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By Jolene Cherry Yoga Teacher
For those of us who view yoga practice as an essential aspect of our being, or even the casual practitioners, you may be surprised to learn that the earliest mentions of yoga contrast significantly with Hatha Yoga, or what Western civilization views as modern yoga. Don’t let this revelation discourage you. Instead, view the evolution of yoga throughout the ages as a tree with many roots and branches spreading in various directions yet grounded in the same earth.
This article delves into the history of yoga and how in the last 200 years it has infused itself with the American fitness world. As you will come to learn, at one point in time, yoga either focused on the spirit or mind rather than incorporating techniques and poses that concurrently align our physical, mental, and spiritual energy.
Nascent yoga first appears in Northern India over 5,000 years ago in the sacred text Rig Veda. Additional Sanskrit texts, such as the Upanishads, view yoga as a tool to connect the physical body with the spirt in an attempt to access the divine. At this time, the concepts focus on philosophy, worship, and meditation rather than a physical practice.
Eight Limbs of Yoga
Around 150 BCE, the sage Patanjali outlined the Eight Limbs of Yoga in a collection of lifestyle truths known as the Yoga Sutras. Patanjali explores yoga as “the restraint of the modifications of the mind” through a variety of approaches such as breath control, meditation, and physical postures.
The third limb, asana, focuses on physical poses, though primarily from a seated position. It would not be until the 1800s when asana starts to take the initial shape of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.
During its key developmental years, modern yoga was influenced by a variety of factors, including European bodybuilding as well as the royal family of the Mysore Palace. A Mysore prince encouraged yoga practice, and under his rule, the Sritattvanidhi was written. The text includes over 122 yoga poses with instructions as well as illustrations and focuses primarily on asana practice. Asana refers to a posture or pose. Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga teaches a sequence and series of asanas (poses) in a precise order and is a style of Hatha Yoga.
In the 1920s, yoga master Tirumalai Krishnamacharya developed a yoga style intended to improve strength and stamina. His philosophies and teaching were highly influential and produced three students that would help shape yoga into what it is today.
Yoga in America
Several yoga personalities can take credit for expanding yoga throughout the United States. In 1947, Indra Devi found success in Hollywood when she opened her yoga studio. The cultural revolution of the 1960s encouraged self-discovery and socially embraced alternative forms of exercise, further opening the door for yoga in the West.
B.K.S. Iyengar, a student of Krishnamacharya, capitalized on the fitness boom in the 1970s and removed some of the negative stigma associated with yoga practice. His publication Light on Yoga, a dense guide to 200+ poses with 600 photos, has become the quintessential manuscript for instructors and practitioners alike.
Yoga has experienced enormous growth in America within the last two decades, especially as consumers adopt healthier habits. As of today, well, over 36 million Americans do yoga in some capacity. Styles cater to every personality, and studios are popping up all over communities to meet demand. Though yoga is grounded in tradition, it undoubtedly will continue to evolve in the years to come.
About Jolene Cherry: Jolene Cherry is the go-to yoga instructor and personal trainer in Portland, Oregon, for those looking to reach physical fitness and harmony in life. Combining her passion for travel, physical fitness, and meditation, she studied with renowned yoga instructors in Thailand as well as Hawaii. Jolene also offers guidance for healthy nutrition to strike a perfect balance in your life.
First documented pose
During this timespan, the first poses were recorded on stone tablets.
Tantra philisophy emerges
Tantra philosophy is the philosophy that the body is a temple and a spiritual vessel. The spiritual way of life that emerges from Tantra philosophies includes women and other members of society that previously had been barred from spiritual ritual. Tantra way of life was the first example of equality in spirituality, and it is the roots for the modern yogi.
The Sanskrit word veda means “knowledge,” while the Sanskrit term rig (from ric) means “praise.” Thus the sacred Rig-Veda is the collection of hymns that are in praise of a higher power. This collection is in fact the fountainhead of Hinduism, which has around one billion adherents today. You could say that the Rig-Veda is to Hinduism what the Book of Genesis is to Christianity. The yogic teachings found in the above-mentioned Rig-Veda and the other three ancient hymnodies are known as Vedic Yoga.
It is clear from what has been said thus far that Vedic Yoga—which could also be called Archaic Yoga—was intimately connected with the ritual life of the ancient Indians. It revolved around the idea of sacrifice as a means of joining the material world with the invisible world of the spirit. In order to perform the exacting rituals successfully, the sacrificers had to be able to focus their mind for a prolonged period of time. Such inner focusing for the sake of transcending the limitations of the ordinary mind is the root of Yoga.
When successful, the Vedic yogi was graced with a “vision” or experience of the transcendental reality. A great master of Vedic Yoga was called a “seer”—in Sanskrit rishi. The Vedic seers were able to see the very fabric of existence, and their hymns speak of their marvelous intuitions, which can still inspire us today.
History of Yoga
The Vedas are said to be revealed knowledge, or Shruti (that which is heard), as opposed to Smriti (that which is remembered). The Vedas were said to have been revealed to sages or Rishis while in deep mediation. The Mahabharata states that the Vedas were created by Brahma.
History of Yoga – Veda means knowledge and is derived from the Sanskrit root vid which means ‘to know’. It is said in the Vedic tradition that knowledge is not just intellectual, but also from experience. Thus a Guru would have had direct experience with the subject matter they wrote about.
History of Yoga – Yoga Dharma
Originally the Vedas were spoken and passed on orally. So, it is said a Guru would gather a group of students and teach them what was perceived through meditation and trance. The students would then practice what they had heard (Shruti).
The Guru, or teacher, would have had first-hand experience, and then passed his learnings onto his students, who heard it. Eventually the students would go on to teach, and so this is knowledge not by direct revelation, but as something remembered (Smriti).
To recap Shruti is knowledge gained by first-hand experience and Smriti is knowledge, which is held by memory, which is passed on via stories. Later comes another method called Sutra, which means thread. It is said as a teacher passed on knowledge, students noted down some important aspects, which then needed a commentary to explain the full meaning to the average man.
THE FOUR VEDAS
The four Vedas are: The Rigveda, The Yajurveda, The Samaveda and The Atharaveda. Each Veda is subdivided into four parts: The Samhitas (prayers & rituals) The Brahmanas (codes of ethics for householders) The Aranyakas (household duties completed) The Upanishads (texts on philosophy, meditation & spiritual knowledge).
Swami Satyananda Saraswati considers the Vedas to be the most ancient literature in man’s library. In an article he estimates they are over 45,000 years old. Further more he states:
“Geographical references in many passages of the Vedas which differ completely with the geography existing today. The great astronomers have also studied some of the passages in the Vedas and found references to astrological conjunctions which occurred as far back as one hundred thousand years ago”
It is assumed that the Vedic hymns were revealed over different locations and time periods during the History of Yoga.
“Many of these hymns seem to have come down from the Arctic zone in the North Pole. Now, of course, this region is full of ice and snow, but once upon a time an advanced civilization of great culture and learning existed there”
Although most all the Vedas are full of references to the Himalayas and the Ganga and Yamuna rivers.
PRE CLASSICAL YOGA
Yoga is said to becoming more systemised during this period, with the beginnings of Buddhism, Jainism and the śramaṇa movement. Upanishads such as the Bhagavad Gita emerge furthering the concepts of Karma and Bhakti as a path for Moksha.
Classical Yoga is the time of Patanjalis Yoga Sutras, which systemises Yoga through its eight limbs. The Yoga Yajnavalkya also emerges from this period, which is set as a dialogue between Yajnavalkya and his consort Gargi. The Yoga Yajnavalkya discusses many of the concepts in Patanjalis Sutras, but goes further with more instruction, and discusses Kundalini.
THE HISTORY OF YOGA – MIDDLE AGES
Many sub traditions of Yoga emerged at this time including Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga includes the physical practices of Bandhas, Mudras and Shat Karmas to prepare the body and mind for the release of Kundalini.
THE HISTORY OF YOGA – MODERN YOGA
Swami Vivekananda brought Yoga to the West in the 1890’s but did not involve Asana. Yoga which focuses on Asana is said to have started with Krishnamacharya in the 1920’s to 1950’s. Students of Krishnamacharya included Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. Pattabhi Jois created the Ashtanga Vinyasa system of Hatha Yoga.
This is a very brief summery of the history of Yoga.Pocket Yoga Teacher on sale at Amazon
1890s. So when did yoga became the regiment of health freaks? For thousands of years, the term “yoga” encompassed many things, most of them religious and/or spiritual. But in the mid-19th century, yoga came to the attention of Westerners, who at the time seemed intrigued by Indian culture. We can perhaps attribute yoga’s popularity in the West to Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu monk who toured Europe and the U.S. in the 1890s to spread knowledge about Hinduism among intellectuals.
Vivekananda was responsible for bringing the Yoga Sutras more into the light, as well. These were writings of Patanjali, comprised sometime around 400 AD to describe what he believed were the main yoga traditions of his time. The Yoga Sutras focused mainly on removing all excess thought from the mind and focusing on a singular thing but they were later incorporated more heavily than any other ancient yoga writings in modern, “corporate” yoga.
Patanjali: At times referred to as the "father of yoga," Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras. CC BY-SA 3.0
20th century. Hatha yoga as a practice (what we’re most familiar with now) didn’t become a commonplace exercise in the U.S. until the 1930s and 40s, and finally reached a peak in the 60s, when Hindu spirituality became far more popular among young Americans. Numerous Indian teachers of yoga taught classes in the U.S., and in the 1980s it became even more popular due to the first health benefits being reported. This was the first time that yoga was seen as a practice with purely physical benefits, something that can improve your heart health and fitness, rather than bring you to a place of transcendence.
21st century. The popularity of yoga in the U.S. has increased throughout the decades, rising from 4 million in 2001 to 20 million in 2011. Since then, plenty of scientific studies have found that yoga comes with a flurry of health benefits: It reduces high blood pressure, depression, chronic pain, and anxiety. It also improves cardiac function, muscle strength, and circulation.
Today, at least in the Western world, yoga is seen as another exercise class to take at the gym, something that will make your muscles sore for days afterward or at least de-stress you. But perhaps knowing at least a little bit about yoga’s ancient spiritual origins — something that has outlasted thousands of years — will help you glean something even more from it.
Yoga is now an international trend, seen as both a ways to reach spiritual enlightenment and a form of exercise. Reuters
December 2014. The United Nations General Assembly marked June 21 International Yoga Day, an annual celebration to incorporate yoga and meditation more into humanity all over the world. As the Dalai Lama notes: “If every 8-year-old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.”
The Ancient & Modern Roots of Yoga
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The pale winter sunlight shone from the high windows of the Cambridge University library onto a dark leather book cover. In the hall full of silent scholars, I opened it and leafed through picture after picture of men and women in familiar postures. Here was Warrior Pose there was Downward Dog. On this page the standing balance Utthita Padangusthasana on the next pages Headstand, Handstand, Supta Virasana, and more—everything you might expect to find in a manual of yoga asana. But this was no yoga book. It was a text describing an early 20th-century Danish system of dynamic exercise called Primitive Gymnastics. Standing in front of my yoga students that evening, I reflected on my discovery. What did it mean that many of the poses I was teaching were identical to those developed by a Scandinavian gymnastics teacher less than a century ago? This gymnast had not been to India and had never received any teaching in asana. And yet his system, with its five-count format, its abdominal “locks,” and its dynamic jumps in and out of those oh-so-familiar postures, looked uncannily like the vinyasa yoga system I knew so well.
Time passed, and my curiosity nagged at me, leading me to do further research. I learned that the Danish system was an offshoot of a 19th-century Scandinavian gymnastics tradition that had revolutionized the way Europeans exercised. Systems based on the Scandinavian model sprang up throughout Europe and became the basis for physical training in armies, navies, and many schools. These systems also found their way to India. In the 1920s, according to a survey taken by the Indian YMCA, Primitive Gymnastics was one of the most popular forms of exercise in the whole subcontinent, second only to the original Swedish gymnastics developed by P.H. Ling. That’s when I became seriously confused.
Ancient or Modern? The Origins of Yoga
This was not what my yoga teachers had taught me. On the contrary, yoga asana is commonly presented as a practice handed down for thousands of years, originating from the Vedas, the oldest religious texts of the Hindus, and not as some hybrid of Indian tradition and European gymnastics. Clearly there was more to the story than I had been told. My foundation was shaken, to say the least. If I was not participating in an ancient, venerable tradition, what exactly was I doing? Was I heir to an authentic yoga practice, or the unwitting perpetrator of a global fraud?
I spent the next four years researching feverishly in libraries in England, the United States, and India, searching for clues about how the yoga we practice today came into being. I looked through hundreds of manuals of modern yoga, and thousands of pages of magazines. I studied the “classical” traditions of yoga, particularly hatha yoga, from which my practice was said to derive. I read a swath of commentaries on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra the Upanishads and the later “Yoga Upanishads” medieval hatha yoga texts like the Goraksasataka, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and others and texts from the Tantric traditions, from which the less complex, and less exclusive, hatha yoga practices had arisen.
Scouring these primary texts, it was obvious to me that asana was rarely, if ever, the primary feature of the significant yoga traditions in India. Postures such as those we know today often figured among the auxiliary practices of yoga systems (particularly in hatha yoga), but they were not the dominant component. They were subordinate to other practices like Pranayama (expansion of the vital energy by means of breath), dharana (focus, or placement of the mental faculty), and nada (sound), and did not have health and fitness as their chief aim. Not, that is, until the sudden explosion of interest in postural yoga in the 1920s and 1930s, first in India and later in the West.
When Asana Migrated to the Western World
Yoga began to gain popularity in the West at the end of the 19th century. But it was a yoga deeply influenced by Western spiritual and religious ideas, representing in many respects a radical break from the grass-roots yoga lineages of India. The first wave of “export yogis,” headed by Swami Vivekananda, largely ignored asana and tended to focus instead on pranayama, meditation, and positive thinking. The English-educated Vivekananda arrived on American shores in 1893 and was an instant success with the high society of the East Coast. While he may have taught some postures, Vivekananda publicly rejected hatha yoga in general and asana in particular. Those who came from India to the United States in his wake were inclined to echo Vivekananda’s judgments on asana. This was due partly to long-standing prejudices held by high-caste Indians like Vivekananda against yogins, “fakirs,” and low-caste mendicants who performed severe and rigorous postures for money, and partly to the centuries of hostility and ridicule directed toward these groups by Western colonialists, journalists, and scholars. It was not until the 1920s that a cleaned up version of asana began to gain prominence as a key feature of the modern English language-based yogas emerging from India.
This cleared up some long-standing questions of mine. In the mid-1990s, armed with a copy of B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, I had spent three years in India for yoga asana instruction and was struck by how hard it was to find. I took classes and workshops all over India from well-known and lesser-known teachers, but these catered mostly to Western yoga pilgrims. Wasn’t India the home of yoga? Why weren’t more Indians doing asana? And why, no matter how hard I looked, couldn’t I find a yoga mat?
Building Strong Bodies
As I continued to delve into yoga’s recent past, pieces of the puzzle slowly came together, revealing an ever-larger portion of the whole picture. In the early decades of the 20th century, India—like much of the rest of the world—was gripped by an unprecedented fervor for physical culture, which was closely linked to the struggle for national independence. Building better bodies, people reasoned, would make for a better nation and improve the chances of success in the event of a violent struggle against the colonizers. A wide variety of exercise systems arose that melded Western techniques with traditional Indian practices from disciplines like wrestling. Oftentimes, the name given to these strength-building regimes was “yoga.” Some teachers, such as Tiruka (a.k.a. K. Raghavendra Rao), traveled the country disguised as yoga gurus, teaching strengthening and combat techniques to potential revolutionaries. Tiruka’s aim was to prepare the people for an uprising against the British, and, by disguising himself as a religious ascetic, he avoided the watchful eye of the authorities.
Other teachers, like the nationalist physical culture reformist Manick Rao, blended European gymnastics and weight-resistance exercises with revived Indian techniques for combat and strength. Rao’s most famous student was Swami Kuvalayananda (1883-1966), the most influential yoga teacher of his day. During the 1920s, Kuvalayananda, along with his rival and gurubhai (“guru brother”) Sri Yogendra (1897-1989), blended asanas and indigenous Indian physical culture systems with the latest European techniques of gymnastics and naturopathy.
With the help of the Indian government, their teachings spread far and wide, and asanas—reformulated as physical culture and therapy—quickly gained a legitimacy they had not previously enjoyed in the post-Vivekanandan yoga revival. Although Kuvalayananda and Yogendra are largely unknown in the West, their work is a large part of the reason we practice yoga the way we do today.
The other highly influential figure in the development of modern asana practice in 20th-century India was, of course, T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), who studied at Kuvalayananda’s institute in the early 1930s and went on to teach some of the most influential global yoga teachers of the 20th century, like B.K.S. Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi, and T.K.V. Desikachar. Krishnamacharya was steeped in the traditional teachings of Hinduism, holding degrees in all six darshanas (the philosophical systems of orthodox Hinduism) and Ayurveda. But he was also receptive to the needs of his day, and he was not afraid to innovate, as evidenced by the new forms of asana practice he developed during the 1930s. During his tenure as a yoga teacher under the great modernizer and physical culture enthusiast Krishnarajendra Wodeyar, the maharajah of Mysore, Krishnamacharya formulated a dynamic asana practice, intended mainly for India’s youth, that was very much in line with the physical culture zeitgeist. It was, like Kuvalayananda’s system, a marriage of hatha yoga, wrestling exercises, and modern Western gymnastic movement, and unlike anything seen before in the yoga tradition.
These experiments eventually grew into several contemporary styles of asana practice, most notably what is known today as Ashtanga vinyasa yoga. Although this style of practice represents only a short period of Krishnamacharya’s extensive teaching career (and doesn’t do justice to his enormous contribution to yoga therapy), it has been highly influential in the creation of American vinyasa, flow, and Power Yoga-based systems.
So where did this leave me? It seemed clear that the styles I practiced were a relatively modern tradition, with goals, methods, and motives different from those traditionally ascribed to asanas. One only has to peruse translations of texts like the Hatha Tattva Kaumudi, the Gheranda Samhita, or the Hatha Ratnavali, to see that much of the yoga that dominates America and Europe today has changed almost beyond recognition from the medieval practices. The philosophical and esoteric frameworks of premodern hatha yoga, and the status of asanas as “seats” for meditation and pranayama, have been sidelined in favor of systems that foreground gymnastic movement, health and fitness, and the spiritual concerns of the modern West. Did this make the yoga I was practicing inauthentic?
This was not a casual question for me. My daily routine during those years was to get up before dawn, practice yoga for two and a half hours, and then sit down for a full day researching yoga history and philosophy. At the end of the day, I would teach a yoga class or attend one as a student. My whole life revolved around yoga.
I went back to the library. I discovered that the West had been developing its own tradition of gymnastic posture practice long before the arrival of Indian asana pioneers like B.K.S. Iyengar. And these were spiritual traditions, often developed by and for women, which used posture, breath, and relaxation to access heightened states of awareness. Americans like Cajzoran Ali and Genevieve Stebbins, and Europeans like Dublin-born Mollie Bagot Stack, were the early 20th-century heirs to these traditions of “harmonial movement.” Newly arrived asana-based yoga systems were, naturally, often interpreted through the lens of these preexisting Western gymnastic traditions.
There was little doubt in my mind that many yoga practitioners today are the inheritors of the spiritual gymnastics traditions of their great-grandparents far more than they are of medieval hatha yoga from India. And those two contexts were very, very different. It isn’t that the postures of modern yoga derive from Western gymnastics (although this can sometimes be the case). Rather, as syncretic yoga practices were developing in the modern period, they were interpreted through the lens of, say, the American harmonial movement, Danish gymnastics, or physical culture more generally. And this profoundly changed the very meaning of the movements themselves, creating a new tradition of understanding and practice. This is the tradition that many of us have inherited.
Crisis of Faith
Although I never broke off my daily asana practice during this time, I was understandably experiencing something like a crisis of faith. The ground on which my practice had seemed to stand—Patanjali, the Upanishads, the Vedas—was crumbling as I discovered that the real history of the “yoga tradition” was quite different from what I had been taught. If the claims that many modern yoga schools were making about the ancient roots of their practices were not strictly true, were they then fundamentally inauthentic?
Over time, however, it occurred to me that asking whether modern asana traditions were authentic was probably the wrong question. It would be easy to reject contemporary postural practice as illegitimate, on the grounds that it is unfaithful to ancient yoga traditions. But this would not be giving sufficient weight to the variety of yoga’s practical adaptations over the millennia, and to modern yoga’s place in relation to that immense history. As a category for thinking about yoga, “authenticity” falls short and says far more about our 21st-century insecurities than it does about the practice of yoga.
One way out of this false debate, I reasoned, was to consider certain modern practices as simply the latest grafts onto the tree of yoga. Our yogas obviously have roots in Indian tradition, but this is far from the whole story. Thinking about yoga this way, as a vast and ancient tree with many roots and branches, is not a betrayal of authentic “tradition,” nor does it encourage an uncritical acceptance of everything that calls itself “yoga,” no matter how absurd. On the contrary, this kind of thinking can encourage us to examine our own practices and beliefs more closely, to see them in relation to our own past as well as to our ancient heritage. It can also give us some clarity as we navigate the sometimes-bewildering contemporary marketplace of yoga.
Learning about our practice’s Western cultural and spiritual heritage shows us how we bring our own understandings and misunderstandings, hopes and concerns to our interpretation of tradition, and how myriad influences come together to create something new. It also changes our perspective on our own practice, inviting us to really consider what we’re doing when we practice yoga, what its meaning is for us. Like the practice itself, this knowledge can reveal to us both our conditioning and our true identity.
Beyond mere history for history’s sake, learning about yoga’s recent past gives us a necessary and powerful lens for seeing our relationship with tradition, ancient and modern. At its best, modern yoga scholarship is an expression of today’s most urgently needed yogic virtue, viveka (“discernment” or “right judgment”). Understanding yoga’s history and tangled, ancient roots brings us that much closer to true, clear seeing. It may also help to move us to a more mature phase of yoga practice for the 21st century.
Mark Singleton holds a PhD in divinity from Cambridge University. He is the author of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice.
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A Brief History of Yoga
When you hear the word ‘yoga,’ chances are that an image of people twisting in one presumably painful yoga posture after another might pop up in your head. Yes, postures or asanas are an important part of the teachings of yogic philosophy and yogic practice, but they aren’t all that there is to it. So, how well do you really know yoga ? The world celebrates International Day of Yoga every year in June, so let’s unravel the mysteries surrounding this system of techniques from ancient India.
In the hierarchy of ancient vedas from Indian philosophy, there are four vedas developed by yoga gurus- Rigveda, Samveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda. These are followed by four upvedas or sub-vedas – Ayurveda, Arthaveda, Dhanurveda, and Gandharvaveda. Further down the line are six upangas or components – Shiksha, Kalpa, Vyakarana, Nirukta, Chandas, and Jyotisha. These are further classified into six sub-components – Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Sankhya, Mimansa, Vedanta, and Yoga.
The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means union of the individual yoga practitioners and universal consciousness. The Rigveda is one of the oldest and most sacred books in human history, having been written 8-10 thousand years ago. Classical yoga is a part of this Vedic literature and was propounded by Maharishi Patanjali nearly 5000 years ago. In Patanjali’s yoga sutras, he elucidated eight limbs of yoga practice, namely - Yama (social ethics), Niyama (personal ethics), Asana (postures), Pranayama (life force), Pratyahara (turning the senses inwards), Dharana (one-pointed focus), Dhyana ( meditation ), and Samadhi (merging with the self).
Classical yoga encompasses different schools of philosophy, for example Gyan yoga, Bhakti yoga, Karma yoga, Hatha yoga, Raj yoga, Mantra yoga, Shiva yoga, Naad yoga, Laya yoga and many more. Of these, the art of asana is part of the Hatha yoga tradition. Somehow, in today’s age yoga practice has come to be associated with only Hatha yoga physical postures whereas the central teaching of yoga philosophy is maintaining an equanimous state of mind. The Bhagavad Gita says in this yoga sutra, “Yogah Karmasu Kaushalam” or ‘yoga is skill in action and expression.’
Hatha yoga, as taught in modern yoga, promotes physical as well as mental being through the medium of asanas. The different types of yoga are like spokes in a wheel and are all equally important for the overall development of an individual. While Hatha yoga, as taught in schools such as Iyengar, endows the yogi with physical fitness, other types of practice empower us with wisdom, devotion, etc. This holistic approach towards one’s development was highly respected in the Vedic period as well as the Middle Ages, but was confined only to the royal and scholarly caste. It was only taught to students after passing a rigorous test.
However, the past few decades have seen modern yoga going through a complete transformation. From being frowned upon to being hailed as one of the best natural therapies out there, yoga practice has come a long way. The barriers of caste, creed and social status have been uprooted from yoga history to bring it to every home. The benefits of yoga therapy have not gone unnoticed in the international community and the United Nations has passed a resolution to celebrate June 21st as the International Yoga Day.
Yoga practice isn’t just exercise, it’s how skillfully we communicate and act in any given situation. So here, yoga is described more as a mind skill. In this sutra from the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says, “Samatvam Yoga Uchyate”– equanimity in the mind is a sign of yoga. The ability to remain centered in adverse situations is yoga. Whatever brings us back to our nature, which is harmony and joy, is yoga. While physical practice of postures make the body healthy, pranayama and meditation take the mind deep within to the soul’s ancient roots. Uniting diverse aspects of life, of existence is yoga.
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Posture-Based Yoga Emerges in Early 20th Century
The rise of the now ubiquitous posture-based forms of yoga occurred in the early 20th century, as Mark Singleton describes in his 2010 book Yoga Body. This is when Indian traditions of hatha or physical yoga were merged with Western forms of physical culture. One of the most important of the figures in this renaissance was Swami Kuvalayananda (1883-1966), who helped to frame yoga and its practical benefits in medical science.
Vivekananda himself had a complicated and contradictory relationship to hatha yoga. In conversations with his disciples, Vivekananda revealed that in early 1890 he attempted to study hatha yoga to remedy his poor health but withdrew before he was initiated into the practice after a disapproving vision of his late master Ramakrishna.
While Vivekananda was dismissive of hatha yoga to his American audienceslling it “gymnastics” and “queer breathing exercises”—he likely taught some postures to a small group of his dedicated students in New York.
He may not have popularized yoga single-handedly, but Vivekananda was undoubtedly important in helping set the stage for yoga’s modern iterations. According to Suzanne Newcombe, a lecturer in Religious Studies at the Open University in the UK and author of Yoga in Britain, Vivekananda “marks a turning point in how Indian religiosity was understood outside of India.”
Vivekananda inspired and provided a model for several other South Asian teachers to follow his example and come to the United States over the next few decades. Among them was Yogananda, the founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship and author of Autobiography of a Yogi.
Preserving a Legacy
Today Desikachar extends his father’s legacy by overseeing the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, India, where all of Krishnamacharya’s contrasting approaches to yoga are being taught and his writings are translated and published. Over time, Desikachar embraced the full breadth of his father’s teaching, including his veneration of God. But Desikachar also understands Western skepticism and stresses the need to strip yoga of its Hindu trappings so that it remains a vehicle for all people.
Krishnamacharya’s worldview was rooted in Vedic philosophy the modern West’s is rooted in science. Informed by both, Desikachar sees his role as translator, conveying his father’s ancient wisdom to modern ears. The main focus of both Desikachar and his son, Kausthub, is sharing this ancient yoga wisdom with the next
generation. “We owe children a better future,” he says. His organization provides yoga classes for children, including the disabled. In addition to publishing age-appropriate stories and spiritual guides, Kausthub is developing videos to demonstrate techniques for teaching yoga to youngsters using methods inspired by his grandfather’s work in Mysore.
Although Desikachar spent nearly three decades as Krishnamacharya’s pupil, he claims to have gleaned only the basics of his father’s teachings. Both Krishnamacharya’s interests and personality resembled a kaleidoscope yoga was just a small part of what he knew. Krishnamacharya also pursued disciplines like philology, astrology, and music too. In his own Ayurvedic laboratory, he prepared herbal recipes.
In India, he’s still better known as a healer than as a yogi. He was also a gourmet cook, a horticulturist, and shrewd card player. But the encyclopedic learning that made him sometimes seem aloof or even arrogant in his youth—”intellectually intoxicated,” as Iyengar politely characterizes him—eventually gave way to a yearning for communication. Krishnamacharya realized that much of the traditional Indian learning he treasured was disappearing, so he opened his storehouse of knowledge to anyone with a healthy interest and sufficient discipline. He felt that yoga had to adapt to the modern world or vanish.
An Indian maxim holds that every three centuries someone is born to re-energize a tradition. Perhaps Krishnamacharya was such an avatar. While he had enormous respect for the past, he also didn’t hesitate to experiment and innovate. By developing and refining different approaches, he made yoga accessible to millions. That, in the end, is his greatest legacy.
As diverse as the practices in Krishnamacharya’s different lineages have become, passion and faith in yoga remain their common heritage. The tacit message his teaching provides is that yoga is not a static tradition it’s a living, breathing art that grows constantly through each practitioner’s experiments and deepening