The origin and development of yoga

The origin of yoga lies hidden in the mists of pre-history. It was slowly evolved and developed by the ancient sages, not only in India but all over the world. However, it has been modified to suit regional languages, social ideas and so on. The essence of yoga was wrapped up in or explained in different symbols, analogies and languages. Some traditions believe that yoga was a divine gift revealed to the ancient sages so that mankind could have the opportunity to realize its divine nature.

Generally the techniques of yoga were passed on from teacher or guru to their disciples by word of mouth. In this way there was a clear understanding of the meaning of the techniques and aims of yoga, for the guru, through his personal experience, could guide the students along the right path and away from any confusion and misunderstanding. In fact, it was only when the various systems of yoga were written down that people began to see contradictions in the teachings. However, these discrepancies are only superficial and arise through misinterpretation. The writers of the classical texts cannot be blamed, for they recorded their ideas on yoga as clearly as possible in order to avoid misinterpretation.

they expounded their ideas with the minimum amount of words so that people would not lose themselves in trying to understand or intellectualize about word meanings, or in other cases they clothed their writings in symbolism and analogies. This was done so that only a person prepared and ready for a teaching would be able to understand the symbolism, if necessary with the help of a guru. However, even though these precautions were taken, many misunderstandings arose, mainly among overly verbose and intellectual scholars who did not have the personal experience to support their commentaries. Unfortunately people have listened to the commentators without resorting to the original texts and the advice of people more in touch with the spirit of yoga. The result has been confusion, and as a consequence many well-intentioned people have performed the most bizarre acts in the name of yoga. Some often quoted examples are walking on fire, sitting in the midday sun and torturing the body in a variety of ways, such as standing on one leg in one place for months on end. The list is endless and could almost be laughable except for the fact that many of these misguided people were so intent and confident in their minds that these are the methods to higher awareness.

The yoga that we now know, that which developed in India, was utilized, at least in its rudimentary form, more than five thousand years ago. In archaeological excavations made in the Indus valley at Harappa and Mohan-jodaro in what is now Pakistan, various statues have been unearthed depicting people practising yoga. They show Lord Shiva (the mythological originator of yoga) and his wife Parvati sitting in various asanas and practising meditation. These ruins were once the dwelling places of people who lived in the so-called pre-vedic age. These discoveries are a definite indicator that yoga was practised in India even before the Aryan civilization invaded and started to flourish in the Indus subcontinent.

The first books to mention yoga were the ancient Vedas. Though scholars are not positive, it is generally felt that these books were written at least four thousand, five hundred years ago. They don't give any specific yogic practices, however, but generally allude to yoga in symbolic form - in fact the verses of the Vedas were uttered by rishis or yogis in states of spiritual bliss and knowledge (samad-hi). It is for this reason that the Vedas are regarded as revealed scriptures - the rishis did not compose the verses but acted in a sense as transmitters through which these revelations were expounded. The Vedas are regarded as the first yogic texts, for they illustrate, even in an indirect manner, the essence of yoga. The word yoga is mentioned in various places in the Vedas, particularly the Rig Veda, but it is generally a vague reference to the meaning of yoga in relation to something else, such as harnessing horses together for example. Of course the terms are symbolic, but one would learn little of yoga as it is understood today by reading the Vedas. Many aspects of yoga are mentioned, such as dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and so on, though in little detail. The Self or consciousness was fully understood as being something beyond the body and mind and yet to be realized within. This is not, however, surprising in view of the fact that the inspiration behind the Vedas is from highly evolved yogis. This higher knowledge transcends all national and language barriers. It is something that has been realized by persons in every part of the world and at every period of history. The seers of the Vedas clearly recognized that there existed a dynamic life principle which they called vayu (prana). They also clearly saw that this prana was closely related to breathing. The Vedas also briefly mention the existence of pranic centres (chakras) within but not of the physical body. The science of sound was clearly recognized for they mention various mantras (psychic sounds) that can be used for the attainment of both material or worldly goals as well as spiritual aims. In this sense they were probably more advanced than the people of today in the science of mantras, for it is only recently that people have begun to understand the power of sound.

In conclusion we can say that the concept of yoga was known in vedic times in one form or another, as it had been for many thousands of years before. This is not surprising, for there have always been people who have aspired and attempted to tune in with higher consciousness and to transcend their limited individuality. However, in all probability the system of yoga was not properly formulated before and during the time of the recording of the Vedas. The experiences of yoga were known but the science of yoga had yet to be systematized.

It is with the advent of the Brahmanas and Upanishads that we begin to see yoga take shape and assume the form that it has today. The Brahmanas are texts which deal mainly with sacrificial and ritualistic practices, though there is a wealth of knowledge and historical information contained within its pages. They mentionjapa (meditative techniques involving chanting of mantras) and mouna (another technique for inducing meditation, which can be translated as 'inner silence') as being two important aspects of yoga2. In these texts the universal mantra Turn is mentioned in written form for the first time, together with its significance. The foundations for the later development of the science of swara yoga (study of the breath and flow of psychic currents and relationship with life) were also laid down, which later led to the classical swara text called Shiva Swarodaya. The development of psychic powers through yoga are also mentioned in the Brahmanas, such as the ability to read other people's thoughts.

It is the Upanishads, however, which put yoga on a firmer foundation. It is in these varied texts that we start to see yoga assume a more definite shape. The Sanskrit word Upanishad is made up from the words shad, 'to sit', upa, 'near' and ni, 'learn'. The whole word can be interpreted to mean sit down near and receive teachings from a master. The word upanishad can also be interpreted as secret teaching. There are believed to have been about two hundred different Upanishads, the oldest of which was written somewhere around 600 B.C. and the most recent as late as the fifteenth century A.D. Traditionally, one hundred and eight of these Upanishads are regarded as authentic, and of these only about twelve or thirteen are regarded as being authoritative. The major Upanishads are the Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chhandogya, Swetasvatara and Brihadaranyaka. They vary enormously in their contents - the Mandukya is the smallest with a mere twelve verses while the Brihadaranyaka and Chhandogya each contain a few thousand words. The Upani-shads are also known as the Vedanta - the culmination of the Vedas, for they are said to contain the essence of the Vedas.

The essential message of the Upanishads is that the Self can only be known through union (yoga) and certainly not by mere speculation and learning. Furthermore, it is emphasized again and again that the Self is not to be realized outside; it is not something separate, but at the very core of our being. The Upanishads use words as a means and not as an end. When asked to define the Self, or consciousness, one of the sages gave the wonderful but very unintellectual or alogical reply: 'neti-neti', which means 'not this, not this'. The Upanishads don't paint a completely rosy picture of the yogic path - effort is required. For as the Katha Upanishad says, the path is as narrow as the razor's edge. There is a similar saying from another great yogi and spiritual teacher, Christ, who said: "Narrow is the way which leadeth unto life (self-realization)."

Many of the Upanishads try to describe the highest spiritual experiences and the illumination or knowledge that they received. To this end they use analogies, stories and sometimes beautiful poetry. Other Upanishads are more practical and describe mental attitudes that must be cultivated and adopted in order to both begin and make progress on the yogic path. Others make brief statements regarding methods that can be practised in order to induce meditation. Many other topics are also discussed.

The Upanishads are numerous and the subjects that they cover too diversified for there to be any full treatment of their contents here. However, we can give a brief summary of the scope of their teachings.

Many of the Upanishads devote much space to describing prana and its implications. The earlier Upanishads - the Brihadaranyaka, Chhandogya, Taittinya, etc., were fully aware of the fact that prana is the substratum behind all life forms. They describe the psychic pathways which exist witbin, but not of the physical body, through which prana flows, including the all important nadis, ida, pingala and sushumna3. In the later Upanishads such as the Prashna and the Katha this theme was further developed. The different forms of prana within the body were mapped out according to the functions performed and it is stated that there are seventy two thousand nadis or pranic channels within the body. The concept of the kundalini (psychic and spiritual power) in the form of a serpent within the body is also indicated.

The early Upanishads, such as the Kena and Isha, began to indirectly develop and formulate the precepts of karma yoga, though it is left to the later Bhagavad Gita to fully expound the essence of karma yoga. It is these Upanishads that first indicate the possibility of treading the yogic path and reaching the culmination while performing one's everyday duties. Until this time there was a tendency to see the yogic and spiritual paths as being completely separate and divorced from worldly pursuits.

Various Upanishads, such as the Prashna and Katha, deal quite extensively with the mantra Aum. In fact the Mandukya devotes its entire commentary to this topic and nothing else. These texts again and again emphasize that meditation can be most easily induced by concentration on Aum. The Mundaka Upani-shad considers Aum as a bow, the individual self as an arrow and Brahman or the Self as the target. If the arrow is aimed with full concentration, then there is no doubt that it will pierce and merge with the target. So it is with Aum that one can attain the highest states of meditation.

The early Upanishads lay down some of the basic rules of raja yoga which were later fully systematized and expounded by Patanjali. In fact, various useful suggestions are mentioned such as the following two examples: "With the body, head and neck held upright, direct your awareness to the heart region; and then Aum will be your boat to cross the river of fear." (Swetasvarara Upanishad)

In fact this is the first time that a sitting pose suitable for meditational practice was specified in a scriptural text. "The supreme path begins when the five senses and the mind are stilled and when the intellect is silent. This tranquillity of the senses is yoga." (Katha Upanishad)

This clearly defines the meaning of the fifth state of raja yoga, pratyahara, where a person's awareness is withdrawn from the external world and the sense organs. In fact, this all important stage is preliminary to the attainment of meditation through raja yoga techniques and is elucidated again and again in the Upanishads.

We have only mentioned some of the earliest Upanishads, and the ones that are regarded as being the most important. There is a goldmine of information on other aspects of yoga in the texts we have mentioned, as well as the large number of so-called minor Upani-shads. For example, the Yoga Chudamani covers a wide range of practical aspects of yoga ranging from asanas and pranayama to psychic centres and self-realization. It also deals with some yogic practices that are part of kriya yoga, though not in much detail. The other Upanishads are also a source of many practical and theoretical principles of yoga. However, the only thing that the Upanishads lack is a systematic treatment and summary of the paths of yoga; they are a conglomeration of profound ideas mixed with various other kinds of information. In fact, we can say that the Upanishads are intended more to inspire than to instruct. During the era of the writing of the Upanishads, right up until quite recently, instructions on practical yoga were always imparted personally by a gum. The writers knew this and so detailed techniques were not recorded. This was left to the discretion of the guru and to later yogic texts.

Though they don't explain yogic practices in any depth, the joy ofhigher awareness shines through the Upanishads as clearly as the midday sun. They tackle sublime questions of existence with the utmost simplicity and directness. The answers they give are revelations in themselves. The Upanishads are such that they can be read by any person in the world with at least some kind of comprehension and empathy, without becoming lost in a haze of over-intellectualization as is so easy with many other scriptures. They are meant to simplify not to complicate.

The Mahabharata and the Ra may ana are the two vast epics which were written about three thousand five hundred years ago, a little before the time of Buddha. The Mahabharata can be roughly translated using a little imagination as 'The Great Book of Indian Culture' and the Ramayana as 'The Path of Rama'. The Mahabharata contains well over one hundred thousand verses and the Ramayayia, though smaller, is still sufficiently bulky to call it more an encyclopaedia than a book. We only intend to give a cursory glance at their contents, for while they propound yoga, they are mainly wrapped in symbolism and stories. Though these two books are works of art in themselves, they don't in the main give a systematic treatment of yoga, apart from the Bhagavad Gita, which we will discuss shortly.

The Ramayana is a particularly popular scripture even today in India. It portrays the life of Rama in poetry of unsurpassed beauty, which is often sung to the accompaniment of music. Though it contains little or no direct instructions on yoga, it conveys in symbolic form the essence of yogic life and the path that must be undertaken in order to attain self-realization. Superficially it deals with the life of Rama, his wife Sita, various other people and the tribulations that they face during life. But in fact, hidden under this thin disguise is a description of the trials and challenges that a yogi must face, both internally and externally, on the path to transcendental awareness.

Another spiritual text called the Yoga Vashishtha is regarded as a direct offshoot and continuation of the Ramayana. This too is a compendium of spiritual inspiration and notable for the depth of its scientific and spiritual ideas. Many scientific ideas only recently promulgated are clearly written in this treatise. The text attempts to explain all aspects of creation and link them ultimately to consciousness. All aspects of life are discussed, from health and disease to happiness and misery. It discusses various methods to attain spiritual realization and emphasizes time and time again the importance of direct perception and experience as opposed to second-hand knowledge. It speaks of various yogic paths, in particular the path of meditation and jnana. Pranayama is also recommended as a method of controlling the mind and inducing meditation. It is not, however, a book to be read by beginners of yoga, for although it is a goldmine of knowledge and beautiful poetry, it does not map out in any detail the path to be taken. It is essentially devoid of practical aspects of yoga and is really intended for people who already have a knowledge of yogic techniques and have had higher experiences.

The Mahabharata contains many passages which directly relate to yoga interposed in its main theme - the military struggles during a certain period of Indian history. However, the essence of its teachings is contained in the world famous section called the Bhagavad Gita. It is a poem of seven hundred verses in which Arjuna, a great warrior, is instructed in the practice of yoga by Krishna, incarnation of God, who assumes the role of charioteer during the main battle of the epic. Though its text can be easily seen as contradictory by over-intellectual analysis or an over-literal interpretation, it has been and still is a source of inspiration and guidance to those following the path of yoga. As one makes progress along the yogic path, so one sees more and more layers of wisdom emerge from its pages; it continually unfolds higher and higher levels of meaning. The apparent contradictions and anomalies slowly fade and one begins to realize what a wonderful text it really is.

The Bhagavad Gita is a yogic scripture par excellence, and is applicable to people throughout the world and in every walk of life. It maps out in concise, but specific manner, the yogic paths of karma yoga (the path of action), jnana yoga (the path of intuition), bhakti yoga (the path of devotion) and dhyana yoga (the path of meditation). In fact, with regard to karma yoga it can be considered the supreme treatise.

It is in the Bhagavad Gita where we really see that yoga is for everyone and not for the recluse. Before the writing of this text there was a tendency to regard yoga as unworldly and unconnected with daily life. It is the Bhagavad Gita that urges everyone to start practising yoga here and now, and not to consider it something to be practised on retirement from one's responsibilities or some time in the future when the opportunity presents itself. It is to be practised now as an integral part of one's life. Another important aspect of the Bhagavad Gita is that it blends all die different aspects of yoga into a comprehensive whole. With the practice of yoga there should not be confinement to one path. In fact this is impossible. Integration of all the different paths is necessary. Though a person might follow one path in particular, the other paths should also be practised where possible. The Gita makes this point very clear. Before the time of writing the Gita, there was a tendency to see separation between the different paths and even to consider some of the paths as mutually exclusive. It is the Gita that formulates the basic structure of the science of yoga as it is known today.

So far we have mainly concerned ourselves with the development of literature on yoga. This must be the case, for we only know with certainty the direction of yogic development by reference to the ancient texts. At the same time, however, yoga was simultaneously being refined and developed by its practitioners and gums, who then passed on their teachings by word of mouth. In fact, it is certainly these people who evolved and improvised yoga practices by their personal experience in an endeavour to achieve the best results. All the texts can do is to reflect current and prevalent ideas.

Since the teachings of yoga were generally passed on orally, its development was haphazard. Different teachers taught different methods so that before it was systematized, yoga was a collection of varied and unrelated techniques, riddled with all types of personal beliefs and superstitions. It is here that the writers of the ancient texts served their greatest purpose by bringing all these different ideas together and integrating them. One of the most successful of these writers was Rishi Patanjali who wrote the text called the Yoga Sutras some time before the birth of Christ. This is still regarded as the classical and authoritative book on raja yoga. In a mere one hundred and ninety six verses, Patanjali has considered the essential philosophy, background, techniques and attainments of raja yoga. In a sense, it can be said that he is the compiler more than the writer, for he took all the important existing practices which were used for many centuries up until his time and united them into one comprehensive and harmonious system. He certainly did not invent the path of raja yoga for its constituents were known in essence since the beginning of the vedic period thousands of years before.

The whole subject of raja yoga is treated in a most scientific manner starting from moral precepts, leading on to the physical and mental aspects and finally self-realization. Some of Patanjali's terse comments on the mind are far ahead even of modern day psychological ideas. In fact the modern trend in psychology is towards adaptation and implementation of the ancient ideas of yoga, particularly those propounded by Patanjali.

The essential foundations of yoga as we now know it were laid down by the time Patanjali had finished writing his Yoga Sutras. Many more texts and developments were to follow, but the stmcture ofyoga was outlined; all that was required was the filling in of the empty spaces. This was done mainly by large numbers of commentators who interpreted and reinterpreted the traditional texts. Often this caused more confusion than clarity, because many differing commentaries arose resulting in controversy and speculation. Nevertheless a few of these scholars did throw some light on the traditional yogic texts. An example is Shankaracharya, who personally interpreted twelve different Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita, as well as writing many original books on yoga such as Viveka Chuda-mani (Crest Jewel ofWisdom),Aparokshanubhuti (Direct Experience of Reality) and the Atma-bodha (Knowledge of the Self). These treatises are masterpieces in themselves. Shankar-acharya was a man who had extensively practised yoga for himself and knew through personal experience the significance of yoga. He was not content, as were so many others, to merely analyze intellectually the science of yoga without personal experience.

There are many other contributors to the development of yoga who we have yet to mention. Bhakti yoga, though practised throughout the eras of yoga, was given a particularly strong boost in the middle ages by such bhakti yogis as Kabir, Tulsidas, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Nam Dev and many more. They all wrote wonderful poetry which even now inflames the heart with its devotional feeling. People such as Kabir not only expres sed their intense love in their poetry, but also interspersed it with clear practical advice on the path of bhakti yoga and other paths.

Large numbers of hatha yoga texts were written throughout the ages. The most well-known of these are the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Shiva Samhita, the Gherand Samhita and many more. These texts give details on asanas, pranayama and other hatha yoga practices, together with techniques for performing mudras, bandhas, etc. However, all the books emphasize that the hatha yoga practices are not specifically aimed at making the body healthy. They are a means to higher ideals, which first demand a healthy body. There are many sages and yogis who have contributed to the growth of yoga, such as the ancient yogis Gorakhnath, Matsyendranath, Janaka, Yajnavalkya, Ashtavakra, Vyasa and so many others, as well as the yogis of recent times such as Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Ramana Ma-harshi, Swami Sivananda and our guru Swami Satyananda. The list is endless. The number of books on yoga runs into the thousands. For example, the Ashtavakra Gita is a sublime text containing the utterances of yogis in advanced states of meditation; the Anu Gita of the Mahabharata, which is said to be a further explanation of the Bhagavad Gita by Krishna to Arjuna, his disciple; the Brahma Sutras, which attempt to consolidate in a condensed form the essence ofthe Upanishads; the Vyasabnasya which gives a masterly commentary on Patan-jali's Yoga Sutras; Narada's Bhakti Sutras, which gives rules for practising bhakti yoga, and so on. And this list grows with every year that passes.

We have only given a brief glimpse of the origin and development of yoga. There is much more to be said, but there is no space, for many volumes would be required and besides, those who are sincerely interested in the history and literature of yoga can take the steps to find out for themselves. For those who want to tread the yogic path, such a deep knowledge is not necessary. The books that we have mentioned contain the essence of yoga and can easily be obtained by anyone who wants to investigate the original yogic texts. However, for personal growth through yoga it is not necessary to read any of these books, for yoga is one hundred percent practice. These techniques are widely available in modern books on yoga, in ashrams and yoga schools and can be learnt from a compre-tent guru, which is the best way.


1 For further information refer to The Structure of Yoga - Book I, Lesson 6, Topic 1

2 Japa - Book II, Lesson 14, Topic 5 Mouna - Book III, Lesson 30, Topic 4

3 Book I, Lesson 4, Topic 3

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