The origin of yoga is one shrouded in mystery, there was a secretive element to its teachings and sacred texts were mostly transmitted orally. We can trace the breadcrumbs left for us to Northern India, 5000 years ago, where the Indus-Sarasvati civilization began developing what is known today as yoga.
The word yoga comes from Yuj, which is Sanskrit for uniting and refers to the union of individual consciousness with universal consciousness. It pursues a perfect harmony between the body and mind; between humans and nature.
There are four main eras of yoga, the first being Vedic Yoga in the period 3000-4000 BC.
The Rig Veda is an ancient sacred text where the word ‘yoga’ is first mentioned. Written in Sanskrit, the Vedas consist of four ancient sacred texts, Rigveda, Samveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda. These were used by the Vedic priests. The teachings of yoga were refined by the Rishis; they documented all beliefs and practices in a huge work with over 200 scriptures called the Upanishads. The Upanishads took the practice of ritual sacrifice from the Vedas and redirected it inwards, preaching the sacrifice of the ego through self-awareness, action and wisdom. It was centred around the idea of using sacrifice to connect the physical world with the spiritual world.
Yoga originated long before the first religions or belief systems emerged. In yogic lore, Shiva is seen as the first yogi or Adiyogi. Many years ago, on the banks of the lake Kantisarovar in the Himalayas, Adiyogi poured all his knowledge into the legendary Saptarishis or “seven sages”. The sages carried these powerful yogic teachings around the globe, including the Middle East, Northern Africa, South America and Asia. There are noteworthy close parallels found between ancient cultures across the globe, believed to be the result of the spread of these yogic teachings.
The presence of Yoga is seen in folk traditions, Indus valley civilization, Vedic and Upanishadic heritage, Buddhist and Jain traditions, Darshanas, epics of Mahabharat and Ramayana, theistic traditions of Shaivas, Vaishnavas, and Tantric traditions. In addition, there was a primordial or pure Yoga that has been manifested in mystical traditions of South Asia.
The period between 500 BC – 800 A.D. is recognized as the Classical period, which is also considered as the most prominent period in the history and development of Yoga. During this period, commentaries of Vyasa on Yoga Sutras and Bhagawadgita came into existence. Maharishi Patanjali was a sage and thought to be the author of numerous Sanskrit and Tamil works. His best-known work is the Yoga Sutras, the classical yoga text. It was the first systematic presentation of yoga. Patanjali organized the practice of yoga into an “eight limbed path” containing the steps and stages towards obtaining Samadhi or enlightenment. Patanjali is often considered the ‘Father of Yoga’ and his Yoga-Sûtras still strongly influence most styles of modern yoga.
A few centuries after Patanjali, yoga masters created a system of practices designed to prolong life. They cast aside the ancient Vedic teachings, embracing the physical body in order to achieve enlightenment. Tantra Yoga was developed, using progressive techniques to purify the mind and body while untying the knots that secure us to our physical existence. The exploration of these physical-spiritual connections and body centred practices led to the creation of what we primarily think of yoga in the modern day: Hatha Yoga. This period between 800 A.D. – 1700 A.D. has been identified as the Post Classical period. It was produced various schools and practices of Yoga, such as Tantra, Vedanta, and Hatha Yoga. Several reliable texts on Hatha Yoga such as the “Hatha Yoga Pradipika“, “The Goraksha Samhita“ and the “Gherand Samhita“ emerged during this time.
The period between 1700 – 1900 A.D. is considered the Modern period. This was when Vedanta, Bhakti yoga, Nathayoga or Hatha-yoga flourished. Today, the preservation, maintenance and promotion of health that comes with yoga are well known worldwide. Yoga has spread all over the world through the teachings of great individuals.
The past few decades have witnessed modern yoga undergo a complete transformation. Modern yoga generally focuses on exercise, strength, agility and breathing. From being shunned to being hailed as one of the best natural therapies in existence, yoga practice has come a long way.
The origin of yoga shows us how yoga has been developing for centuries, the ebb and flow of time causing gradual changes. However, the core aspects of yoga have remained consistent throughout. It encourages self-awareness, moderation, kindness and mindfulness of people and nature. Most of all, it remains a physical and spiritual guide, constantly encouraging us to unearth the better version of ourselves.