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From Ancestral Yoga to the Modern Discipline

By Sarah, published on 18/10/2017 Blog > Sport > Yoga > The History and Westernisation of Yoga

As you can imagine, from ancient times to modern day, yoga has changed.

Originating in India, the practice of yoga was spread all over the world until arriving in the West.

Thus, it has been enriched by new cultures which have allowed it to take on different forms. If you are already taking yoga classes, you probably know at least one of these.

How has yoga become what it is today and how has it evolved over the centuries?

To know everything there is about yoga, Superprof offers you a history class on the discipline!

The History of Yoga from the Antiquity to Present Day

Despite the lack of historical documentation that can accurately ascertain the precise origin of yoga and evolution of yoga over the centuries, several important phases seem to stand out.

Firstly, there is the Antiquity and the ancient period of yoga. Then the classical and medieval period. And finally, the modern era of the discipline.

Antiquity: The Development of Proto-Yoga

To begin our story, going back a several thousands of years. We are now in 3000 BC. AD, in the Indus Valley (located around modern Pakistan).

The civilisation credited with creating Yoga. An ancient map of the cradle of civilisation that created yoga. Source: ancient-civilizations.com

It is interesting to note that, before the 20th century, these people were completely forgotten by historians. Moreover, in spite of the newly sparked interest from specialists in Indian history, because of their writings, which are difficult to decipher, there are still many uncertainties surrounding this ancient, yet extensive and advanced civilisation. As such, we do not know why it disappeared suddenly during the 18th century BC.

In all cases, archaeological research of this period has revealed objects that seem to be related to the practice of meditation. Apart from these remnants, there is a lack of writing, which suggests that the transmission of knowledge between masters and pupils was typically communicated orally.

The sacred texts of the time were called Vedas. They came from the Vedic civilisation, prior to the Aryan civilisation (not to be confused with the term used by the Nazis).

At this time, we already have the existance of a form of yoga. Indeed, these texts were spoken in the form of incantations (as it is today in Mandra Yoga) while holding in a specific position (Mudrā).

From this came Brahmanism, the formalised ritual system of Vedic culture. Indeed, the term Brahman appears in many Vedic texts to qualify the Supreme Self (Sva) which refers to the transcendent Absolute and the cosmic consciousness. We are now between the 10th and the 6th century BC.

Then things accelerate for yoga with the writing of the Yoga Sutras by Patañjali towards the 4th century BC..

The Yoga Sutras outlines what we know as modern Yoga today. Here is a statue of one of the Yoga Sutras writers. Source: Total Yoga

In terms of the author, we know very little. As the writing of the Yoga Sutra is staggered over several centuries, we can assume that it is actually several writers who bear this name. In any case, this text of 195 aphorisms (sutras) and 1161 words is the starting point of contemporary yoga.

Structured in 4 chapters, it explains what yoga is and outlines precisely how to achieve inner peace through liberation.

From this period, we will begin to see different orders of yogis, corresponding to different practices. Among these, we can cite the wave of Shivaite yogis (linked to Shiva then) or Vishnuite yogis (related to Vishnu). The latter also gives us Bhakti Yoga.

You understand then that yoga developed parallel with the Hindu religion. Yet it is not itself a religion. It is rather a philosophy whose aim is to better understand our place within a universal whole.

Trace the history of Yoga which goes back at least 5,000 years. A timeline showing the history of Yoga. Source: gis yoga spring 2016

Yoga during the Classical and Medieval Period

Between the 2nd and 15th century, yoga develops and splits into a variety of new forms. Around this time, it is also discovered by other Indo-European cultures.

Tantrism emerges around 500 AD. This gives rise to Tantric Yoga.

During this period, the Brahman (the fundamental principle of the world) and the Atma (the self) are increasingly mentioned as a unit.

In terms of the civilisations that have come into contact with India and the practice of yoga, there are:

  • The Arabs thanks to the translation of the Yoga Sutra by Al-Biruni who compares it to Sufism;
  • The Persians (through Sufis such as Bistāmi or Al-Ghazali);
  • The Greeks (translating the Bhagavad-Gita which is one of the fundamental writings of Hindu culture).
  • Marco Polo, in the Book of Wonders, will gives an accurate description of yogis.

This period, which ends around the 15th century, is decisive in understanding the arrival of yoga in the West.

It was thanks to the various commercial and cultural exchanges that this Indian practice was brought to other nations.

Moreover, it is interesting to note that we find different aspects of this discipline in other civilisations (such as the Arabs and Sufism).

Indeed, some other civilisations perform rituals involving inner purification, repetition of traditional and sacred chants, and precise poses in order to achieve mental, physical and spiritual excellence.

The Westernisation of Yoga

As we approach the 16th century, Yoga is becoming more and more talked about in the West.

Modern Yoga as it is known in the West took off in the late 1890s, when Indian monks began spreading their knowledge to the Western world for the first time. Moreover, people who traveled to India were able to rub shoulders with the yogis and observe their practices first hand.

The Precursors of Yoga in the West

The introduction of Yoga to the West is often credited to Swami Vivekananda, the first ever Indian monk to have visited the Western world. Vivekananda (born in 1863 and died in 1902) organised numerous world conferences on the subject by describing yoga as a science of the mind. He translated Yogic texts from Sanskrit into English and in 1893, during a visit to the US, sparked the nation’s interest by demonstrating Yoga poses at a World Fair in Chicago. As a result, many other Indian Yogis and Swamis were welcomed with open arms in the West.

In 1920 Paramahansa Yogananda came to address a conference of religious liberals in Boston. He had been sent by his guru, the ageless Babaji, to “spread the message of kriya yoga to the West.”

In 1924 the United States immigration service imposed a quota on Indian immigration, forcing people like Theos Bernard to travel to the East to seek teachings. He returned from India in 1947 and published Hatha Yoga: The Report of a Personal Experience, an important text for yoga in the 1950s which is still read today.

As early as 1950, many associations and federations dedicated to yoga were born in all countries of the world.

Richard Hittleman, after studying in India, returned to New York in 1950 to teach yoga. Not only did he sell millions of copies of his books and pioneered yoga on television in 1961, but was the first to introduce a nonreligious form of yoga for the American mainstream, with an emphasis on its physical benefits.

BKS Iyengar is widely regarded as one of the most fundamental figures in the spread of Eastern spiritual philosophy across the world. He introduced Yoga to the western countries by amazing television audiences with his incredible physical suppleness in America and the UK. In 1963, he appeared on the BBC with David Attenborough and violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Time magazine even named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2004.

In India, Sri Krishnamacharia (born in 1888 and died in 1989) enabled Hatha Yoga to take the form we know today (it was formerly more rough). Krishnamacharia went on to create his own yoga school in his native country (where he stayed until his death). After his passing it was his son, T.K.V. Desikachar, who contributed to the development of this form of yoga throughout the world.

A 1965 revision of U.S. law removed the 1924 quota on Indian immigration, opening our shores to a new wave of Eastern teachers. a flood of Eastern teachings to the West. By the ’70s you could find yoga and spiritual teachings everywhere.

Obviously, between traditional yoga and modern yoga, practices are no longer quite the same.

In our chaotic world, yoga class can help you to relax and unwind. Between tradition and modernity: yoga has found its place in the world of well-being. Source: pixabay

It can be said that some ancestral techniques were harsher for the body than those we are familiar with today.

Modern Yoga

Today, yoga is for people of all ages and physical abilities.

Over time, different forms of yoga have developed to meet the needs of everyone.

The best known are:

  • Vinyasa Yoga;
  • Dynamic Yoga;
  • Ashtanga Yoga;
  • Yoga Nidra;
  • Kundalini Yoga;
  • Iyengar Yoga;
  • Prenatal Yoga;
  • Karma Yoga;
  • Natha Yoga;
  • Bikram Yoga (also called Hot Yoga);
  • Etc.

Ideal for stress and pain (back pain, for example), every yoga session is usually divided into different phases:

  • Relaxation;
  • Breathing exercises;
  • Stretching;
  • Meditation;
  • Yoga poses work the body’s flexibility (such as sun salutations);
  • Recitation of mantra.

Relaxation, breathing, stretching, meditation and chants are important parts of yoga sessions. Sun salutation: a sequence of movements well known to Yoga fans. Source: Visual hunt

If you want to get started, we recommend that you start with a yoga class or yoga session with a specialist teacher.

Get in touch with the British Wheel of Yoga or make an appointment with a tutor on our website that will come to your house to teach you in the comfort of your own home.

Although this practice is still unfamiliar to us (we prefer to cure physical and mental evil with drugs), it seems to be becoming more and more popular.

It must be said that the benefits of yoga are very appreciated by its followers.

If you live in the West Midlands, you might easily find Superprof yoga Birmingham teachers!

A Summary of the History of Yoga:

The development of yoga goes back more than 5,000 years, but some researchers believe that the birth of yoga can even be traced to 10,000 years ago.

Learn yoga moves inspired by ancient traditions and rituals. The Gita is the sixth book of the Mahabharata, one of the most famous epic poems in India. Source: dnaindia.com

The long and rich history of Yoga can be divided into four main periods of innovation, practice and development.

  • Preclassical Yoga

The beginnings of yoga were developed by the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation in northern India more than 5,000 years ago. The word yoga was mentioned for the first time in the oldest sacred texts, the Rig Veda. The Vedas were an encyclopedia of texts containing songs, mantras and rituals used by Brahmins and Vedic priests. Yoga was slowly refined and developed by Brahmins and Rishis (mystical seers) who documented their practices and beliefs in the Upanishads, an enormous work containing more than 200 scriptures. The most famous of the Yogic scriptures is the Bhagavad-Gita, composed around 500 BC. The Upanishads took the idea of ritual sacrifice from the Vedas and internalised it, teaching sacrifice of the ego through self-knowledge, action (karma yoga) and wisdom (jnana yoga).

  • Classical Yoga

In the pre-classical era, yoga was a mixture of various ideas, beliefs and techniques that often clashed and contradicted one another. The classical period is defined by Yoga-Sūtras of Patanjali, the first systematic presentation of yoga. Written in the second century, this text describes the journey of Raja Yoga, often called “classical yoga”. Patanjali organised the practice of yoga in an “eight limbed path” outlining the steps  towards obtaining Samadhi or enlightenment. Patanjali is often considered the father of yoga and his Yoga-Sūtras still strongly influence most styles of modern yoga.

  • Post-Classical Yoga

A few centuries after Patanjali, yoga masters created a system of practices designed to rejuvenate the body and prolong life. They rejected the teachings of the ancient Vedas and embraced the physical body as a means of attaining enlightenment. They developed Tantra Yoga, with radical techniques to cleanse the body and mind to break the ties that bind us to our physical existence. This exploration of these physico-spiritual connections and body-centered practices led to the creation of what we know as yoga in the West: Hatha Yoga.

  • Modern period

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, yoga masters began to travel westward, attracting attention and followers. This began at the 1893 Parliament of Religions in Chicago, when Swami Vivekananda seduced participants with his lectures on yoga and the universality of world religions. In the 1920s and 1930s, Hatha Yoga was strongly promoted in India with the work of T. Krishnamacharya, Swami Sivananda and other yogists practicing Hatha Yoga. Krishnamachary opened the first Hatha Yoga school in Mysore in 1924 and in 1936 Sivananda founded the Society of Divine Life on the banks of the River Ganges. Krishnamacharya produced three students who continued his heritage and increased the popularity of Hatha Yoga: B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar and Pattabhi Jois. Sivananda was a prolific writer, wrote over 200 books on yoga, and established nine ashrams and many yoga centers around the world.

How do I pick the right yoga near me? If searching for yoga classes near me, I always use Superprof. They have hundreds of yoga instructors across the UK for all types of yoga and all levels.

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