For researchers and historians, the origins of any development go only as far back as can be proven through archeological evidence. As far as that goes, Yoga can be traced to the Indus-Sarasvati civilization in Northern India dating back 3000 or more years – due to the discovery of soapstone seals with yogi-like figures, in the early 1920’s.
However according to yogic lore, Yoga pre-dates this archeological evidence:
“Over fifteen thousand years ago, in the upper reaches of the Himalayas, where the snows are perennial and the skies terrestrial, a man appeared. People gathered in huge numbers around him because his presence was quite extraordinary. They waited for something extraordinary to happen but nothing happened. So everyone left, only seven men stayed. These seven knew that this man had a special quality. Their all-encompassing and unwavering commitment to know was rewarded by this man of extraordinary presence. it is believed that this man became the first one to transmit the science of yoga to these seven highly receptive people. They spent several years under his tutelage and once their study was complete, they were sent to different part of the world to share this wonderful science called Yoga”.
The yogic mythology begins 15000 years ago and leads up to recorded history which begins around 3000 years ago. After that, the history of yoga can be divided into five categories.
This is the realm of the Rig-Veda (In Praise of Knowledge), Yajur-Veda (Knowledge of Sacrifice), Sama-Veda (Knowledge of Chants), and Atharva-Veda (Knowledge of Arthavan-a famous fire priest). The collection of Archaic Yoga forms the basis for the ritual lives of ancient Indians and revolves around sacrifice, chants, and incantations. Although esoteric, the goal remained union with the Creator.
This era covers a period of 2000 years, up to the second century A.D. Slowly transitioning from sacrificial culture of Brahmanas (explain Vedic hymns and rituals) and Aranyakas (specific rituals for ascetics) to the personal journey, the underlying texts now begin to include Upanishads and Bhagavad-Gita. The Upanishads are gnostic texts whose tenet is the unity of all things. Bhagavad-Gita is about actively engaging in life in a benign way, beyond the grip of the ego. Pre-classical yoga which also includes the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and resulted in various schools of yoga whose techniques taught methods for achieving deep meditation in order to transcend the body and mind.
Written sometime in the second century A.D., Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras consolidated the 8 limbs of yoga into a coherent but sometimes cryptic prose comprised of 200 verses in four books. A commentary on the Yoga-Sutras followed in the fifth century A.D. by Vyasa, and provides fundamental explanations to Patanjali’s text. The object of progressing through the 8 limbs remains the same as the predecessor eras of yoga: to understand the underlying duality of life and to collapse them back into Oneness.
The core teaching of Vendata is to affirm the ultimate unity of everything. That singular reality is called Brahman (that which has grown expansive) and Atman (the transcendental Self) collapse in the absence of the ego-identity. In this era the role of the body in yogic practice took a more prominent role and various schools of Tantra-yoga, including Hatha-yoga emerged. The deeper practices aimed to energize the physical body to such a point that it changes human biochemistry.
The milestones of Modern Yoga, and especially as it relates to the development of Yoga in the West are most significantly marked by the following.
- The Parliament of Religions held in 1893 introduced the West to Swami Vivekananda.
- Arrival of Swami Rama Tirtha in California, 1902.
- Arrival of Yogendra Mastamani in Long Beach, 1919 at the behest of his guru Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri.
- Arrival of Paramahansa Yogananda in Boston, 1920.
- Paul Brunton’s introduction of Ramana Maharshi to western seekers in 1934.
- Krishnamurti’s expositions from 1930’s to 1986.
- Indra Devi’s Yoga Studio in Hollywood, 1947.
- Selvarajan Yesudian’s introduction of Yoga into Sports, 1950’s.
- Richard Hittleman’s Hatha Yoga programs on American television, 1961.
- Shrila Prabhupada’s introduction of Bhakti Yoga to America, 1965.
Since the 1960’s, Yoga has flowered into the mainstream and continues to be advocated by renowned Yogis worldwide.
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