Yoga: Fundamentals, History and Development

What is Yoga & How Did it Originate?

Yoga Pose
Yoga can lead to the union of individual consciousness and universal consciousness. Photo © Ananya Chaudhuri

Yoga is essentially a spiritual discipline based on an extremely subtle science which focuses on bringing harmony between mind and body.

Defining 'Yoga'

It is an art and science for healthy living. The word ‘Yoga’ is derived from the Sanskrit root meaning ‘to join’, ‘to yoke’ or ‘to unite.’ According to Yogic scriptures, the practice of Yoga leads to the union of individual consciousness with universal consciousness.

Modern science says, everything in the universe is just a manifestation of the same quantum firmament. One who experiences this oneness of existence is said to be ‘in Yoga’ and is termed as a 'Yogi' who has attained a state of freedom, referred to as mukti, nirvāna, kaivalya or moksha.

‘Yoga’ also refers to an inner science comprising of a variety of methods through which human beings can achieve union between the body and mind to attain self-realization. The aim of Yoga practice (sādhana) is to overcome all kinds of sufferings that lead to a sense of freedom in every walk of life with holistic health, happiness and harmony.

Brief History & Development of Yoga

The science of Yoga has its origin thousands of years ago, long before the first religion or belief systems were born. According to Yogic lore, Shiva has seen as the first yogi or ādiyogi and the first guru or ādiguru. Several thousand years ago, on the banks of lake Kantisarovar in the Himalayas, poured his profound knowledge into the ādiyogi legendary or ‘seven sages’ or saptarishis.

These sages carried this powerful Yogic science to different parts of the world including Asia, the Middle East, northern Africa and South America. Interestingly, modern scholars have noted and marveled at the close parallels found between ancient cultures across the globe. However, it was in India that the Yogic system found its fullest expression.

Agastya, the saptarishi who travelled across the Indian subcontinent, crafted this culture around a core Yogic way of life.

Yoga is widely considered as an ‘immortal cultural outcome’ of the Indus Saraswati Valley Civilisation – dating back to 2700 BC – and has proven itself to cater to both material and spiritual uplift of humanity. A number of seals and fossil remains of Indus Saraswati Valley Civilisation with Yogic motifs and figures performing Yoga sādhana suggest the presence of Yoga in ancient India. The seals and idols of the Mother Goddess are suggestive of Yoga. The presence of Tantra Yoga is also available in folk traditions, Vedic and Upanishadic heritage, Buddhist and Jain traditions, epics of the Darshanas, the Mahabharata including the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana, theistic traditions of Shaivas, Vaishnavas and Tantric traditions. Though Yoga was being practiced in the pre-Vedic period, the great sage Maharishi Patanjali systematised and codified the then existing Yogic practices, its meaning and its related knowledge through Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.

After Patanjali, many sages and Yoga masters contributed greatly for the preservation and development of the field through well documented practices and literature.

Yoga has spread all over the world by the teachings of eminent Yoga masters from ancient times to the present date. Today, everybody has conviction about Yoga practices towards the prevention of disease, maintenance and promotion of health. Millions and millions of people across the globe have benefited by the practice of Yoga and the practice of Yoga is blossoming and growing more vibrant with each passing day.

The Fundamentals of Yoga

Yoga works on the level of one's body, mind, emotion and energy. This has given rise to four broad classifications of Yoga: where Karma Yoga we utilise the body; where we utilise the mind; Jnāna Yoga Bhakti Yoga where we utilise the emotion and Kriya Yoga where we utilize the energy. Each system of Yoga we practice falls within the gamut of one or more of these categories.

Every individual is a unique combination of these four factors. Only a guru (teacher) can advocate the appropriate combination of the four fundamental paths as is necessary for each seeker. All ancient commentaries on Yoga have stressed that it is essential to work under the direction of a guru.

Traditional Schools of Yoga

The various philosophies, traditions, lineages and trainer-disciple tradition or guru-shishya paramparas of Yoga led to the emergence of different traditional schools. These include Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, Pātanjala Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Dhyāna Yoga, Mantra Yoga, Laya Yoga, Raja Yoga, Jain Yoga, Bouddha Yoga, etc. Each school has its own approach and practices that lead to the ultimate aim and objectives of Yoga. In modern times, Vikram Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, Sivananda Yoga and other branded schools have become popular with Yoga buffs around the world.