Some definitions of the term Yoga
Let us begin with some of the many definitions that demonstrate the wealth of meanings for the term 'Yoga'.
- "A system of exercises practiced as part of the Hindu discipline to promote control of the body and mind." (1)
- "Yoga is a healing system of theory and practice."(3)
- "A Hindu discipline aimed at training the consciousness for a state of perfect spiritual insight and tranquility that is achieved through the three paths of action and knowledge and devotion." (1)
- "In Hinduism, 'Yoga' refers to one of the six orthodox (āstika) schools of Hindu philosophy." (2)
As the definitions suggest the meaning of the term Yoga. So much depends upon how one understands the word itself. But first lets start with the mystery of the origins of Yoga.
The Yoga Tradition
Like other spiritual traditions, Yoga is steeped in folklore and myth. In this short sketch it will not be possible to explore the full richness of this ancient tradition.
The origins of Yoga
The origin of Yoga seems to occur in the Indus Valley civilization about 5000 years ago. The Harrapan seal of a seated figure, in what appears to be the lotus posture, represents the earliest suggestion of Yoga practices. However, since the Indus script has not yet been deciphered, we can't say for sure what this seal actually represented; we can only imagine the origins.
The Vedic period in Indian history is a fascinating era that centers on one of the world's oldest scriptures, the Rig Veda. Vedic Yoga is based upon its sacred texts, the Vedas, and their rituals. The Vedas are the sacred revelation of many Indian religions. However, there is no direct mention of Yoga in these texts until the authors of the Upanishads begin to describe new forms of mysticism based on mind and breath control.
The first 'historic' use of term Yoga is found in the early Upanisads about 2800 years ago. It referred to asceticism (tapas) - sense, breath and thought control - as a means of acquiring extraordinary powers. The Upanishadic Rishis distanced themselves from ritual Vedic sacrifice and gave importance to personal self-restraint and spiritual discipline - Yoga.
Buddha imbued the Yoga tradition with rationalism and moderation. He rejected the extreme practices of early Yoga and gave greater importance to ethical behaviour and compassion. Non-violence originated with the Jains. Early Buddhist Yoga taught rhythmic breathing and mindfulness meditation within its eightfold path that became the precursor of the ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali.
The Yoga of the Gita
It was during the epic period, when the Mahabharata and Ramayana were first composed, that the Gita appeared and we find some of the first mentions of Bhakti Yoga, the Yoga of devotion. The Gita focuses on three principle Yogas - the Yoga of knowledge (Jñana Yoga), the Yoga of action (Karma Yoga) and the Yoga of devotion (Bhakti Yoga).
In the classical period of Indian culture, Brahmanism established six orthodox schools, called the Dharshanas. One of these, which enunciated the views of Patanjali's Raja Yoga Sutras, was called Yoga or Sankya Yoga. We now refer to this as the Yoga of meditation or mind control.
The paradigmatic changes that arrived with Tantrism, gave rise to many new forms of Yoga. Tantrism affected all of Indian spirituality and led to spiritual experiments unlike those found anywhere else in the world - Tantra Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Mantra Yoga and, the most important of these for the West, Hatha Yoga which considered the 'energy body' as a vehicle to transcendence.
The oldest extant textbook of Hatha Yoga, is the "Hatha Yoga Pradipika", circa 1400 C.E. It claimed that the body, and its subtle potential energies, were the source of all experience, including transcendental consciousness that could be unlocked by the practices of Hatha Yoga.
Theism, Sufism and Yoga
The spirituality of the subcontinent was overcome by theism in its many forms, from monotheism to polytheism. The dominant Yoga became Bhakti Yoga while all other forms fell into decline; however, luckily almost all the older forms of Yoga survived.
With the arrival of the British, Christianity and colonialism brought new influences that found their way into the syncretisms of Yoga in 19th century. Perhaps the best known and most influential of all these syncretisms is that of the Neo-Vedanta of Vivekananda.
The 4 Yogas of Vivekananda
In Vivekanada's view there were four Yogas that he believed corresponded to his typology of human personality. Most modern schools of Yoga accept Vivekananda's categorization of Yoga as - Karma Yoga (Yoga of action), Jñana Yoga (Yoga of Knowledge), Bhakti Yoga (Yoga of devotion) and Raja Yoga (Yoga of mental control).
With the arrival of Yoga in Europe and America in the late 19th century Western discourse began to seep into the Yoga paradigm. Western ethics, scientism, tolerance, relativism and physical culture transformed this ancient practice into a modern transformative technique rooted in traditional wisdom.
In America of the 1980's and 90's, Yoga was considered a holistic form of exercise that addressed body, breath, mind and spirit. This resulted in an almost universal acceptance of Yoga as a complete exercise system, that addresses all human dimensions. Yoga became practiced throughout the world. It was no longer an elite practice of the cognoscenti.
Current Styles of Hatha Yoga
The 20th century saw the development of many new forms of Hatha Yoga. The best known of these are Sivananda Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, and Ashtanga Yoga. However, the development of new styles continues and we can not list all the new variations without leaving out those that have just appeared.
Yoga as Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) or Yoga Therapy
For many Yoga became a form of contemporary therapy. As therapy extended itself to include alternative healing and spiritual practices, Yoga gained the same status. Yoga therapies for many common complaints sprang up.
Because of Yoga's long association with 'preventative medicine', Yoga practices soon were considered a form of complementary and alternative medicine. Just as acupuncture is considered a form of CAM, many now consider Yoga to be in the same category.
The above essay on Yoga is a very brief introduction to the complex history of the concept of Yoga and its innumerable applications. If I have overlooked any form or style of Yoga it is for the sake of brevity.