The contemporary western approach to yoga is not based on any particular belief or religion, however Yoga does has its roots in Hinduism and Brahmanism. Yoga was developed by seers or ascetics living primarily in the southern parts of India. The seers observed nature and lived as close as they could to the earth, studying the many aspects of nature, the animals and themselves. By observing and emulating the different postures and habits of the animal kingdom they were able to develop grace, strength and wisdom.
It was through these very Yoga disciplined lives that the practice of the yoga postures were developed. It was necessary to develop a series of postures to keep the body lithe and able to endure long periods of stillness when in meditation.
Brahmanism dates back to containing sacred scriptures called “the Vedas”. These scriptures contained instructions and incantations. It was in the oldest text “Rg-Veda” from the scriptures that the word Yoga first appeared, this was nearly 5000 years ago. The fourth text called “Atharva-Veda” contains mainly spells for magical rites and health cures many of which use medicinal plants. This text provided the average person with the spells and incantations to use in their everyday life and this practice of “Veda” can still be seen in the streets of India today.
The Bhagavad-Gita, another ancient work on spiritual life describes itself as a yoga treatise, although it uses the word Yoga as a spiritual means. It was from this literature that Patanjali’s “eight limbs of yoga” were developed. Yoga Sutra’s are primarily concerned with developing the “nature of the mind” and I will explain more of this in the next section.
The vratyas, a group of fertility priests who worshipped Rudra, god of the wind would attempt to imitate the sound of the wind through their singing. They found that they could produce the sound through the control of their breath and through this practice of breath control was formed “Pranayama”. Pranayama is the practice of breath control in yoga.
The Upanishads, which are the sacred revelations of ancient Hinduism developed the two disciplines of karma yoga, the path of action and jnana yoga, the path of knowledge. The paths were developed to help the student liberate from suffering and eventually gain enlightenment.
The teaching from the Upanishads differed from that of the Vedas. The Vedas demanded external offerings to the gods in order to have an abundant, happy life. The Upanishads through the practice of Karma yoga focused on the internal sacrifice of the ego in order to liberate from suffering. Instead of the sacrifice of crops and animals (external) it was the sacrifice of the inner ego that would become the basic philosophy, thus yoga became known as the path of renunciation.
Yoga shares some characteristics also with Buddhism that can be traced back through history. During the sixth century B.C., Buddhism also stresses the importance of Meditation and the practice of physical postures. Siddharta Gautama was the first Buddhist to actually study Yoga.
Yoga Sutra is a compilation of 195 statements which essentially provide an ethical guide for living a moral life and incorporating the science of yoga into it. An Indian sage called Patanjali was believed to have collated this over 2000 years ago and it has become the cornerstone for classical yoga philosophy.
The word sutra means literally “a thread” and is used to denote a particular form of written and oral communication. Because of the brusque style the sutras are written in the student must rely on a guru to interpret the philosophy contained within each one. The meaning within each of the sutras can be tailored to the student’s particular needs.
The Yoga Sutra is a system of yoga however there is not a single description of a posture or asana in it! Patanjali developed a guide for living the right life. The core of his teachings is the “eightfold path of yoga” or “the eight limbs of Patanjali” . These are Patanjali’s suggestions for living a better life through yoga.
Posture and breath control, the two fundamental practices of yoga are described as the third and fourth limbs in Patanjali’s eight-limbed path to self-realisation. The third practice of the postures make up today’s modern yoga. When you join a yoga class you may find that is all you need to suit your lifestyle.