What has been adequately established though is that yoga originated approximately 5000 years ago in India and is one of the oldest sciences that exist today. Evidence of this approximation exists in the ancient Hindu texts called the Vedas. This gives us a fair and applicable timeline to chart the history of yoga. The Vedas and the excavations from the Indus-Sarasvati civilization function as the cornerstones of this inquiry into the history of yoga.
The history of yoga can be divided into four major periods:
• Vedic Yoga
• Preclassical Yoga
• Classical Yoga
• Postclassical yoga
The Vedas have existed since 1700 B.C., and are the earliest known texts related to Hinduism. The Vedas comprise of four texts, namely the Rigveda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda and the Atharvaveda. Yoga teachings found in these texts are called Vedic Yoga.
The Rigveda is the oldest Vedic text. The term ‘veda’ in Sanskrit means ‘knowledge’ while ‘rig’ means ‘praise’. The Rigveda is therefore known as the book of knowledge in the praise of the almighty. This particular Veda is accepted as the source of Hinduism.
Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda mean knowledge of sacrifice, knowledge of chants and knowledge of Atharvan (a powerful sage who lived in the Vedic times) respectively. These books contain invaluable pearls of wisdom and describe in detail the concept of Hinduism as a lifestyle rather than a religion.
Since yoga features as one of the most important aspects of the Vedic texts, it can be said without doubt that it was a way of life back then. Descriptions of Yoga in these seminal texts encourage the practice of yoga to merge the material and physical realm with the spiritual realm.
This period comprises of almost 2000 years till the time of the 2nd century B.C. By this time many texts like the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, the Upnishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata had made their appearance. All these texts contained various kinds of yoga teachings that in some way or the other expounded on the ultimate universal truth about the unity of everything. These texts spoke about the coming of the dark ages. Through stories they inspired people to stand up for the right and actively fight the evil. Yoga teachings of this time focused on meditation, self-realization and connection with the universal one.
Also known as the age of the eightfold yoga or Raja Yoga, this is the time when the great sage Patanjali lived and expounded on his own version of yoga and its practice. He did this through his text ‘Yoga-Sutra’, which contains 200 sharp and intelligent statements that sparked the interest of many a yoga practitioners and masters in the following centuries. It is stipulated that Patanjali Yoga was written in the 2nd A.D. The earliest commentary on it is found in ‘Yoga-Bhashya’, which is supposed to have been written by Vyasa in the 5th A.D.
Patanjali, spoke about yoga as being useful in the separation of the matter and the spirit that each individual is made up of. This, he said, was essential in the re-establishment of the purity of the soul and spirit.
This is the age when yoga was, for the first time, understood for its physical benefits. This is because the previous masters and practitioners were more interested in the realm of the spirit and the ultimate goal of merging into the divine energy. This change in attitude came with the discovery of alchemy and yogis started to teach and practice yoga with the objective of healing the body, to re-energize it and to prolong life. The idea of changing the biochemistry of the body to become immortal through yoga is also a concept that was explored in this age. This focus on the body led to the establishment of Hatha Yoga, which is widely practiced today.
The age of modern yoga is said to have started with Swami Vivekanand’s visit to the USA for the Parliament of Religions in 1893. This is the first time that the world paid any serious attention to the teachings of yoga. The 20th century saw the emergence of many gurus and teachers of yoga, who contributed greatly to the evolution and spread of its practice throughout the world. Some of the most important of them include Paramahansa Yogananda, Yogendra Mastamani, Ramacharaka, Selvarajan Yesudian, Shrila Prabhupada, Swami Sivananda, Bhagavan Rajneesh and Sri Krishnamacharya among others.
Today the wisdom of yoga is freely available online. But we hope to see more people not only researching the origins of yoga and its benefits, but actually practicing it and learning from their own experience.