Yoga - You Don't Need a Shiny Mat or Fancy Leggings! (And no, you don't need to touch your toes!)

Understanding Yoga, its origins and evolution: Some brief notes on the history, key influences, and types of yoga across the years

My final Yoga Teacher Training assignment – a piece on the history of yoga. A topic for me of great interest and intrigue. But also resistance. Resistance caused by the anticipated overwhelm of the subject. And anticipation soon turning into reality as I finally start dipping my toe further into the richness and vast depth of the topic. After a few searches and a bit of research, I realised there is much to unpick. And the history is wrapped together with defining what exactly yoga is. Two huge subjects one could spend a lifetime exploring – much like the practice of yoga itself! Diving deep into sacred texts, philosophy, influencers, stories. And indeed this is likely something I will do throughout my lifetime, likely a pursuit in reflection of my yoga journey to date - delving here, taking a look there - taking my time to dip in and out, intrigued by and following areas of interest gradually over time.

But for now, I do want to dip my toe and begin understanding some of the story of yoga to date. Where it’s come from, how its evolved, key people, points in the timeline, and practices. A brief overview of how yoga has got to where it is today. I have purposely not called this piece ‘The History of Yoga’ - because this one introductory, exploratory piece could not possibly do justice to such a title. In my attempt at outlining some of the key points of the journey of yoga, I want to acknowledge that I will of course miss parts out, and that it is not my intention to disrespect, over-simplify or remove any of the beauty or sacredness of the topic. Instead I am sharing a brief overview of my understanding so far, to help me begin to get to grips with the vast subject – a history stretching over thousands of years that couldn’t possibly all be captured in one short article! I also want to acknowledge that as with many historical investigations, I recognise aspects may be contested or perhaps unclear, and there therefore may be differing interpretations and understandings. For example, some refer to the age of yoga being 3,000 years old, others 5,000 or even 6,000 years old. My ambition with this piece is to attempt to gather information which as I understand it is factually accurate, but I appreciate there may be differing information out there, and I am open to correction and further information and viewpoints to learn more.

Two initial reflections of this subject strike me - firstly the continual and ongoing evolution of the topic of yoga. It has changed and transformed and adapted over time - beautifully mirroring the waves and transitions of life, and indeed my own journey, relationship and practice of yoga. The second is that the understanding and interpretation of what yoga is and how it can be practiced has varied vastly - from the very beginning to today. At first this can be a little confusing (and daunting!) - especially if you are looking for a finite definition of what yoga is. But this in itself is one of it’s great beauties - it can be used and applied in so many different ways, appealing to so many people at different life stages and looking for different things. Again this mirrors my own experience of yoga - initially arriving at the practice to find some relief from stress, evolving into a desire to gently move and exercise, further evolving into more interest in spirituality, life, breath, holistic health... In this way, yoga’s continual evolution and varied interpretations and practices, offers so much to so many. Everyone who shares yoga will do so in their own way at that particular time. Just like life and people, it doesn’t stand still - it is a lifetime practice. A whole lifetime of exploration, learning, growth and change.

Where, how, when did it all begin? - Key early influencing texts

As mentioned, the point at which yoga ‘began’ appears to be contested. What does seem clear is that the concept of yoga is thousands of years old, with it’s origins in ancient times, dating back to the first known sacred texts of India. In these early days there were no poses or exercise. The idea of yoga first included chanting, meditation and ritual.

The Vedas (sacred texts of India) were some of the first texts to talk about yoga. These were written in Sanskrit and refer to yoga philosophy, contemplation and meditation. Later the Vedas were distilled into the Upanishads (late Vedic texts which form the foundations of Hinduism). It is understood the Vedas talked more about ritualistic practice, whereas the Upanishads were more philosophical, knowledge based.

Later saw further influencing texts including Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, and the Bhagavad Gita, part of the Mahabharata Epic (another sacred text of Hinduism). The Yoga Sutra contains 200 Sutras, acting as a guide for yoga philosophy. It is understood that the Eight Limbs of Yoga, commonly referred to today, are cited in both these texts. These are referred to as the 8 components of yoga:

1. Yamas – Five ethical principles to how we live our lives:

· Ahimsa (non-violence and compassion to all living beings including ourselves)

· Satya (truthfulness)

· Asteya (non-stealing)

· Brahmacharya (faithfulness, self-control)

· Aparigraha (non-grasping/living modestly)

2. Niyamas – Five practical guidelines to how we live our lives:

· Saucha (cleanliness/purification - cleansing the body and mind, e.g. aware of diet)

· Samtosa (contentment)

· Tapas (inner fire, continued practice, will power, self-discipline)

· Svadhyaya (self-study - observing ourselves)

· Isvara pranidhana (devotion - detachment from the self, dedicating your practice to another)

3. Asana – posture, physical practice

4. Pranayama – breathwork, energy control

5. Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses

6. Dharana – developing concentration

7. Dhyana – meditation

8. Samadhi - awakened consciousness

Interpreting the sacred texts into different forms of yoga

It seems from these various early texts referring to yoga in different ways, different teachers started to create their own commentaries of how to practice yoga. 4 of the main lineages/practices that are understood to have evolved from these were:

Raja Yoga – this was focused on meditation and the mind

Bhakti Yoga – this was around expression and devotion to the Divine. It involved forms of expression such as chanting, written poetry and art.

Karma Yoga – this was around sacred action, giving back and the idea of being of service.

Hatha Yoga - this was focused on the belief that the body was the best way to access the mind. It was still believed that meditation was the way to reach enlightenment, but these yogis felt it was hard to sit still with the mind, and you first needed to work with the body to purify it and release distractions and stress. This is where physical asana began to come in, however at first the postures practiced would not be what we know today.

There were many forms of practices and teachers over thousands of years, all influenced differently by different teachers and texts. It was a constant evolution, and as time moved on, some wise teachers began to realise that practices needed to change to meet people in the current time (i.e. communities evolving to no longer practice ritualistic sacrifices).

Arrival of yoga in the west - Late 1800s and early 1900s

As far as we are aware, the first time yoga left India was in the late 1800s when Swami Vivekananda went to the USA and gave a lecture at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. At this point, yoga was still very much meditation focused.

During this period there was also a global shift with the industrial revolution in the Western world. This saw a shift of being very dependent on farming and agriculture to automating, factories, machines, desks. With this, people moved away from the physically demanding working of the land. As a consequence, the idea of exercise being important was realised. In Europe gymnastics became a popular new way of using the body.

India was still under British Colonialism, and influences from Britain/Europe moved into India. It is said that some native Indians were interested in wanting to take back their country, and that they realised these physical practices were useful in training Indian men to become stronger. It is said they looked to the influence of gymnastics and wrestling that were coming in and used these physical practices as part of their yoga practices, so that they could strengthen their people without the British Government knowing their plans. As a result, some people in India were then teaching ‘yoga’ in a way that had become really physically focused, essentially under the label of yoga so they could build an army.

Around the same time Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, often referred to as ‘the father of modern yoga’ was teaching physical yoga practices in Mysore, South India. It is said he offered yoga classes alongside gymnastics and wrestling classes going on in the studio, and that most postures we see today came from here – combining yoga with gymnastics and wrestling exercises with other spiritual practices, i.e. a blending of various physical culture influences. Krishna was also challenged with working with young boys at the Palace, strengthening them and wearing them out so they could focus on their studies for the rest of the day. Krishna taught some key figures that we know today including:

  • Pattabhi Jois – the founder of Ashtanga Yoga – a very dynamic and athletic style of yoga. From here we also saw the emergence of Vinyasa yoga.

  • B. K. S. Iyengar – This type of yoga is known to largely focus on alignment and it is said this is because Iyengar himself had health issues as a young man and was unable to do the strong rigorous practices Krishna was teaching. Iyengar therefore had to find different ways to position his body. This practice became influenced by using props to assist with getting into various postures.

  • Later on, Krishna also taught his son – T. K. V. Desikachar. It seems that by this point Krishna’s perspective on yoga had evolved. As such, Desikachar’s focus was on more of a therapeutic and individualised style of practice.

It’s interesting to see how Krishna taught 3 key yoga figures, and each has a very different interpretation of yoga of their own – athletic, props, therapeutic. This illustrates the point that yoga can speak to a variety of people and needs, and also how it continually evolves and can be different to different people.

Mid 1900s to today

By the 1950s Krishna’s students were opening up their own studios in the USA, and this is apparently when we first start to see the physical aspects of yoga entering studio spaces. However, in the 60s due to popular culture such as the Beetles, there is a shift to more meditation focused yoga. The late 60s also saw the first emergence of Kundalini yoga in the west. Until this point it had been kept secret, passed down to those considered worthy. Yogi Bhajan brought it to the USA proclaiming it was everyone’s birthright to be able to practice. In the 70s yoga makes it onto TV screens and its said again that it shifts to a more physical focus. By the 80s there’s more of Ashtanga and Iyengar’s influences. This is also when we start to see the influence of Bikram and hot yoga. Around the 80s also saw the emergence of Yin yoga (founded by Paul Grilley), said to be inspired by classical Hatha yoga and Taoist yoga practices. By the 90’s we started to see the branding of yoga and further spread of the practice. Today we see lots of different types of yoga practise – for pregnancy, incorporating dance, chair yoga, yoga with animals, disco yoga. Yoga has evolved drastically and continues to do so.

Given the continual evolution and vast variety of yoga we see today, it acts as a life tool – speaking to a range of people wherever they are on their journey. Each teacher offers something different, their own interpretation, where they are on their journey, and this offers a richness of yoga options to explore and engage in.

Understanding Yoga in the context of my own practice and sharing

The fact that posture is just one eighth of yoga is not commonly known, or perhaps practiced - but this is very much my understanding and application of yoga - It's not all about being on a nice shiny mat and moving in fancy yoga leggings! The yoga I like to practice and share is ritual based – it’s about devotion, beauty, creativity, giving back, breath, meditation, reflection, journaling. I take a more gentle approach to movement – in a way that helps to ease tension and stress, helps to focus and settle the mind. I like to incorporate mantra, intention, seasons, nature, the moon, chakras, flowers, poetry, art. I like to encourage flow and exploration and intuition – listening to what our own bodies need and want at any given moment. I have never particularly practiced yoga as a strong workout or for making attractive looking shapes. Yoga for me is about finding calm, relaxation, training the mind, finding gratitude and connection, space for myself, quiet, reflection, contemplation, learning. I also enjoy finding more fluid, feminine practices, drawing influences from Goddesses, sexuality, the menstrual cycle. For these reasons, I feel I currently relate more so to Raja, Bakti, Karma and Desikachar’s forms of yoga, and less so with Ashtanga and Iyengar – perhaps because their yoga is based on their own specific circumstances that are very different to mine – i.e. working with young boys.

However I also acknowledge that in the 10 or so years that I’ve been practising yoga, my practice has evolved. I arrived on the mat in an attempt to feel better, to find something else, to create more meaning and purpose in my life. It’s evolved from stress management, to finding community, to connecting with myself, to spiritual enquiry. I’ve done classes in Hatha, Hot Yoga, Vinyasa, Yin... Classes incorporating art, reiki, women’s circles, nidra, sound baths. I currently have a daily meditation, breath and journaling practice. I wonder as my own journey evolves and changes, if my yoga practice will also. As I look to reflect on my confidence, drive, inner fire – perhaps my daily practice will evolve to be a more physical, strength-based practice. I look forward to the continual unfolding road that is life, that is yoga. A sacred tool that can adapt and change based on need.

Yoga for me then, as I often express, is not about making fancy shapes on a mat or being able to touch your toes. It pains me when so often I hear people dismiss the idea of doing yoga for these common misconceptions – for some, yes it is about this, but it doesn’t have to be that way for everyone. Yoga for me, and how I aim to share it is about finding peace, connection and joy. It’s about coming inwards, connecting with ourselves, becoming aware. It’s a lifestyle, a daily practice that is done as much off of the mat, as on.

Further questions and points of enquiry - continuing this pathway of understanding yoga

As I continue on this learning journey of understanding yoga, areas that I would currently like to research further and expand my knowledge are:

  • Better understanding the religious aspects that have influenced yoga - although yoga is not a religious practice, it appears to have had various influences from Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and even Sikhism.

  • Better understanding the very strong dynamic forms of yoga we see today - how they are used and applied to modern life, people, women. How relevant is what was used with teenage boys and to effectively build an army to our yoga practice today - how has this been adapted, does it still serve in the same ways.

  • Understanding the evolution and daily practice of yoga today in the West compared to the East. What has impacted yoga's evolution and application in different parts of the world. Better understanding diversity, inclusivity, access, cultural appropriation. Understanding how yoga is used in different places in relation to health and holistic wellbeing, education, with young people

  • Tantra and tantra influences in yoga

  • Further exploration of the 8 Limbs


With thanks and recognition to the following sources if information and insight:

More information about joining a yoga session with me, including some FAQs around what to expect, can be found here.

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