Yoga has become quite trendy these days as practitioners in their yoga pants and mat head toward the popular yoga studios to attend their weekly yoga session. What many these fashionable yogis probably are unaware of is the long history of yoga dating back to ancient times in India’s and its spiritual roots. Most of what we think of as yoga only dates back 150 years.
While people today practice yoga for their health, its roots are entwined in rich spiritualism that took a lifetime to master. For ancient yogis, yoga was a way of life. Mention of yoga first appeared around 1500 BC in Hindu literature. The first writings, in traditional Sanskrit, the term yoga, which means yoke, frequently refers to a dying warrior rising to heaven and reaching a higher power. The original concept of yoga was clearly to elevate those who deserved it to a higher level, to connect the individual to the universe as a whole.
For ancient Buddhists, yoga wasn’t even a specific discipline. It grew out of the desire to attain spiritual goals and controlling both the mind and the body to achieve this. These spiritual leaders recognized that man is fallible, but always capable of improvement by changing dysfunctional thinking. They recognized the power of the mind to bring about inner peace and alleviate suffering by broadening individual consciousness and becoming open to new ideas. They already understood the basics of the mind/body connection. Yoga, including meditation, was and still is a quest for knowledge.
Ancient practitioners thought, correctly, as it turns out, that knowledge would lead to a higher level of consciousness and existence. Old writings describe several levels of being, with increasing knowledge bringing the practitioner to the next, higher, level. It was viewed as a process which for many encompassed a lifetime of learning. Yoga, the physical part of gaining enlightenment, was to prepare the way to meditation, which was spiritual in nature. The physical side of yoga began to emerge around 500 A.D.
By the third century, yoga was an accepted Buddhist practice involving a spiritual quest through meditation. This is the classical period, where the writings Vyasa introduced the all-important Yoga Sutras, which lists yoga as a precondition for a higher existence. For several centuries, the practice of yoga became an accepted practice to attain important personal values, although it was still far from today’s set of poses.
More meditative, it was intended to help “transcend” human suffering and rise above it. It was also used to broaden, or deepen, consciousness as a path to personal enlightenment. Yoga was seen as a means to overcome destiny and regain control of the self. The beginning of training and controlling the mind is clearly emerging. Up to the 15th century, while the West was in a state of constant strife and war, Eastern Buddhism focused on peace of mind.
The difference between a Western and Eastern mindset is becoming more noticeable. By this time, the emphasis of yoga shifts from transcending pain to reaching a higher plane of existence. Man himself is to become a deity. By the eighth century, hatha yoga, a mix of poses and meditation, came into practice. It is the beginning of “modern” yoga as we know today.