The development of yoga can be traced back to over 5,000 years ago but some researchers think that yoga may be have existed even 10,000 years back. Yoga’s long rich history can be divided into four main periods of innovation, practice and development. These are:
- Pre-Vedic Period
- Vedic period
- Classical Yoga period
- Post-classical Yoga period
The study of the history of Indus valley civilization reveals that the practice of yoga was one of the significant features during this period.
The idols found in the excavation of the harappan civilization reveal the trace of yoga culture in the then society. The idol of pashupati in yogic posture is one of such specimens.
The Vedic Period
This period is marked with the emergence of the Vedas. The vedas are the knowledge par excellence. They form the basis of Hinduism. There are four Vedas:
- Rig Veda
- Sama Veda
- Yajur Veda
- Atharva Veda
The Vedas are generally divided into two sections:
- Karma Kanda (ritual portion)
- Jnana Kanda (knowledge portion)
The Upanishads are contained in the knowledge portion of the Vedas. The germ of the concepts of yoga are widely available in the Upnishads.
The Vedas contain the oldest known yogic teachings called the Vedic Yoga.
During this period, the people relied on the dedicated Vedic Yogis (Rishis) to teach them how to live in divine harmony. The Rishis were also gifted with the ability to see the ultimate reality through their intensive spiritual practice. It was also during this age that the yogis living in seclusion became known.
The Upanishads are the concluding portion and essence of the Vedas. They are also called Vedanta. The Upnishads describe the inner vision of reality resulting in intense self- inquiry. These expound upon three subjects: the jiva (embodied soul), jagat (the world), and Ishwara (God or the creator of the universe). The climax of the enquiry is the experience of the essential identity of an individual soul (atman) within with the ultimate reality (Brahman). The Upanishads expound the teachings of the Vedas. They took the idea of ritual sacrifice from the earlier part of the Vedas and internalized it, teaching the sacrifice of the ego through self- knowledge, action (Karma Yoga) and wisdom (Jnana Yoga). Yogic practices, particularly meditation, are also found in Buddhism and Jainism.
In the pre-classical era, yoga was an incoherent mixture of various ideas, beliefs and techniques that often conflicted and contradicted each other. The Classical Period is defined by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the first systematic presentation of Yoga. Written sometime between the 3rd and 6th century BC, this text describes the path of Ashtanga Yoga, often called “Classical Yoga”. Patanjali organized the practices of yoga into an “eight- limbed path” containing the steps and stages towards obtaining Samadhi or enlightenment.
These eight limbs are:
- Yama – social restraints/observances or ethical values
- Niyama – personal observances / restraints of study, purity and tolerance
- Asanas – physical postures
- Pranayama – control of life-force through breath control or regulation
- Pratyahara – sense withdrawal in preparation for meditation
- Dharana – concentration
- Dhyana – meditation (viii)Samadhi – spiritual absorption
Post-classical Yoga differs from the first three since its focus is more on the present. Harmony in empirical is emphasized upon. At this point, we see a proliferation of literature as well as the practice of yoga. A few centuries after Patanjali, a number of Yoga masters created a system of practices designed to rejuvenate the body and prolong life. They rejected the teachings of the ancient Vedas (though not totally) and embraced the concept of physical body as the means to achieve enlightenment. They developed Tantra Yoga, which consists of radical techniques to cleanse the body and mind to break the knots that bind us to our physical existence. This exploration of physical- spiritual connection and body-centered practices led to the creation of what we today understand as Hatha Yoga.
Evolution of Yoga in the Modern Times
Swami Vivekananda’s remarkable lectures in the West, especially in the Parliament of Religions held at Chicago in 1893, mark the proliferation of yogic culture in the modern times. The eternal message of yoga emanated from the lips of this cyclonic monk had a great influence on the western intelligentsia.
Subsequently, Yoga and its tradition received strong inspiration and impetus due to the pioneering efforts of several legends in India. To list the names of a few:
Babaji Maharaj, Shymacharan Lahiri, Yukteshwar Giri, Swami Yogananda, Madhav das Maharaj, Swami Kuvalayanandaji (Kaivalyadhama Health and Research Institute), T. Krishnamachari (Ashtanga Yoga), Swami Sivananda (Sivananda Yoga), B. K. S. Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga), Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, Shri T. K. V. Desikachar, Swami Ramdevji (Patanjali Yogpeeth, Haridwar), Shri Yogendraji (The Yoga Institute), Swami Satyanandaji (Bihar School of Yoga), Sri Ravi Shankar (The Art of Living), Swami Jaggi Vasudevji (Isha Yoga Center), Swami Rama, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Shri O.P. Tiwari, Dr. Nagendra H R ( SVYASA) so on and so forth.