Yoga History

If you’ve never read into Yoga History, you may not be aware that the yoga we practice in the West is not the same as all
the yoga they practice in India. Or that many of the styles of yoga we practice come from a single lineage in a vast family tree of styles and philosophies. Or that our emphasis on our physical (asana) practice is relatively new, a modern interpretation of the ancient, sacred practice.

To begin exploring the evolution of yoga, we must begin around 5,000 years ago when yoga was first mentioned in the Vedas. These ancient texts are written in Sanskrit and are the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. These texts contain mantras, instructions and commentaries on rituals, and discussion on meditation, philosophy and spiritual knowledge.

The Upanishad texts continue to develop the ideas and practices in the Vedas, beginning a period called Pre-Classical Yoga. The Upanishads detail a six-fold path to liberation, which helped open up yoga to other religions and people outside Hinduism. This path includes breath control (pranayama), withdrawing the senses (pratyahara), meditation (dhyana), concentration (dharana), contemplative reflection (tarka) and finally the union with the divine (samahdi). The Upanishads provided a foundation for many important yoga texts including the Bhagavad Gita, a conversation between Krishna (the divine) and Prince Arjuna (mortal man). It is entirely devoted to discovering how one must live in order to have a truly yogic lifestyle. Prince Arjuna must embrace letting go of his ego and begin letting his actions speak for him. These principles later develop into three schools of yoga; Karma Yoga (generous actions), Bhakti Yoga (caring dedication) and Jnana Yoga (knowledge).

In the Classical Period, we begin to see our modern ideas of yoga really begin to take shape. Patanjali writes the Yoga Sutras, 195 aphorisms which guide us in our daily lives as well as in our yoga practice. Patanjali detailsan eight-fold path, developing the ideas of the Upanishad even further. They are ethical rules (yamas), behaviors (niyamas), physical postures (asanas), breath control (pranayama), withdrawl of senses (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and unity with the divine (samahdi). It’s worth noting here that Patanjali doesn’t detail any asanas in particular, but tells us only that the posture must be able to be held for a long time, staying relaxed, steady and motionless. If the posture causes pain or restlessness, it is not a yogic pose.

This brings us to the Post-Classical period, where the schools of Tantra and Hatha Yoga develop. Tantra focuses on expanding consciousness and liberating energies to transcend limitations. Hatha focuses on cleansing and balancing the body before progressing on to higher meditation. Around 130CE, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is written, describing the ethical behavior of a yogi, 15 asanas (mostly variations of lotus pose), purification rituals, mudras, pranayama and meditation. The purpose of all of this is to prepare us to move into samahdi.

So where does this modern day “flow” yoga come from anyway? As it turns out, yoga as we know was heavily influenced by a system of Danish exercises called Primitive Gymnastics. These were the most popular form of exercise the world over by the 1920’s. Here’s where the single line of lineage begins to come into play.

T. Krishnamacharya was a well versed scholar of traditional Hindu philosophical systems as well as the ancient science of Ayurveda. However, he was also someone who was receptive to the needs of his day. He began creating a new dynamic asana practice combining some of the old traditions with the new modern take on exercise. His students loved it and they went on to create most of the styles that we practice in the West today. These included Krishnamacharya’s son TKV Desikachar (Viniyoga), TKV’s brother in law, BKS Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga), and Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga). After all of these thousands of years of yoga changing, developing and growing, this is the kind of yoga that made it here. But, re

member, this is just one of the lineages of yoga that is practiced in India and the world over. Pretty cool, huh? If you’d like to know more about the other lineages in yoga, please view Alison Hinks’ Yoga Lineage Chart below!

How can knowing all of this help you out in your Hagoyah yoga practice? Know that all of our teachers come from the same lineage, so although their styles may differ, they all teach the same basic principles. Begin to notice where you see the similarities in their approach! Where can you find the influence of Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga? In Erran’s Vinyasa class? What about the breath focus of TKV Desikachar’s work? Perhaps in Sara’s Sweaty Serenity? The perfection of BKS Iynegar’s alignment? In Megan’s attention to detail in Glow with the Flow? Come explore the whole range of yogic experiences with us and find your expression of this ancient art. In the end, it is of little importance what kind of yoga you practice, as long as you DO practice!

“People often ask me if I teach asanas, and when I answer “yes”, they say “Oh, then you are a hatha yogi!”. And if I am talking about the Yoga Sutra, they say “Oh, you are a raja yogi!”. And if I say I recite the Vedas, the comment is: “Oh, so you are a mantra yogi!”. If I simply say that I practice yoga, they do not know what to make of me. Many people want to give everything and everyone a label.

Unfortunately, these classifications have become much too important and give the impression that there are fundamental differences between the various forms of yoga. But really, they are all dealing with the same thing, and are only looking at them from different perspectives. If we really follow one direction in yoga as far as we can go, then it will lead us along all paths of yoga.” TKV Desikachar