What is Yoga anyway?

Sukhasana, July 2016. Copyright Mhairi Davies
Sukhasana, July 2016.
Copyright Mhairi Davies

 ‘I’m off to Yoga!’ is a statement heard most days across the country, as many people attempt to explain where they are going and what they will be doing when they get there.  But is this concept of ‘yoga’ merely an adjective to describe an exercise class we are going to attend, or is there a deeper meaning which keeps an estimated 30 million people practicing yoga on a daily basis.

According to good old Google, yoga is defined as a ‘Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline, a part of which, including breath control, simple meditation, and the adoption of specific bodily postures, is widely practised for health and relaxation.’ This statement seems to cover the most popular notions of what yoga actually is, yet it includes many details over-looked by many Western Practitioners who view yoga as ‘gentle exercises that Britney Spears does.’

A Brief History of Yoga

Yoga has an extensive and detailed history, some say it dates back 10,000 years, but the earliest recorded images were discovered in the Indus Valley and dated back 5000 years.  This archaeological find, has been interpreted as showing a yogi sitting in a meditation posture, and indicates that yoga has indeed been around for quite some time.

The chronological history of yoga can be easily split into 4 distinct eras, each building on the previous one and bringing the practice more in line with what we now consider yoga.

The Vedic Period (1300 BCE) was characterised by the Vedas, a sacred scripture interpreted by Rishis (mystic seers), which did not mention yoga directly but more alluded to it in a symbolic manner through the use of rituals and ceremonies designed to surpass the limitations of the mind.  This is largely believed to be the oldest recorded notion of yoga.

Following this era was the Pre-Classical period (600BCE), where the Upanishads (another important sacred text) expanded on the Vedas to describe the relationship between the ‘ultimate reality’ and our ‘transcendental self’ (soul.) It was also around about this time when Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) began teaching about the importance of meditation and physical postures, as a method towards gaining enlightenment.

Another important yogic text dates back to the Pre-Classical period – the Bhagavad Gita, which is a discussion between Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna regarding how we can avoid difficulties in our lives by beginning to ‘exceed our ego.’  In this text three main elements of yoga are outlined – Bhakti (loving devotion); Jnana (knowledge/contemplation); and Karma (selfless action.)  Many of the elements developed during the Pre-Classical period have become fundamental aspects of the daily yoga practiced by many in the 21st Century.

The third era in the history of yoga is the Classical Period, which dates around 100 BC to 500 BCE.  This is where the emphasis of the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas and the Upanishads were further developed by a series of writers, known as Patanjali, into the Yoga Sutras.  Through the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali outlined the ‘8 limbed path’ of Raja yoga, which is followed in many yoga traditions and schools across the world.

The final stop on our historical tour of yoga brings us to a more Modern age, where yoga has been brought to the Western world by a series of dedicated and devoted teachers.  T Krishnamacharya developed the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, which offers students the benefits of the physical asana practice, while focussing on the flow of breath and employing drishti and bandhas.  His students, K Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar, Indra Devi, Srivatsa Ramaswami and TKV Desikachar, have all contributed positively to the integration of this ancient practise into modern society.

What does this mean for us today?

Ultimately yoga appears on the surface to be simply an exercise class we can attend on a weekly basis and enjoy some deep breathing, stretching and a nice relaxation sequence at the end.  But the complex and detailed history of yoga hints at a deeper reason why we spend so much time on our mats.  While not many students attend classes looking for enlightenment as the ultimate goal, many attain a more peaceful mind and find a way to bring more balance into their stressful lives. Perhaps the when Patanjali wrote about the 8 limbed path to ‘samadhi’ it was a synonym for a peaceful mind with a calm outlook on life.

The mind-body connection cannot be denied and in Western society, where we spend most of our lives living in our minds, there appears to be an innate need to return to a simpler form of taking care of ourselves. Yoga is this method for many people and it is one which the people living in the Indus Valley 5000 years ago seem to have embraced fully.  Perhaps they had the right idea and with all our modern advancements, we have lost the true method to achieve our own ‘samadhi,’ enlightenment or a nice calm peace of mind.