, the practice of yoga has become inclusive and wildly popular. With new studies supporting the benefits of yoga, meditation, and mind-body practices, it’s safe to say this holistic practice isn’t going to fizzle out in popularity in western culture any time soon. 


Sources: Yoga, Brief History of an Idea; American Journal of Psychiatry


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