The teachings of yoga are richly varied, emerging from the diverse and evolving cultures of India.
Yoga has a complex history of spiritual exploration, scientific experimentation, philosophical reflection, and creative expression.
The spiritual is all inclusive. Spiritual refers to what we can't see, the non physical, and in general it includes a sense of connection to our higher Self. It typically involves a search for meaning in life. Being spiritual doesn’t mean religious and yoga isn’t a religion, although it was conditioned by Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, among others.
What we know of the origins and development of yoga came to us via ancient texts, illustrations and songs, as well as oral transmission, passed through various yogic lineages.
VEDAS 1500–1000 BCE
While the history of yoga may be several thousand years old, the earliest known writings on yoga are found in ancient spiritual texts known as the Vedas. The Vedas originally existed in oral form and were passed down from master to student for generations until they were committed to writing.
The Vedas are not thought to have been revealed to a certain person or persons at a specific historical moment; they are believed to have always existed and were apprehended by sages in deep meditative states at some point prior to 1500 BCE but precisely when is unknown.
Although the word ‘Yoga’ first appears in the hymns of the oldest Ṛg Veda, it’s generally with reference to the chariot of war to which horses were yoked. However, the works do display the dawn of spiritual vision and human thought. The Vedas, meaning ‘knowledge’, are thought to contain the fundamental knowledge relating to the underlying cause of, function of, and personal response to existence.
The Vedas are a collection of hymns or poems and many of the Vedic songs are still shared today, in kirtan or call and response singing. They are said to elevate ones consciousness.
The Gayatri mantra from the Ṛg Veda, here translated by Deva Premal, is one of the most highly revered mantras:
Om bhur bhuvaḥ swaḥ
Bhargo devasya dhīmahi
Dhiyo yonaḥ prachodayāt
Through the coming, going and the balance of life
The essential nature illuminating existence is the adorable one
May all perceive through subtle intellect
The brilliance of enlightenment.
THE YOGA SUTRAS
No one knows exactly when Sri Patañjali lived, or even if he was a single person. Estimates of the dates range from 5,000 B.C. to 300 A.D.
Although he was not the discoverer, it was when Patañjali spoke about yoga, everything fell in line and so he became what was known as the founder. His texts, The Yoga Sutras, are the basis for all the various types of Yoga and meditation which are ever evolving today in all their forms (Ashtanga, Iyengar...).
Sutra means ‘thread’ and each sutra is the barest thread of meaning. He gave general principles and used specifics only as examples. This allowed, and continues to enable, the sincere seeker to find their own way. The practitioner is not then led by definitive detail. “Truth is One, Paths are Many” was the core approach and today this allows universally acceptance of all methods, realising the common spirit and goal. If there is something useful for you in any teaching, take it and make use of it. If there’s anything that is not useful, discard it.
There are almost 200 sutras,
traditionally divided into 4 volumes :
The teachings are not some unapproachable, divine mystery at which we can only bow. Patañjali wrote these sutras so that he could share the essential keys with you, but these essential keys cannot be reduced simply to sutras. The full or real meaning behind each sutra can only be understood through experience and a person’s journey to know and better themselves.
The first sutra states :
1.1 Atha yoganushasanam. (atha: now; yoga: yoga; anushasana: instruction)
Now the instruction of yoga is being made.
The second sutra goes on to define :
1.2 Yogash citta-vritti-nirodhah. (Yoga: means; nirodha: mastery; vrittis: thoughts; citta: mind.) Yoga (the means) is the mastery – discipline – of the thoughts of the mind.
Yoga is the mastery, the disciplining, not suppressing, of the thoughts of the mind. The goal is not to stop thoughts, as many think it is. Simply mechanically stopping thoughts will not keep them from coming back (YS1:18). We don’t want to stop our brain, we don’t want to stop thought, we don’t want to stop creating. If simply stopping thought is yoga, then a sleep, drugs, or coma is instant yoga.
The ancient yogis in many ways were no different from us in the modern world. As part of ordinary life, they had moments of clarity and moments of confusion, happiness and sadness, contentment and stress. Reflecting on the nature of their lives, they became more aware of their condition, they recognised that their incessant chatter in their mind was the source of their confusion and problems. Intrigued, they reflected more deeply on the mind, seeking to unravel the mystery of existence. Like most yoga students they wanted to become clearer, happier and more content. They learnt they could not just stop their mind but they learnt to make peace with their mental chatter and direct it. This is why Patañjali describes the nature and quality of thoughts, which thoughts to pursue and which to redirect, and how to gain clarity of what is reality, since it is not that we think, but how we think that is the problem.
1.3 Tada drashtuh sva-rupe’vasthanam. (Tada: then; drashtri: witness; avasthana: remains; sva-rupa: its own nature. ) From yoga’s success then, the witness, the self, abides in its own nature.
From yoga’s success the self doesn’t go or return to some state it does not have now. Our true nature knows we are great. This success of yoga is not a becoming, or a return. It is simply accessing what we really are and always have been, without our mind’s confusion. When we’re tapped into the true us, we gain access to the knowing that is held by our inner being, there is no doubt, we need no validation from the outside, we can love and trust ourself and everything we do feels right. We become proactive, living in the present, we see the bigger picture, we find that we are in control of our life.
The word ‘YOGA’ is derived from the Sanskrit root ’yuj’ which means to bind, join, attach or yoke. Yoga is the art which brings an incoherent and scattered mind to a reflective and coherent state, connecting you to your inner being.
“When you are inspired by some great purpose, all your thoughts break their bonds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.” - Sri Patañjali
Within the Yoga Sūtras, Patañjali sets out an eight-fold path, offering guidelines on mastery of the mind allowing an awakened, inspired, meaningful and purposeful life :
8 LIMBS of yoga
The mind is spurred into activity through yama, niyama and asana. Asana and pranayama bring the wavering mind to a state of some stability. The disciplines of pranayama and pratyahara bring about attentiveness, allowing focussed energy, which is then restrained in its state by dhyana and samadhi.
The first stages lay the foundation and as we progress, the higher states of yoga become more and more predominant.