In modern times, Yoga is heading in a direction that concerns a great many people who honour and respect this age-old tradition. The history of Yoga spans from four to eight thousand years ago to the current day. The physical, mental and spiritual health benefits of yoga are vast and there is something for everyone.
So, here is a quick look at the history of Yoga which will help us appreciate its rich tradition.
The origin of Yoga can be traced as long as 5000 years back. Although it is said to be as old as civilization, there is no physical evidence to support this claim. The earliest reference to Yoga was found when archeological excavations where made in the Indus valley - the most powerful and influential civilization in the early antique period.
Archeological findings from two of the largest cities, Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, revealed a portrait of a human being or God meditating in what looks like a Yoga posture or Yoga poses. The stone seals place Yoga’s existence around 3000 B.C.
Many scholars believe that Yoga origin dates back over 5,000 years to the beginning of human civilization. Scholars believe that yoga grew out of Stone Age Shamanism, because of the cultural similarities between Modern Hinduism and Mehrgarh, a neolithic settlement (in what is now Afghanistan).
In Hindu literature, the term ‘Yoga’ first occurs in the Katha Upanishad, where it refers to control of the senses and the termination of mental activity leading to a supreme state. Important textual sources for the evolving concept of Yoga are the middle Upanishads, the Mahabharata including the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
For better understanding, we can divide Yoga into four periods: the Vedic Period, Pre-Classical Period, Classical Period, and Post-Classical Period.
The oldest written records of Indian culture and yogic activities is found in the Vedas, which are a compilation of hymns and rituals over 3000 years old.
During this time, the Vedic people relied on rishis or dedicated Vedic Yogis to teach them how to live in divine harmony.
This period in Yoga history spans about 2000 years, until year 200. The creation of the Upanishads - a collection of texts revolving around meta-physical speculation marks the Pre-Classical Yoga period.
In this period, Yoga was slowly finding its form. And as it started spreading from teacher to student, the concept of an individual system of thought began to take shape.
The eight-limbed Yoga described in the Sutras by Patanjali is usually referred to as Classical Yoga. It was most likely written around year 100-200 A.C. and consists of about 200 aphorisms (words of wisdom). Here Yoga is presented in a systematic and open-minded way and many yogis see it as an important source of yogic understanding.
Patanjali believed that every individual consists of two parts - matter (prakiti) and soul (purusha) and that the goal of Yoga is to free the soul from the material world in order to take its original, pure form.
During this period, Yogis attempted to use Yoga techniques to change the body and make it immortal.
Post-classical Yoga differs from the first three since its focus is more on the present. The Yoga of this era was characterized by non-dualistic nature. It doesn’t strive to liberate a person from reality but rather teaches one to accept it and live in the moment.
During this period, Yoga took an interesting turn - the potential of the human body now became an interesting field of study. Earlier, Yogis never used to pay attention to the (physical) body, as their main focus was on meditation and to re-unite with the soul.
But, it was during this period that the human body was started being recognized as the temple of the immortal soul and not just a meaningless vessel to be dumped at the first opportunity.
Thus, we see that the Yoga as we know today is a result of a complex evolution that has been going on for at least 5000 years.