Yoga is much more than a simple exercise program, or a series of complex stretches. This system of philosophy, balance, and conditioning is believed to predate recorded history. As yoga, especially hatha yoga has become and more popular in the United States and the United Kingdom many new enthusiasts have never had the opportunity to learn the true history or background of this unique practice. Of the 30 million people in America and another estimated million in the U.K practicing hatha yoga, few are aware of much of its interesting and exciting background other than that the practice started in India.
A sage in the 15th century India initially introduced Hatha yoga the form that most Americans and Europeans are familiar with, and practice regularly. The word hatha is a compound of several words. “Ha” and “tha” which mean sun and moon or the “prana” and “apana”. Some believe the words hatha means forceful, while others think the word refers to purification. Many in the western word think of hatha yoga as the only form of yoga, but this is far from the truth.
The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit “Pali”. This is derived from the root “yui” which means to control or to bring together. Some historians however, believe that the term yoga might come from “yujir samadhau” meaning contemplation. This system of philosophy, movement and physical and mental discipline was developed in India. Closely associated with the meditative practices in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, yoga is viewed differently by each of these schools of Hindu philosophy.
There are many different branches of yoga in Hindu philosophy, which include Raja, Karma, Bhakti, Jnana, and Hatha. Karma yoga is the discipline of action and is based on the teachings of Bhagavad Gita. This is a Sanskrit scripture of Hinduism that puts karma yoga forward as the science of gaining perfection in action. Natya yoga is also called dance yoga. It is a combination of Bhakti yoga, and Karma yoga together with elements of Hatha yoga and Raja yoga. It is believed that some forms of Natya yoga are so purifying that anyone who performs some portions such as the Karana dance are free from all sins.
There is no way to truly known when the concept of yoga was first formed. It is thought to be older than civilization, but naturally, this cannot be proven. A statue found by anthropologists, which depicts figures in yoga-like postures dates back to 3300 B.C., but many scholars suspect that the practice dates back to a period of shamanism as early as the Stone Age. The philosophy, self care, and healing aspects of yoga fit mystic shamanistic holistic practice. Much of yoga’s history is no doubt lost to time, but some other interesting evidence has turned up proving its importance to past civilizations. Satellite photos of the Indus Valley Civilization believed to date to 3300-1700 B.C., show very detailed figures engaged in what appears to be a yoga pose. These figures like the others in Indus are so large it is only possible to view them miles above the earth.
Those who study yoga divide the history when the practice was developed into four periods, Vedic, pre-classical, classical, and post-classical. Because yoga is so steeped in mystical application, there will no doubt always remain some discussion about these early periods, and whether all early practitioners studied along the same lines.
The Vedic period is so called because it is based on the ancient texts of Vedas. These are believed to be the oldest Hindu scriptures in the world. In Sanskrit the word, Veda means knowledge. Also known with the suffix “rig” meaning praise the rig Vedas is therefore a book of praise and knowledge of a higher power. This type of yoga is sometimes also referred to as Archaic Yoga. It is theorized by scholars that during this period of time people embraced a ritualistic way of existence. Around the world early civilizations practiced rituals, ceremonies, and even sacrifices in order to feel a stronger connection to the supernatural or spiritual world around them. Vedic yogis were those who made this connection to this other reality through vision, chants, and meditation.
Pre-Classic denotes the time roughly 2,000 years before the second century. While shamanistic religions are focused on a sense of community, most philosophic disciplines reach a point of self-discovery and in the pre-classic period of yoga, texts called the Upanishads detailed an approach to self and a quest for this reality of self. There are over 200 of these Gnostics text some like the Bhagavad-Gita were composed as early as 500 B.C. It is at this point scholars make the case that yogic beliefs infused with other developing philosophies. Lord Buddha according to Buddhist scriptures was the first Buddhist to engage in the study of yoga. Many of the same principles of yogic thought are found in other Hindu religions and faiths.
The classic period begins in the second century yoga sutras consisting of 195 aphorisms that were taught to practitioners by memorization. While there is no written record of these from that time there is Sanskrit commentary regarding the sutras in the 15th century. Classical period teaching centered on the belief that individuals are unique and composed of matter and spirit, and that yoga could bring the spirit to actuality.
Postclassical yoga emphasis lay in the practice of meditation and self-contemplation. Control of both mind and body was considered a way to reach a perfecting of both, or to merge with what they considered as the infinite. Yogis concentrated practice on rejuvenating the healing the body through movement. Hatha yoga as it is practiced now in the west was constructed through these beliefs.
This philosophy traveled to the west when the disciples of Swami Vivekananda and others traveled to areas of Europe where yogic concepts were met with interest. In America, schools teaching the principles of Hatha yoga became a beloved trend in the 1960’s, and today schools are easily found in almost every major city in the United States.