What is Yoga?
This post was originally published on YogaArtandScience.com. I’m re-publishing it here as part of my ongoing look at Yoga and the Alexander Technique]
Soft lighting, soothing music, perhaps the gentle fragrance of incense or lavender oil in the air. A few inspiring words from an attractive and well-toned instructor. Easy stretches and calisthenics that build up in intensity until you are drenched in sweat. Increasingly difficult contortions and inversions around which to wrap your limbs and mind. Then a few minutes of complete rest, perhaps a short meditation and back to daily life. This is, for many, the definition of yoga. For others, yoga is a flaky new-age philosophy, or even a dangerous eastern religion. The clustering of images and associations surrounding yoga have become a cultural force used to promote health and fitness, spiritual well-being, lifestyle products, or even just notions of a better, simpler life. And somewhere in there, we are told that this yoga is 5000 years old. It sounds good. It feels right, giving weight and importance to what can be, undoubtably, an enriching and uplifting experience.
5000 years is a very, very long time for something to remain completely unchanged. Can we really make this claim? Were men and women of the Indian subcontinent 3000 years before the Christian Era gathering together to be led through the rituals of mental and physical conditioning that we put ourselves through today?
The birthplace of yoga stretches across a vast peninsula, bounded by hills and mountain ranges on three sides and incorporates the countries of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. Evidence of civilization in that region stretches back some 4600 years to early settlements in the north-west that indicate a thriving culture in the fertile valley of the Indus River and its tributaries. We know a fair amount about this civilization from archeological digs in the area that have revealed well-planned cities with efficient drainage and sewage systems and with arts and crafts that include pottery and jewelry. This early civilization left behind some samples of a written language and an image of a man seated in a position familiar to modern yogis, Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose). The written language of the period has yet to be decoded. No key to translation akin to the Rosetta Stone, which enabled scholars to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs, has been discovered. We can only speculate as to the nature of the spirituality of the people of this time.
“Yoga” is originally a Sanskrit word. Sanskrit is one of the classical languages of India, reaching back as far as 2000 years before the Christian Era in its oldest incarnation. The language was eventually codified by Panini, a scholar who lived approximately 2400 years ago. Panini defined an exhaustive set of rules which shaped the language into its classical form, in which it survives to this day. The primary meaning of the word is to “yoke,” as in to harness two things together, such as a cart to an ox. It can also mean an undertaking, or a kind of work or opportunity. It can mean effort, diligence, care or opportunity, amongst other things.
In a spiritual context, “yoga” refers to any discipline that will bring about control of the mind and the senses. The idea is that the flitting about of the senses and the mind are held fixed in contemplation on some form of object. By that harnessing, the fluctuations lessen and eventually become stilled. Freed of distraction, the practitioner might then become aware of deeper truths about themselves, the cosmos and the divine.
The earliest use of the word “yoga” in this spiritual manner comes from an ancient text, the Taittiriya Upanishad, dating back to 2000 BCE (Before the Christian Era). There are many Upanishads. Along with other texts, the Vedas and Brahmanas, they form part of a body of spiritual literature that is termed “shruti” in Sanskrit, meaning “hearing” or “listening.” These are all thought to come from divine revelation, rather than those that are classified as “smrti,” meaning “remembered,” and which do not carry the same unimpeachable authority.
The Vedas consist of four tomes of hymns to the Devas, divine embodiments of natural phenomena or of spiritual principles. These hymns would be performed in sacrificial ceremonies laid out in accompanying commentaries called Brahmanas which outlined complex and rigorously structured worship rituals to incur favorable results from a vast and capricious cosmos. The Upanishads represent the next generation of spiritual inquiry beyond the ancient Vedic sacrificial religion.
The authors of the Upanishads began to speculate on the role of the individual and its place in the cosmos. The author of the Taittiriya Upanishad describes in his work the transcendent nature of divine creation and provides numerous formulas and meditations by which the aspirant can learn more about that nature, along with formulas that will bring the aspirant abundance and wealth. It also lays out a series of commandments, moral rules by which the householder of the time might live their life in order to realize their true divine nature and perhaps free themselves from the unending cycle of birth and death.
2000 years later, composed sometime in the 3rd or 4th century BCE, the Bhagavad Gita presents a different concept of that path of liberation through yogic discipline. Part of the Mahabharata, one of the two great Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the Gita tells the story of princely Arjuna, who stands in his chariot about to go into battle against a rival clan of cousins and who experiences a moral crisis. Fellow prince Krishna, held to be an avatar of the god Vishnu, comes to his aid. In the scripture, Krishna outlines a path of selfless action (Karma Yoga), discerning knowledge of the transcendental Self (Jñana Yoga) and devotion to the divine (Bhakti Yoga) as a path to freedom from the anguish of existence.
In the core text of what is known as Classical Yoga, the Yoga Sutra, the sage Patañjali outlines a very different path to liberation and realization of the true, eternal Self. The date of the text has been placed anywhere from the 2nd century BCE to 500 CE and next to nothing is known about the author. In the text, however, Patañjali seems to assemble and organize many of the yogic techniques of his time into a cohesive teaching manual in the terse and cryptic sutra style, even adding new insights of his own. Patañjali’s yoga is intellectually rigorous and eminently practical. He presents a categorical and progressive system of meditation and contemplation with which the practitioner might free themselves of the turbulence of mind and being and know freedom.
By the 15th century CE, the inventory of techniques with which to transform body and mind had grown to include cleansing practices (kriya), manual gestures (mudra), postures (asana), breathing practices (pranayama) and a host of varied meditative focuses, both words (mantra) and pictures (yantra). It was at this time that a sage by the name of Svatmarama composed the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the earliest text of the Hatha (“forceful”) Yoga tradition. The Hatha Yogins built on the work of Patañjali, seeing their physical practice as a way of preparing the body for long periods of meditation and accelerating the process of spiritual development along the way.
Between that time and now, many sages have composed many books outlining varied blends of philosophy and practice of yogic disciplines. The book perhaps most influential to modern yoga is B. K. S. Iyengar’s “Light on Yoga.” First published in 1966 and still widely read around the world today, this manual presents yoga as both a spiritual and a healing art available not only to the monastic ascetic, but also to the everyday practitioner. Though certainly not the first or the only member of his generation to propose yoga as a lifestyle, the approach outlined in the book is methodical and progressive, giving the reader a sense of continuity with the traditions of the past, as well as a glimpse of their own potential development along the path of yoga. It presents the idea of yoga as a set of techniques to both to deepen the individual’s connection to a greater sense of meaning, but also as a way of contributing to the ongoing health of the body and the mind. “Light on Yoga” marks the beginning of an era in which yoga opens up from being only for scholars, monastics or princes and princesses practicing at a remove from the world. The practice of yoga has ceased to be exclusively something that you leave your mundane life to pursue and has become something that you work into your life, even build your life around, to enrich and enhance it.
The yoga of 5000 years ago would have been very different from the yoga class of today. There would have been no physical postures, other than perhaps a comfortable seated pose, no guided meditation and deep relaxation, no undercurrent of healing and acceptance. It would have been largely inaccessible to most, and completely unavailable to women. There is a thread of connection, however: the desire to go deeper, to understand the true nature of things, and a commitment to the search. This is a tradition that we can claim with certainty stretches back to the dawn of time.
Feuerstein, Georg. “The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga,” Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000.
Hamilton, Sue. “Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001
Kenoyer, Jonathan Mark. “Uncovering the Keys to the Lost Indus Cities” in Scientific American (Special Issue) Vol. 15, 2005 (reprinted)