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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A Short History of Yoga

By Paula Flood Platinum

The original meaning of the word 'yoga' was not limited to the asanas or postures that are synonymous with Yoga in the West. The word yoga itself means union, and yoga was taken to mean any path which led the spiritual seeker to union with his highest Self, or union of the individual soul with the Universal Soul. In this sense, Yoga can trace its origins far back to the dawn of spirituality, to the time of the ancient Vedic seers, and possibly even before.

Over time, different yogic paths evolved reflecting the different types of human temperament. In the Bhagavad Gita, India's most famous scriptural work, three main types of yoga were described:

  • Bhakti Yoga was for people whose natural spiritual tendency was to approach the Highest through love and worship. In India, Lord Krishna was a central focus for those following bhakti yoga, and the popularity of this path grew in the 15th and 16th centuries through the life and example of such great figures as Sri Chaitanya, Mirabai, and Kabir. This kind of yoga is probably most familiar to us in the West as the approach to God used in Christianity.

  • Jnana Yoga: the path of knowledge, through studying books and scriptures, but more importantly through self-introspection. One famous 20th century jnana yogi, Ramana Maharshi, would commonly ask those seeking his guidance to contemplate on one simple question 'Who am I?'. The Buddha was also a jnana yogi

  • Karma Yoga is for those who wish to make progress through staying in the world; it tells us to act selflessly, without attachment to the results of our actions. It means seeing and serving God in humanity; a familiar example would be the work of Mother Teresa.

The meaning we in the West give to Yoga today stems from the Yoga Sutras, which were written around 200AD by Patanjali and are generally considered to be the classic description of yoga. This text is looked upon as one of the six darshanas, or branches of traditional Indian philosophy. In this text, Patanjali describes an integral system of living called Raja Yoga, which included as one of its components a series of physical postures called asanas. In the West, the term yoga is generally taken to mean the practice of these asanas, which in addition to giving a sense of wellbeing, were also meant to prepare the body to be able to sit for long hours in meditation and contemplation.

A very influential text in the spread of these asanas was the Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika, written in the 14th century by Svatmarama. Hatha Yoga is a broad term usually used to describe the physical postures and breathing (pranayama). In the 16th and 17th century, this kind of yoga grew in popularity and was strongly influenced by Tantric principles.

The spread of yoga in the West can be partly attributed to such spiritual figures as Swami Vivekananda and Paramhansa Yogananda, who first awakened the interest of Western seekers in Eastern philosophy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with their expositions of jnana, bhakti and karma yoga. the promotion of Hatha Yoga in the 1920's by T. Krishnamacharya and the work of his students B.K.S Iyengar, T.K.V Desikachar and Pattabhi Jois have had a profound influence in shaping the yoga performed in today's yoga studios. The physical postures of Hatha Yoga found popularity with people in the West who were seeking physical and emotional balance rather than full-fledged enlightenment, and many styles evolved as individual teachers emphasised different aspects of the practice. For example, Iyengar Yoga emphasises precise alignment in the posture work, whereas Ashtanga Yoga concentrates more on strength and agility.