It is a common fact that every practice is grounded in some kind of systematized concept or theory. In order for some “collection of facts” to become a theory, it has to be confirmed through observation and experiment. If one wants to observe and experiment, one has to “know the knowledge” behind it. Hence, observation and experiment are the realm of “doing” – in other words – practice, while “knowing” is a realm of learning – theory. You are probably wondering what does these amateur philosophical reflections of mine have to do with yoga history.. Hold your breath! Rumor has it if you want to know where something is going, it comes in handy to know where it came from. History provides a reference, context and meaning and yoga is no exception to this rule.
What yoga has to offer from a historical point of view?
Yoga pulls its roots from ancient Indian philosophies and its development can be traced back to over 5000 years. It is first mentioned in Vedic texts dating from 1500 BC. In these ancient writings, the unity of matter and energy, the origin of the universe and the action of elementary forces are described and explained. Many of these insights were later confirmed by modern science.
Except in the Vedas, yoga is mentioned in the Upanishads. They comprise more than two hundred texts. The word “upanish” means “sit down” and describes the sitting of disciples next to the teacher with the intention of learning.
One of the most important texts from that time is Bhagavad Gita. It is a philosophical “manual” for heavy category discipline called life. Through metaphors, symbolism, and allegories it gives valuable insights on our duties, responsibilities, rights, ethics, morals, attitudes, actions, challenges and so on.
Another important narrative of the classical period is Yoga Sutras (100-200 AD), They consist of 196 sutras or aphorisms that the teacher explains to the student, describing the eight steps in practicing the yogic lifestyle. It is a guideline for self-realization by means of devotion, discipline, righteousness and mental clarity. Yoga practice, meditation techniques, control of breath, concentration, but also moral and life principles that an individual should follow to be in line with himself and with the world is explained.
Around the 9th century, Hatha yoga appears, from which a great number of asanas (yoga postures) had arisen. One of the most important texts of this period is Hatha Yoga Pradipika created in the 14th century. In this scripts, physical exercises and various meditative techniques are united in order to achieve physical, mental, and spiritual health.
Modern day yoga
As a science and art of health, Hatha yoga was spreading rapidly throughout the East. It was accepted by Buddhists in Tibet, China and Japan before it was introduced to the western world in the late 19th century and generally acknowledged by the middle 20th century. Only 50 years ago, yoga was predominantly male “sport” while today we witness female predominance. In the past decade, the popularity of yoga has risen sharply. It is estimated that today about 300 million people practice some form of yoga worldwide.
So, yes history is important. It gives us a better understanding of the matter, provides lessons, acts as an anchor point and compass on our life journey. But it is the place of reference not a place of residence, as someone once said. And now that we referred to the past we can come back and reside in present. On the yoga mat, where else!