The History of Yoga

The story behind a 5,000 year-old art

Yoga is believed to have been born over 5,000 years ago. Its beginnings can be traced back to Stone Age Shamanism, which shares many similarities and was once integral to the Indus-Sarasvati civilization in Northern India - which included the cultures of Modern Hinduism and Mehrgarh (now Afghanistan).

Both countries attempted to heal members of their community with human transcendence. The first archaeological evidence of an archaic type of yoga was excavated in the Indus valley. The stone drawings showed figures performing various yoga postures.

The actual word "yoga" was first mentioned in the Rig Veda, the oldest of sacred texts known to man. The Vedic book dates back to approximately 1,500 BCE. This collection of hymns or mantras defined yoga as a "discipline" or a type of "yoking" (in other words a type of bondage) without going into detail about what exactly these "yoking" practices entailed. In later books "yoga" is mentioned again, but this time as the practice of controlling one's breath.

From approximately 500 BCE to 800 BCE, yoga played a more important role to the Upanishads, the sacred scriptures of ancient Hinduism. The Upanishads (a combination of the words "shad", "upa" and "ni" meant "to sit down" or "to sit below") seemed to imply that the only way a student could become enlightened was to sit at the foot of his teacher. The Upanishads were taught to sacrifice the ego through self-knowledge, action (karma yoga) and wisdom (jnana yoga), instead of through sacrifice as Vedic philosophy believed. There was little that we would call yoga asana practice in the Upanishads. In fact, yoga was more likely a common form of discipline rather then an exercise in relaxation.

The earliest yoga meditation practices were taught by the Maitrayaniya Upanishads in 2nd or 3rd Century BCE. Yoga was defined as a way "to bind, join, connect and attach." The Maitrayaniyas presented yoga in six folds: pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (senses withdraw), dhyana (meditation), dharana (concentration), tarka (contemplation) and samadhi (absorption).

Hatha and tantric yoga, the major branches of yoga, were both developed in the Post-Classical Period, around 1000 CE. Tantra taught students how to cleanse the body, mind and spirit and to break the ties that bind us to any form of physical existence. Modern yoga, or Hatha yoga, is the type of yoga that was introduced to North Americans during the late 19th Century. Rather than aspiring to transcend reality, hatha yoga practitioners learn to accept reality and use physical means (strengthening postures and controlled breathing) in order to attain self-improvement. Yoga has become the science of human beings, because it takes the physical, metaphysical and spiritual aspects of man into account.

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