by Jayaram V
The word yoga comes to us from the Sanskrit root word "yuz", It means to yoke, to unite. In the most ordinary sense yoga means uniting the body and the mind with the soul. In a dualistic sense it also means uniting the soul with the supreme self. In yoga, through a step by step process we try to dissolve the ego consciousness in the soul consciousness.
We practice yoga by withdrawing the mind and the senses from the myriad distractions of the world in order to obliterate the boundaries of identity and form we create for ourselves. In a true sense, yoga is the means to reverse the process of creation and our bondage to the cycle of births and deaths. In the Bhagavadgita we see a much broader approach to the concept of yoga.
According to the scripture, yoga means not just doing some mental or physical exercises, but uniting your actions, your thoughts, your life and yourself with the divine or a divine purpose. In other words you use your very life as the means to salvation, living every moment of it not for your selfish or egoistic goals and desires but as an offering to God and for the sake of God.
History of yoga
Our knowledge of yoga comes to us mostly from the Yogasutras of Patanjali, who lived some time during the early Christian era. The Yogasutras is the most authoritative ancient scripture on yoga. However Patanjali did not invent the system of yoga. It was practiced in the Indian subcontinent much before Patanjali by the followers of Jainism, Saivism, Buddhism and many ascetic traditions some of which were later integrated into the vedic religion.
The Indus people were probably familiar with some aspects of yoga. Followers of the Samkhya school used yoga as the means to liberate themselves from the hold of Prakriti. The Samkhya philosophy was probably the oldest of the Indian traditions to use yoga for spiritual liberation. The Jain yoga is also considered to be one of the most ancient yoga systems practiced in the Indian subcontinent.
It focused more on self-denial and restraint to the extent of self-mortification as the means to liberation. The Buddha was against hurting the body for spiritual aims. He advocated a softer approach or the the middle path in which the emphasis was more on using right means to achieve right ends. The ancient Buddhist yoga consisted of the practice of dhyana or meditation and becoming aware of breath and body sensations to cultivate mindfulness.
Yoga in the Vedic world
The Rigvedic people had some vague notions of yoga. They were familiar with Munis, the hermits, Vratyas, the austere ones and Kesins, the long haired ones, who practiced different ancient forms of Yoga. The Kesins had the ability to hold breath and levitate in the air. The Upanishadic seers or Rishis practiced yoga and used it as the means to practice equanimity and overcome death. One of the earliest references to meditation is found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
The practice of yoga in the vedic tradition was as a result of the internalization of the vedic ritual and its elevation symbolically from the material plane into the mental plane. This is evident in the Katha Upanishad, where outward and insincere ritual of Vajasravasas is discounted by the more honest and austere approach of Nachiketa towards the subject of liberation. The Katha Upanishad is the first vedic scripture to use the word "yoga" and define it as the control of senses to achieve the supreme state.
When young Nachiketa went, according to his father's wishes, to the world of Yama, the lord of death, Yama taught him the fire meditation and the contemplation of self (adhyatma yoga). The Svetasvatara Upanishad is more graphic in its details on how to practice yoga. It suggests how a yogi should hold his body erect, fix his mind and senses in his heart and practice breath control. The Upanishad lists some of the images a yogi may see in his meditation and the experiences he may undergo as he practices yoga.
Yoga is described in this Upanishad as the best means to overcome sickness, old age and death. The Maitri Upanishad speaks of six fold yoga, which is probably a variation of the eightfold yoga elucidated in the Yogasutras. Some of the Upanishads can be best described as yoga Upanishads because they deal with the subject of yoga exclusively. The Yoga Chudamani, Yogasikha and the Yoga Tattva upanishads are good examples of yoga Upanishads. They list the techniques and practices associated with various types of yoga and their relative importance in achieving liberation from the cycle of births and deaths.
Types of Yoga
The Yoga Upanishads identify four types of yoga. They are mantra yoga, laya yoga, raja yoga and hatha yoga. In the Bhagavadgita we find karma yoga, jnana yoga, karma sanyasa yoga, buddhi yoga and bhakti yoga. Mantra yoga involves continuous mental repetition of a mantra or some sacred syllable till the mind become completely absorbed in it. Japa yoga is a variation of mantra yoga. Sabda yoga is its opposite in which a yogi attempts to listen to an internal universal current of sound passively by withdrawing into himself. Laya yoga involves the dissolution of the lower self and the mental activity and the rising of the kundalini energy from the base of the spine to the tip of the head. Its more extreme version is Hatha yoga practiced by some schools of Saivism such as the Nath yogis and the Kalamukhas. It involves the practice of some extremely difficult bodily postures, breathing practices and use of certain chemicals to gain complete mastery over the body and the mind. Similar to Hatha yoga is the Siddha yoga made popular in recent times by Swami Muktananda. Raja yoga or the king of the yogas is the most standard form of yoga, described by Patanjali in his Yogasutras. It involves the practice of eight fold yoga which is described below. Karma yoga means performing desire less actions as an offering to god. Jnana yoga, bhakti yoga, buddhi yoga involve the use of knowledge, devotion, intelligence in a divine centric life as the means for the highest purpose of achieving liberation. They do not focus on the techniques but suggest a way of life in which the sole purpose is liberation from the cycle of births and deaths, by developing equanimity, detachment, purification of the mind and the body and increasing the quality of sattva or purity. Some of the yoga systems that became popular in modern times are Kriya yoga of Paramahansa Yogananda, integral yoga of Sri Aurobindo, Siddha yoga of Swami Muktananda, Sabda yoga of Radhasoami Satsang and Sahaja yoga of Mata Nirmala Devi.
The Yogasutras of Patanjali describes the ashtanga yoga or the eight limbed yoga. It is also popularly known as Raja yoga or the king of yoga. As the name implies it involves eight different practices, which are considered as the eight limbs of the body of yoga. The eight aspects of ashtanga yoga are: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi.
Yama means practice of restraints or precepts. Some call them abstentions. The five restraints suggested by Patanjali are: not to be violent, not to lie, not to steal, not to indulge in sex and not to be greedy. One can see some parallels among the five restraints of the yoga system, the four noble truths of the Buddha and five great vows or maha vratas of Jainism.
Niyama means rule or observance or discipline or practice. Patanjali suggested five rules or observances for the practitioners of yoga. They are practice of purity, (saucha), happiness or contentment (santosha), austerities or asceticism (tapas), study of the scriptures (svadhyaya) and surrender to God (Iswara Pranidhana).
Asana means method of seating. It involves assuming various bodily postures as the means to make the body supple and fit enough to receive higher energies and sustain higher consciousness
Pranayama means control of prana. It is done by regulating the in breathing, out breathing and holding the breath in between for certain periods of time to calm the mind and relax the body to experience higher states of consciousness.
Pratyahara means withdrawal of the senses from the sense objects. This is usually done by closing eyes, looking inwards and by focusing the attention on the area between the eye brows or on the thoughts and feelings that arise in the consciousness. Practice of pranayama also leads to withdrawal of the mind from the sense objects.
Dharana involves concentrating the mind on a single point or object such the image of a deity so as to overcome the sense of duality to which we are usually subject. In the final stages of dharana a practitioner experiences oneness with the object of his meditation by losing the distinction between the knower and the known or himself and the object of his meditation.
Dhyana means meditation, which can be either passive or active. Constant practice of dhyana leads to equanimity, tranquility and inner happiness
Samadhi is a state of self absorption in which the movements of the senses and the mind cease and all distinctions between the knower and the known disappear. It is a state of unity and subjectivity in which mind comes to a complete rest while the practitioner remains conscious but absorbed in himself. Samadhi is further categorized into savikalpa samadhi and nirvikalpa samadhi. In savikalpa samadhi the state of self-absorption is not complete and some activities of the mind are still going on, where as in nirvikalpa samadhi the mind is completely and utterly at rest and one has lost all notions of distinction or differentiation. Each of these states are further divided into different categories.
Benefits of Yoga
Constant practice of yoga leads to several benefits and many transcendental states of consciousness and experiences. These benefits and states of consciousness are enumerated in the third chapter of the Yogasutras. The highest and ultimate result of yoga is samadhi or the state of unity. leading to God realization and liberation. Some of the immediate benefits of yoga are increased health, body vigor, longevity, youthfulness, intelligence, inner peace, relaxation, self-control and mindfulness. Claims are made now a days that mass yoga practices will lead to world peace, reduce crime rate and contribute to the overall welfare of the mankind. Yoga which was originally meant for the liberation of individual souls is now presented as a solution for our global problems. While there is always an element of skepticism associated with such claims, there is no harm in practicing yoga for the welfare of the world or for the welfare of society. By thinking good about others no harm will ever come. Even if we assume that they do not do any real good, at least they will make people who participate in them feel better about themselves.
The yoga tradition recognizes several benefits of practicing yoga of which eight are considered to be the most important. One of the most important outcomes of practicing yoga is the attainment of supernatural powers or siddhis, which are listed below.
- Ability to become extremely small
- Ability to become extremely light
- Ability to become heavy
- Ability to move freely every where
- Irresistible will power
- Complete mastery over the body and the mind
- Control over the elements
- Ability to fulfill all desires
Other benefits mentioned in the Yoga sutras are knowledge of the past and future, intuition or pratibha, ability to read other people's minds and thoughts, knowledge of past lives, knowledge of the time of death, friendship, elephant strength, knowledge of the sun and the planets, knowledge of the body, steadiness of mind, extra sensory perception, ability to enter other bodies and body luster.
Yoga In the Modern World
The purpose of yoga is inner transformation leading to the liberation of individual souls. In the modern world it is increasingly used for physical and mental purposes rather than spiritual. Some practice yoga under the delusional belief that they can gain magical powers to attract wealth and other benefits. If one is merely interested in physical relaxation, better health and inner peace, there is no harm in practicing yoga purely for material reasons. One can remain contended practicing simple yoga postures, breathing exercises and meditation techniques after learning them from a qualified teacher and enjoy whatever good that may come out of them. But those who take to yoga for spiritual reasons, should always keep its ultimate purpose in their minds. They should be careful about their attitude towards siddhis or the magical powers because they are a trap and a great hindrance, which can reverse their spiritual evolution and throw them into great confusion. The yamas and the niyamas of the ashtanga yoga are more important than the exercises themselves because they build the character and integrity which come handy when the siddis or the spiritual powers begin to manifest themselves. Yoga is therefore a serious discipline and should be practiced with equal seriousness.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Origin, Principles, Practice and Types of Yoga
- Yoga, longevity and Quality of Life
- The Yoga Techniques and Practices
- About The Yogasutras and Patanjali
- Hinduism and yoga
- Yogasutras of Patanjali
- The Great Systems of Yoga,
- Samkhya and Yoga in Hinduism and Buddhism
- The Yoga philosophy
- Raja Yoga
- An Introduction to Yoga by Annie Besant
- The Hindu-Yogi Science Of Breath, by Yogi Ramacharaka
- The Mystic Christianity - Ancient Wisdom
- The Concept of Atman or Eternal Soul in Hinduism
- The Problem of Maya Or Illusion and How To Deal With It
- Belief In Atman, The Eternal Soul Or The Inner Self
- Brahman, The Highest God Of Hinduism
- The Bhagavad Gita Original Translations
- The Bhagavadgita, Philosophy and Concepts
- Bhakti yoga or the Yoga of Devotion
- Hinduism And The Evolution of Life And Consciousness
- Why to Study the Bhagavadgita Parts 1 to 4
- Origin, Definition and Introduction to Hinduism
- Symbolic Significance of Numbers in Hinduism
- The Belief of Reincarnation of Soul in Hinduism
- The True Meaning Of Renunciation According To Hinduism
- The Symbolic Significance of Puja Or Worship In Hinduism
- Introduction to the Upanishads of Hinduism
- Origin, Principles, Practice and Types of Yoga
A Short History of Yoga
by Georg Feuerstein
A SHORT HISTORY OF YOGA
Reprinted with permission (source)
HISTORY FOR YOGINS AND YOGINIS
In Yoga, theory and practice, as well as left brain and right brain, go hand in hand so to speak. Study (svâdhyâya) is in fact an important aspect of many branches and schools of Yoga. This is another way in which Yoga’s balanced approach shows itself.
If you want to know where something is going, it is good to know where it came from. “To be ignorant of what happened before one was born,” said Cicero pointedly in his Orator, “is to remain ever a child.” History provides context and meaning, and Yoga is no exception to this rule. If you are fond of history, you’ll enjoy what follows. Many of the facts and ideas presented here have not yet found their way into the textbooks or even into most Yoga books. We put you in touch with the leading edge of knowledge in this area. If you are not a history buff, well, perhaps we can tempt you to suspend your preferences for a few minutes and read on anyway.
THE ORIGIN OF YOGA
Despite more than a century of research, we still don’t know much about the earliest beginnings of Yoga. We do know, though, that it originated in India 5,000 or more years ago. Until recently, many Western scholars thought that Yoga originated much later, maybe around 500 B.C., which is the time of Gautama the Buddha, the illustrious founder of Buddhism. But then, in the early 1920s, archeologists surprised the world with the discovery of the so-called Indus civilization—a culture that we now know extended over an area of roughly 300,000 square miles (the size of Texas and Ohio combined). This was in fact the largest civilization in early antiquity. In the ruins of the big cities of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, excavators found depictions engraved on soapstone seals that strongly resemble yogi-like figures. Many other finds show the amazing continuity between that civilization and later Hindu society and culture.
There was nothing primitive about what is now called the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, which is named after two great rivers that once flowed in Northern India; today only the Indus River flows through Pakistan. That civilization’s urbane population enjoyed multistory buildings, a sewage system unparalleled in the ancient world until the Roman empire, a huge public bath whose walls were water-proofed with bitumen, geometrically laid out brick roads, and standardized baked bricks for convenient construction. (We are so used to these technological achievements that we sometimes forget they had to be invented.) The Indus-Sarasvati people were a great maritime nation that exported a large variety of goods to Mesopotamia and other parts of the Middle East and Africa. Although only a few pieces of art have survived, some of them show exquisite craftsmanship.
For a long time, scholars thought that this magnificent civilization was abruptly destroyed by invaders from the northwest who called themselves Aryans (ârya meaning “noble” in the Sanskrit language). Some proposed that these warlike nomads invented Yoga, others credited the Indus people with its creation. Yet others took Yoga to be the joint creation of both races.
Nowadays researchers increasingly favor a completely different picture of ancient Indian history. They are coming to the conclusion that there never was an Aryan invasion and that the decline of the Indus-Sarasvati cities was due to dramatic changes in climate. These in turn appear to have been caused by a major tectonic catastrophe changing the course of rivers. In particular, it led to the drying up of what was once India’s largest river, the Sarasvati, along whose banks flourished numerous towns and villages (some 2500 sites have been identified thus far). Today the dry river bed runs through the vast Thar Desert. If it were not for satellite photography, we would not have learned about those many settlements buried under the sand.
The drying up of the Sarasvati River, which was complete by around 1900 B.C., had far-reaching consequences. Just imagine the waters of the Mississippi running dry instead of flooding constantly. What havoc this would cause! The death of the Sarasvati River forced the population to migrate to more fertile parts of the country, especially east toward the Ganges (Ganga) River and south into Central India and Tamilnadu.
Why is this important for the history of Yoga, you might ask? The Sarasvati River happens to be the most celebrated river in the Rig-Veda, which is the oldest known text in any Indo-European language. It is composed in an archaic (and difficult) form of Sanskrit and was transmitted by word of mouth for numerous generations. Sanskrit is the language in which most Yoga scriptures are written. It is related to languages like Greek, Latin, French, German, Spanish, and not least English. You can see this family relationship on the example of the word yoga itself, which corresponds to zugos, iugum, joug, Joch, yugo, and yoke in these languages. Sanskrit is like an older brother to the other Indo-European languages.
Now, if the Sarasvati River dried up around or before 1900 B.C., the Rig-Veda must be earlier than that benchmark date. If that is so, then the composers of this collection of hymns must have been contemporaneous with the people of the Indus civilization, which flourished between circa 3000-1900 B.C. Indeed, astronomical references in the Rig-Veda suggest that at least some of its 1,028 hymns were composed in the third or even fourth millennium B.C.
Thus, the Sanskrit-speaking Aryans, who created the Rig-Veda, did not come from outside India to destroy the Indus-Sarasvati civilization. They had been there all along. What, then, was their relationship with the Indus-Sarasvati people? Here opinions still differ, but there is a growing understanding that the Aryans and the Indus-Sarasvati people were one and the same. There is nothing in the Rig-Veda to suggest otherwise.
In fact, the Rig-Veda and the other archaic Sanskrit texts appear to be the “missing” literature of the Indus civilization. Conversely, the archeological artifacts of the Indus valley and adjoining areas give us the “missing” material base of the early Sanskrit literature—an elegant solution to a problem that has long vexed researchers.
YOGA AND THE INDUS-SARASVATI CIVILIZATION
This means that Yoga is the product of a mature civilization that was unparalleled in the ancient world. Think of it! As a Yoga practitioner you are part of an ancient and honorable stream of tradition, which makes you a descendant of that civilization at least at the level of the heart. Many of the inventions credited to Sumer rightfully belong to what is now known as the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, which evolved out of a cultural tradition that has reliably been dated back to the seventh millennium B.C. In turn it gave rise to the great religious and cultural tradition of Hinduism, but indirectly also to Buddhism and Jainism.
India’s civilization can claim to be the oldest enduring civilization in the world. Its present-day problems should not blind us to its glorious past and the lessons we can learn from it. Yoga practitioners in particular can benefit from India’s protracted experimentation with life, especially its explorations of the mysteries of the mind. The Indian civilization has produced great philosophical and spiritual geniuses who between them have covered every conceivable answer to the big questions, which are as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago.
THE BIG QUESTIONS
Traditional Yoga seeks to provide plausible answers to such profound questions as, “Who am I?”, “Whence do I come?”, “Whither do I go?,” and “What must I do?” These are the sorts of questions that, sooner or later, we all end up asking ourselves. Or at least, we have our own implicit answers to them, though may not get round to consciously formulating them. Deep down, we all are philosophers, because we all need to make sense of our life. Some of us postpone thinking about these questions, but they don’t ever go away. We quickly learn this when we lose a loved one or face a serious health crisis.
So, we might as well ponder these questions while we are in good shape. And don’t think you have to feel morose to do so. Yoga doesn’t champion dark moods, but it is definitely in favor of awareness in all its forms, including self-awareness. If we know the stuff we are made of, we can function a lot better in the world. At the very least, our self-knowledge will give us the opportunity to make conscious and better choices.
THE HISTORY OF YOGA
I can provide here only the merest thumbnail sketch and, if you wish to inform yourself more about the long history of Yoga, recommend that you study my book The Yoga Tradition. This is the most comprehensive historical overview available anywhere. But be prepared for challenging reading and a fairly large tome.
The history of Yoga can conveniently be divided into the following four broad categories:
These categories are like static snapshots of something that is in actuality in continuous motion—the “march of history.”
Now we are entering somewhat more technical territory, and I will have to use and explain a number of Sanskrit terms.
The yogic teachings found in the above-mentioned Rig-Veda and the other three ancient hymnodies are known as Vedic Yoga. The Sanskrit word veda means “knowledge,” while the Sanskrit term rig (from ric) means “praise.” Thus the sacred Rig-Veda is the collection of hymns that are in praise of a higher power. This collection is in fact the fountainhead of Hinduism, which has around one billion adherents today. You could say that the Rig-Veda is to Hinduism what the Book of Genesis is to Christianity.
The other three Vedic hymnodies are the Yajur-Veda (“Knowledge of Sacrifice”), Sama-Veda (“Knowledge of Chants”), and Atharva-Veda (“Knowledge of Atharvan”). The first collection contains the sacrificial formulas used by the Vedic priests. The second text contains the chants accompanying the sacrifices. The third hymnody is filled with magical incantations for all occasions but also includes a number of very powerful philosophical hymns. It is connected with Atharvan, a famous fire priest who is remembered as having been a master of magical rituals. These hymnodies can be compared to the various books of the Old Testament.
It is clear from what has been said thus far that Vedic Yoga—which could also be called Archaic Yoga—was intimately connected with the ritual life of the ancient Indians. It revolved around the idea of sacrifice as a means of joining the material world with the invisible world of the spirit. In order to perform the exacting rituals successfully, the sacrificers had to be able to focus their mind for a prolonged period of time. Such inner focusing for the sake of transcending the limitations of the ordinary mind is the root of Yoga.
When successful, the Vedic yogi was graced with a “vision” or experience of the transcendental reality. A great master of Vedic Yoga was called a “seer”—in Sanskrit rishi. The Vedic seers were able to see the very fabric of existence, and their hymns speak of their marvelous intuitions, which can still inspire us today.
This category covers an extensive period of approximately 2,000 years until the second century A.D. Preclassical Yoga comes in various forms and guises. The earliest manifestations were still closely associated with the Vedic sacrificial culture, as developed in the Brâhmanas and Âranyakas. The Brâhmanas are Sanskrit texts explaining the Vedic hymns and the rituals behind them. The Âranyakas are ritual texts specific to those who chose to live in seclusion in a forest hermitage.
Yoga came into its own with the Upanishads, which are gnostic texts expounding the hidden teaching about the ultimate unity of all things. There are over 200 of these scriptures, though only a handful of them were composed in the period prior to Gautama the Buddha (fifth century B.C.). These works can be likened to the New Testament, which rests on the Old Testament but at the same time goes beyond it.
One of the most remarkable Yoga scriptures is the Bhagavad-Gîtâ (“Lord’s Song”), of which the great social reformer Mahatma Gandhi spoke as follows:
When disappointment stares me in the face and all alone I see not one ray of light, I go back to the Bhagavad-Gita. I find a verse here and a verse there and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming tragedies—and my life has been full of external tragedies—and if they have left no visible, no indelible scar on me, I owe it all to the teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita. (Young India, 1925, pp. 1078-79)
In its significance, this work of only 700 verses perhaps is to Hindus what Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is to Christians. Its message, however, is not to turn the other cheek but to actively oppose evil in the world. In its present form, the Bhagavad-Gîtâ (Gîtâ for short) was composed around 500 B.C. and since then has been a daily inspiration to millions of Hindus. Its central teaching is to the point: To be alive means to be active and, if we want to avoid difficulties for ourselves and others, our actions must be benign and also go beyond the grip of the ego. A simple matter, really, but how difficult to accomplish in daily life!
Preclassical Yoga also comprises the many schools whose teachings can be found in India’s two great national epics, the Râmâyana and the Mahâbhârata (in which the Bhagavad-Gîtâ is embedded and which is seven times the size of the Iliad and Odyssey combined). These various preclassical schools developed all kinds of techniques for achieving deep meditation through which yogis and yoginis can transcend the body and mind and discover their true nature.
This label applies to the eightfold Yoga—also known as Râja-Yoga—taught by Patanjali in his Yoga-Sûtra. This Sanskrit text is composed of just under 200 aphoristic statements, which have been commented on over and over again through the centuries. Sooner or later all serious Yoga students discover this work and have to grapple with its terse statements. The word sûtra (which is related to Latin suture) means literally “thread.” Here it conveys a thread of memory, an aid to memorization for students eager to retain Patanjali’s knowledge and wisdom.
The Yoga-Sûtra was probably written some time in the second century A.D. The earliest available Sanskrit commentary on it is the Yoga-Bhâshya (“Speech on Yoga”) attributed to Vyâsa. It was authored in the fifth century A.D. and furnishes fundamental explanations of Patanjali’s often cryptic statements.
Beyond a few legends nothing is known about either Patanjali or Vyâsa. This is a problem with most ancient Yoga adepts and even with many more recent ones. Often all we have are their teachings, but this is of course more important than any historical information we could dig up about their personal lives.
Patanjali, who is by the way often wrongly called the “father of Yoga,” believed that each individual is a composite of matter (prakriti) and spirit (purusha). He understood the process of Yoga to bring about their separation, thereby restoring the spirit in its absolute purity. His formulation is generally characterized as philosophical dualism. This is an important point, because most of India’s philosophical systems favor one or the other kind of nondualism: The countless aspects or forms of the empirical world are in the last analysis the same “thing”—pure formless but conscious existence.
This is again a very comprehensive category, which refers to all those many types and schools of Yoga that have sprung up in the period after Patanjali’s Yoga-Sûtra and that are independent of this seminal work. In contrast to classical Yoga, postclassical Yoga affirms the ultimate unity of everything. This is the core teaching of Vedânta, the philosophical system based on the teachings of the Upanishads.
In a way, the dualism of classical Yoga can be seen as a brief but powerful interlude in a stream of nondualist teachings going back to ancient Vedic times. According to these teachings, you, we, and everyone or everything else is an aspect or expression of one and the same reality. In Sanskrit that singular reality is called brahman (meaning “that which has grown expansive”) or âtman (the transcendental Self as opposed to the limited ego-self).
A few centuries after Patanjali, the evolution of Yoga took an interesting turn. Now some great adepts were beginning to probe the hidden potential of the body. Previous generations of yogis and yoginis had paid no particular attention to the body. They had been more interested in contemplation to the point where they could exit the body consciously. Their goal had been to leave the world behind and merge with the formless reality, the spirit.
Under the influence of alchemy—the spiritual forerunner of chemistry—the new breed of Yoga masters created a system of practices designed to rejuvenate the body and prolong its life. They regarded the body as a temple of the immortal spirit, not merely as a container to be discarded at the first opportunity. They even explored through advanced yogic techniques the possibility of energizing the physical body to such a degree that its biochemistry is changed and even its basic matter is reorganized to render it immortal.
This preoccupation of theirs led to the creation of Hatha-Yoga, an amateur version of which is today widely practiced throughout the world. It also led to the various branches and schools of Tantra-Yoga, of which Hatha-Yoga is just one approach.
The history of modern Yoga is widely thought to begin with the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. It was at that congress that the young Swami Vivekananda—swami (svâmin) means “master”—made a big and lasting impression on the American public. At the behest of his teacher, the saintly Ramakrishna, he had found his way to the States where he didn’t know a soul. Thanks to some well-wishers who recognized the inner greatness of this adept of Jnâna-Yoga (the Yoga of discernment), he was invited to the Parliament and ended up being its most popular diplomat. In the following years, he traveled widely attracting many students to Yoga and Vedânta. His various books on Yoga are still useful and enjoyable to read.
Before Swami Vivekananda a few other Yoga masters had crossed the ocean to visit Europe, but their influence had remained local and ephemeral. Vivekananda’s immense success opened a sluice gate for other adepts from India, and the stream of Eastern gurus has not ceased.
After Swami Vivekananda, the most popular teacher in the early years of the Western Yoga movement was Paramahansa Yogananda, who arrived in Boston in 1920. Five years later, he established the Self-Realizaton Fellowship, which still has its headquarters in Los Angeles. Although he left his body (as yogins call it) in 1952 at the age of fifty-nine, he continues to have a worldwide following. His Autobiography of a Yogi makes for fascinating reading, but be prepared to suspend any materialistic bias you may have! As with some other yogis and Christian or Muslim saints, after his death Yogananda’s body showed no signs of decay for a full twenty days.
Of more limited appeal was Swami Rama Tirtha, a former mathematics teacher who preferred spiritual life to academia and who came to the United States in 1902 and founded a retreat center on Mount Shasta in California. He stayed for only two years and drowned in the Ganges (Ganga) River in 1906 at the young age of thirty-three. Some of his inspirational talks were gathered into the five volumes of In Woods of God-Realization, which are still worth dipping into.
In 1919, Yogendra Mastamani arrived in Long Island and for nearly three years demonstrated to astounded Americans the power and elegance of Hatha Yoga. Before returning to India, he founded the American branch of Kaivalyadhama, an Indian organization created by the late Swami Kuvalayananda, which has contributed greatly to the scientific study of Yoga.
A very popular figure for several decades after the 1920s was Ramacharaka, whose books can still be found in used bookstores. What few readers know, however, is that this Ramacharaka was apparently not an actual person. The name was the pseudonym of two people—William Walker Atkinson, who had left his law practice in Chicago to practice Yoga, and his teacher Baba Bharata.
Paul Brunton, a former journalist and editor, burst on the scene of Yoga in 1934 with his book A Search in Secret India, which introduced the great sage Ramana Maharshi to Western seekers. Many more works flowed from his pen over the following eighteen years, until the publication of The Spiritual Crisis of Man. Then, in the 1980s, his notebooks were published posthumously in sixteen volumes—a treasure-trove for serious Yoga students.
Since the early 1930s until his death in 1986, Jiddu Krishnamurti delighted or perplexed thousands of philosophically minded Westerners with his eloquent talks. He had been groomed by the Theosophical Society as the coming world leader but had rejected this mission, which surely is too big and burdensome for any one person, however great. He demonstrated the wisdom of Jnana-Yoga (the Yoga of discernment), and drew large crowds of listeners and readers. Among his close circle of friends were the likes of Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Charles Chaplin, and Greta Garbo. Bernard Shaw described Krishnamurti as the most beautiful human being he ever saw.
Yoga, in the form of Hatha-Yoga, entered mainstream America when the Russian-born yoginî Indra Devi, who has been called the “First Lady of Yoga,” opened her Yoga studio in Hollywood in 1947. She taught stars like Gloria Swanson, Jennifer Jones, and Robert Ryan, and trained hundreds of teachers. Now in her nineties and living in Buenos Aires, she is still an influential voice for Yoga.
In the 1950s, one of the most prominent Yoga teacher was Selvarajan Yesudian whose book Sport and Yoga has been translated into fourteen or so languages, with more than 500,000 copies sold. Today, as we mentioned before, many athletes have adopted yogic exercises into their training program because . . . it works. Among them are the Chicago Bulls. Just picture these champion basket ball players stretching out on extra-long Yoga mats under the watchful eye of Yoga teacher Paula Kout! In the early 1950s, Shri Yogendra of the Yoga Institute of Santa Cruz in India, visited the United States. He pioneered medical research on Yoga as early as 1918, and his son Jayadev Yogendra is continuing his valuable work, which demonstrates the efficacy of Yoga as a therapeutic tool.
In 1961, Richard Hittleman brought Hatha-Yoga to American television, and his book The Twenty-Eight-Day Yoga Plan sold millions of copies. In the mid-1960s, the Western Yoga movement received a big boost through Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, largely because of his brief association with the Beatles. He popularized yogic contemplation in the form of Transcendental Meditation (TM), which still has tens of thousands of practitioners around the world. TM practitioners also introduced meditation and Yoga into the corporate world. It, moreover, stimulated medical research on Yoga at various American universities.
In 1965, the then sixty-nine-year-old Shrila Prabhupada arrived in New York with a suitcase full of books and $8.00 in his pockets. Six years later he founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), and by the time of his death in 1977, he had created a worldwide spiritual movement based on Bhakti Yoga (the Yoga of devotion).
Also in the 1960s and 1970s, many swamis trained by the Himalayan master Swami Sivananda, a former physician who became a doctor of the soul, opened their schools in Europe and the two Americas. Most of them are still active today, and among them are Swami Vishnudevananda (author of the widely read Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga), Swami Satchitananda (well-known to Woodstock participants), Swami Sivananda Radha (a woman-swami who pioneered the link between Yoga spirituality and psychology), Swami Satyananda (about whom we will say more shortly), and Swami Chidananda (a saintly figure who directed the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh, India). The last-mentioned master’s best known American student is the gentle Lilias Folan, made famous by her PBS television series Lilias, Yoga & You, broadcast between 1970 and 1979.
In 1969, Yogi Bhajan caused an uproar among the traditional Sikh community (an offshoot of Hinduism) when he broke with tradition and began to teach Kundalini Yoga to his Western students. Today his Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization—better known as 3HO—has more than 200 centers around the world.
A more controversial but wildly popular guru in the 1970 and 1980s was Bhagavan Rajneesh (now known as Osho), whose followers constantly made the headlines for their sexual orgies and other excesses. Rajneesh, a former philosophy professor, drew his teachings from authentic Yoga sources, mixed with his own personal experiences. His numerous books line the shelves of many second-hand bookstores. Rajneesh allowed his students to act out their repressed fantasies, notably of the sexual variety, in the hope that this would free them up for the deeper processes of Yoga. Many of them, however, got trapped in a mystically tinged hedonism, which proves the common-sense rule that too much of a good thing can be bad for you. Even though many of his disciples felt bitterly disappointed by him and the sad events surrounding his organization in the years immediately preceding his death in 1990, just as many still regard him as a genuine Yoga master. His life illustrates that Yoga adepts come in all shapes and sizes and that, to coin a phrase, one person’s guru is another person’s uru. (The Sanskrit word uru denotes “empty space.”) Another maxim that applies here is caveat emptor, “buyer beware.”
Other renowned modern Yoga adepts of Indian origin are Sri Aurobindo (the father of Integral Yoga), Ramana Maharshi (an unparalleled master of Jnana-Yoga), Papa Ramdas (who lived and breathed Mantra-Yoga, the Yoga of transformative sound), Swami Nityananda (a miracle-working master of Siddha-Yoga), and his disciple Swami Muktananda (a powerful yogi who put Siddha-Yoga, which is a Tantric Yoga, on the map for Western seekers). All these teachers are no longer among us.
The great exponent in modern times of Hatha-Yoga was Sri Krishnamacharya, who died in 1989 at the ripe old age of 101. He practiced and taught the Viniyoga system of Hatha-Yoga until his last days. His son T. K. V. Desikachar continues his saintly father’s teachings and taught Yoga, among others, to the famous Jiddu Krishnamurti. Another well-known student of Sri Krishnamacharya and a master in his own right is Desikachar’s uncle B. K. S. Iyengar, who has taught tens of thousands of students, including the world-famous violinist Jehudi Menuhin.
Mention must also be made of Pattabhi Jois and Indra Devi, both of whom studied with Krishnamacharya in their early years and have since then inspired thousands of Westerners.
Of living Yoga masters from India, I can mention Sri Chinmoy and Swami Satyananda (a Tantra master who established the well-known Bihar School of Yoga, has authored numerous books, and has disciples around the world). There are of course many other great Yoga adepts, both well known and more hidden, who represent Yoga in one form or another, but I leave it up to you to discover them.
Until modern times, the overwhelming majority of Yoga practitioners have been men, yogins. But there have also always been great female adepts, yoginîs. Happily, in recent years, a few woman saints—representing Bhakti-Yoga (Yoga of devotion)—have come to the West to bring their gospel of love to open-hearted seekers. Yoga embraces so many diverse approaches that anyone can find a home in it.
An exceptional woman teacher from India who fits none of the yogic stereotypes is Meera Ma (“Mother Meera”). She doesn’t teach in words but communicates in silence through her simple presence. Of all places, she has made her home in the middle of a quaint German village in the Black Forest, and every year is attracting thousands of people from all over the world.
Since Yoga is not restricted to Hinduism, we may also mention here the Dalai Lama, champion of nonviolence and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. He is unquestionably one of the truly great yogis of modern Tibet, who, above all, demonstrates that the principles of Yoga can fruitfully be brought not only into a busy daily life but also into the arena of politics. Today Tibetan Buddhism (which is a form of Tantra-Yoga) is extremely popular among Westerners, and there are many lamas (spiritual teacher) who are willing to share with sincere seekers the secrets of their hitherto well-guarded tradition.
If you are curious about Westerners who have made a name for themselves as teachers in the modern Yoga movement (understood in the broadest terms), you may want to consult the encyclopedic work The Book of Enlightened Masters by Andrew Rawlinson. His book includes both genuine masters (like the Bulgarian teacher Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov on whom I have written a book—The Mystery of Light) and a galaxy of would-be masters.
For a comprehensive history of Yoga, see my book The Yoga Tradition, published by Hohm Press. This dimension of Yoga is also covered in my 800-hour distance-learning course.
This site is devoted to presenting the ancient Self-Realization path of the Tradition of the Himalayan masters in simple, understandable and beneficial ways, while not compromising quality or depth. The goal of our sadhana or practices is the highest Joy that comes from the Realization in direct experience of the center of consciousness, the Self, the Atman or Purusha, which is one and the same with the Absolute Reality. This Self-Realization comes through Yoga meditation of the Yoga Sutras, the contemplative insight of Advaita Vedanta, and the intense devotion of Samaya Sri Vidya Tantra, the three of which complement one another like fingers on a hand. We employ the classical approaches of Raja, Jnana, Karma, and Bhakti Yoga, as well as Hatha, Kriya, Kundalini, Laya, Mantra, Nada, Siddha, and Tantra Yoga. Meditation, contemplation, mantra and prayer finally converge into a unified force directed towards the final stage, piercing the pearl of wisdom called bindu, leading to the Absolute.