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Yoga

The Origin of Yoga Poses

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Woman doing yoga in ruined ancient temple with columns at sunset in Hampi, Karnataka, India

Why was yoga created? 

Why was yoga created? What is the origin of yoga poses? Well, there are probably as many answers to that question as there are yoga studios in southern California. 

As with anything that traces back over 5,000 years and relies more on oral history than written records, yoga’s origin story is open to interpretation. Plus, modern perception of yoga often focuses solely on asana, or the physical practice. Yet, this aspect of yoga comprises just one small part of one of humanity’s most ancient and well-developed philosophies and spiritual paths. 

Here, we’ll talk about some of the most common historical accounts and interpretations of yoga, and I’ll do my best to weave them together in a (hopefully) sensical way. 

History of Yoga 

Created in the land we now call India more than 5,000 years ago by the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, early yoga wasn’t bound to 60-minute studio practices or likely practiced on a grippy mat, for that matter. The first “age” of yoga, as one might call it, is Vedic Yoga, which connected intimately with the daily lives and traditions of early Hindu people in India (from “A Short History of Yoga” by Georg Feuerstein). 

In fact, it makes more sense to say that yoga came secondary to these religious, cultural traditions; spiritual yearning gave birth to the practices we now call yoga. Various rituals and rites were practiced in order to link their material, everyday lives to that of the spirit world. To effectively do so, these early people began to create practices to improve their ability to concentrate during such rituals, thus joining the material and metaphysical realms as one and conceiving the practices that became yoga. 

Eventually, this joining — or “yoking,” which provides the etymological basis for the word “yoga” — also applied to the connecting of the mind and body, a sort of microcosmic representation of the material and spirit realms that more accurately encompasses our modern interpretation of yoga practices, at least to the individual Western mind. 

Back to Vedic Yoga, the earliest practices relied more heavily on hymns or chants, which were eventually recorded in the Rig Veda, the oldest of the four canonical Hindu texts. Mantra yoga — one of three delineated categories of Vedic Yoga practice — is a product of the Rig Veda teachings. Vedic yoga further developed to incorporate Prana yoga and Dhyana yoga, as described in the texts, Yajur Veda and Sama Veda, respectively (from “Vedic Yoga, the Oldest Form of Yoga” by American Institute of Vedic Studies). 

Evolution of Yoga 

Naturally, as civilization evolved, so did yoga. Further Vedic texts that are still quite popular and relevant today, such as the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Brahma Sutra cemented the importance of yoga in ancient society and Hindu tradition. But, people of this time would not have spoken of the practice as anything separate from normal daily life (as people do today when they “head off to a yoga class”). Instead, yoga was interwoven into daily existence and embedded within regular spiritual and religious practice. 

Patajanli’s “eightfold path” interpretation of yoga, often taught to yoga teacher trainees and devoted practitioners today, was elaborated in his Yoga Sutra text. Today, the Vedas, especially the Upanishads, are considered the foundation of yoga philosophy, whereas these ideas were expanded upon and laid out in more detail in Yoga Sutra (from “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” by Wikipedia). 

In Patanjali’s interpretation, he listed asana as the third “limb” (of eight total limbs) in his description of Ashtanga Yoga. While physical practice was very likely a part of earlier practices of yoga, this text offers the first detailed descriptions of poses and their seminal importance: to help the body sit for long periods of time in meditation

Indeed, yoga’s primary role was not intended as a weight loss regimen or a solely physical workout. All its complexities and nuances aside, the initial purpose of yoga was to be physically able to sit in meditation long enough to achieve enlightenment. 

Though asana is still beneficial when practiced on its own, traditional yoga posits just as much importance on behavioral ethics (yamas), individual duties (niyamas), the control of breath (prana), withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and meditative oneness (samadhi) along the path to ultimate spiritual enlightenment. 

Origin of Yoga Poses 

Given asana’s relatively minimal role in the Sutras — or, at least, “minimal” compared to the esteem it is given today in Western culture — how, then, did some of the most common yoga poses originate? 

As mentioned before, yoga has a very long, largely undocumented history prior to the Vedic texts, so there is no way to pinpoint the origin of the first yoga poses. Logically, people have probably been doing some form or another of “yoga-like” practices (e.g., limbering up their bodies) to engage more comfortably in some form of ritual since, well, the beginning of people. 

However, going back to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra text mentioned earlier, he described something called Ashtanga Yoga sometime between 500 and 400 BCE. However, the specific yoga postures and practices characteristic of the ashtanga primary series, for example, were not specifically summarized and taught until quite recently. 

Dr. Mark Singleton, a yoga scholar and author of “Yoga Body: the Origins of Modern Posture Practice,” posits that the unprecedented focus on asanas arose as recently as the early 20th century. Dr. Singleton’s research says that the yoga that Swami Vivikenanda introduced to the West in the late 1800s was free of asana, focusing his lectures in the United States and the UK on Vedanta philosophy and his interpretation of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga — mainly “meditation, pranayama, and positive thinking” (from “The Ancient & Modern Roots of Yoga” in Yoga Journal). Instead, the more gymnastic, physical-centric side of yoga with its rigorous vinyasa sequences came to be as a result of modernization and influence of the physical culture movement in Europe

Yoga Poses – New or Old? 

While the roots, philosophies, and practice of yoga undoubtedly date back thousands of years, our present interpretation of yoga as seen in studios, on YouTube, and taught to its modern audience is a contemporary invention. What, then, does this say about the role of yoga in today’s society? 

Well, to me, modern adaptations of ancient ideas do not invalidate nor make traditional ideas any less authentic or meaningful. In fact, if nothing else, such modernizations demonstrate the flexibility (pun intended) of a deeply meaningful and very relevant physical, philosophical, spiritual practice. In fact, my own anecdotal and observational evidence suggests that purely physical, “trendy” yoga practices can provide an approachable, accessible, less intimidating starting point for many people to then go onto a deeper spiritual, philosophical journey. 

Modern yoga may seem to have taken a sharp turn from its ancient Indian and Hindu beginnings, but the further you choose to go into the practice, the more you find that it is still rich with genuine spiritual tradition. 

And because I couldn’t possibly sum it up any better than this, I’ll leave you with this brilliantly insightful quote from Mark Singleton’s Yoga Journal article, “The Ancient & Modern Roots of Yoga”

Beyond mere history for history’s sake, learning about yoga’s recent past gives us a necessary and powerful lens for seeing our relationship with tradition, ancient and modern. At its best, modern yoga scholarship is an expression of today’s most urgently needed yogic virtue, viveka (“discernment” or “right judgment”). Understanding yoga’s history and tangled, ancient roots brings us that much closer to true, clear seeing. It may also help to move us to a more mature phase of yoga practice for the 21st century. 

“The Ancient & Modern Roots of Yoga”

Sources: 

“A Short History of Yoga” by Georg Feuerstein — https://secure.kushalayoga.com/wp-content/ytt-2016/A-Short-History-of-Yoga.pdf 

“Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” from Wikipedia — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga_Sutras_of_Patanjali 

“Vedic Yoga, the Oldest Form of Yoga” from American Institue of Vedic Studies — https://www.vedanet.com/vedic-yoga-the-oldest-form-of-yoga/ 

“Rig Veda” by Encyclopaedia Britannica — https://www.britannica.com/topic/Rigveda 

“Yoga Body” (book by Dr. Mark Singleton) by Wikipedia — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga_Body 

“Swami Vivikenanda” by Wikipedia — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swami_Vivekananda 

“The Ancient & Modern Roots of Yoga” by Mark Singleton in Yoga Journal — https://www.yogajournal.com/philosophy/yoga-s-greater-truth/

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