History of Yoga: Its Origin and Development

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Yoga is known to be a spiritual practice that focuses on bringing harmony between mind and body. The word ‘Yoga’ comes from the Sanskrit root ‘Yuj’, meaning ‘to join’ or ‘to yoke’ or ‘to unite’. Dr. Basavaraddi explained in the article “Yoga: Its origin, history and development” that the purpose of Yoga is to overcome all kinds of sufferings leading to ‘the state of liberation’ or ‘freedom’. Yoga has appeared as a tool with many benefits, including reduced stress, increased relaxation and greater flexibility. Yoga helps to enhance discernment, awareness, self-regulation and higher consciousness.

The origin of Yoga is uncertain, but it is widely acknowledged that the development of Yoga traced back to nearly 5,000 years ago. According to some researchers, Yoga’s history may be 10,000 years old as mentioned in “history of yoga” by Burgin. The archeological evidences, seals and fossils, of Indus Saraswati valley civilization – dating back to 2700 B.C. -suggest the presence of Yoga in ancient India.

This concept of yoga along with its various physical postures or asanas which has got exciting attention globally, has undergone various modifications from the way yoga was originally practiced. Yoga’s long rich history can be divided into six main periods of innovation, practice and development as explained by Dr. Ramajayam in his article “The history of yoga”.

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Pre-Vedic period: Historical evidences, including the illustrations of yoga postures found in the recent excavations at Harappa and Mohenjodaro, Yoga was being practiced in the pre-Vedic period, and thereafter till Patanjali’s period. There are no written records to prove this conclusively; however after Patanjali, a significant number of Sages and Yoga Masters contributed greatly for the preservation and development of the field through their documentations on yoga practices.

Vedic period: Yoga was practiced ritually during the Vedic period to develop concentration and to transcend the mundane. The rituals during this period were quite different from the present practices of yoga. According to the information available in literature, the rituals of this period are close to the definition of yoga: brings peace, purity, consciousness and bliss of the supreme-self in one’s daily life.

Pre-classical period: The Upanishads, Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita contain several references to pre-classical period of yoga. The word Upanishad means to “sit near.” The Upanishads consists of a total of 200 scriptures that describe the inner vision of reality that comes from the worship to Brahman. The Bhagavad Gita mentions many forms of yoga: Jnana yoga, Bhakti yoga, Karma yoga and Raja yoga. In this period, yoga was more of lifestyle rather than breathing or a posture-related practice.

Classical period: The most prominent period in the history and development of Yoga is the classical period. This period can be mainly dedicated to two great religious teachers of India –Mahavir and Buddha. The concept of Five great vows – Pancha mahavrata- by Mahavir and Ashta Magga or eightfold path by Buddha – can be well considered as early nature of Yoga sadhana. The classical period of Yoga is defined by the Yoga Sutra, composed by Patañjali. Yoga has been standardized and presented in an approachable way and Patañjali has often been called the founder of Yoga because of this work.

Post classical period: The followers of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra gave yoga a new outlook during the post classical period by giving greater importance to the asanas, kriyas and pranayama, for cleansing the body and mind. This form of yoga is known as hatha yoga.The teachings of Suradasa, Tulasidasa, Purandardasa, Mirabai were the great contributors during this period.

Modern period: Yoga was introduced globally by Swami Vivekananda. Many renowned yogis like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Paramahamsa Yogananda, Ramana Maharishi influenced the western world significantly through their spiritual accomplishments and gradually yoga was accepted throughout the world as a secular spiritual practice rather than a ritual-based religious doctrine. In present hectic world, yoga practice is believed towards the preservation, maintenance and promotion of health.