The Journey of Yoga

By Alina Suchanski

Yoga, the union of physical, mental, and spiritual selves, is far more than a form of exercise – it’s a way of life. Alina Suchanski explains how this ancient Hindu tradition made its way to the rest of the world.

The modern yoga we know today evolved over thousands of years with its roots reaching the beginning of human civilisation when humans first realised their spiritual potential and began to develop techniques to grow it.

The Vedas, considered to be the origin of yoga philosophy, are the earliest recorded poetry and prose literature of the human race dating back more than 5000 years to about the year 3500 BCE (Before Common Era). A chain of generations kept this oral tradition alive and intact, passed down from teacher (guru) to student for more than 4000 years.

By Alina Suchanski

Yoga, the union of physical, mental, and spiritual selves, is far more than a form of exercise – it’s a way of life. Alina Suchanski explains how this ancient Hindu tradition made its way to the rest of the world.

The modern yoga we know today evolved over thousands of years with its roots reaching the beginning of human civilisation when humans first realised their spiritual potential and began to develop techniques to grow it.

The Vedas, considered to be the origin of yoga philosophy, are the earliest recorded poetry and prose literature of the human race dating back more than 5000 years to about the year 3500 BCE (Before Common Era). A chain of generations kept this oral tradition alive and intact, passed down from teacher (guru) to student for more than 4000 years. The Sanskrit word veda means knowledge. In India, the Vedas are regarded as the origin of Truth (Lemke, 2010).

The practice of yoga started during the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation in Northern India. It was first mentioned in Rig Veda, a collection of texts that consisted of rituals, mantras, and songs which were mainly used by Brahmans, the Vedic priests. It was slowly developed by Brahmans who eventually documented their practices and beliefs in the Upanishads, Sanskrit texts with over 200 scriptures.

Sanskrit – one of the earliest members of the Indo-European language family and the liturgical language of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism – is also one of the 22 official languages of India (Sanskrit, n.d.). Today it remains the language of yoga.

The word yoga itself means ‘yoke’ but is said to be derived from the Sanskrit word ‘yuj’ (to bind together) and is often interpreted as ‘union’.

Georg Feuerstein, a German Indologist specialising in the philosophy and practice of yoga, says that, “Yoga, which lies at the heart of India’s great cultures: Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina, is a spiritual [rather than religious] tradition. As such it is concerned with personal growth and the ultimate goal of complete self-transcendence to the point of perfect inner freedom.” (Feuerstein, 2007).

That ‘perfect inner freedom’ is often referred to as nirvana, meaning enlightenment or illumination, or liberation as release from suffering.

The single most influential text on yoga, the ‘Yoga Sutras’ was written by Patanjali, an Indian sage estimated to have lived between 200 BCE and 200 CE. In the Sutras, Patanjali outlines the eight limbs of yoga that, if followed, would lead to enlightenment. Ashtanga (the eight limbs) includes Yama and Niyama (ethical guidelines for social and individual conduct), Asana (posture), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (sense withdrawal), Dharana(concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (inner freedom).

It is worth noting that the only reference to asana in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is in the sentence: ‘sthira sukham asanam’ meaning ‘steady, easeful seated position’, that would enable the yoga practitioner to meditate for long periods of time, sometimes chanting Sanskrit mantras, his hands forming a ‘mudra’ (for example a ‘wisdom mudra’ is when the tips of the index finger and thumb are touching). Hence, the focus of yoga for thousands of years of its existence was solely the intellectual and spiritual development.

Yoga began to gain popularity in the West at the end of the 19th century. The first Hindu teacher to actively advocate and disseminate aspects of yoga to a western audience, Swami Vivekananda, toured Europe and the United States in the 1890s.

The English educated Vivekananda arrived on American shores in 1893 and was an instant success. Vivekananda publicly rejected hatha yoga in general and asana in particular, focusing instead on pranayama, meditation, and positive thinking. This was due to long-standing prejudices held by high-caste Indians like Vivekananda against yogis, fakirs and contortionists, who performed severe and rigorous postures for money.

Around the same time, a 19th-century Scandinavian gymnastics tradition developed by P.H. Ling had revolutionized the way Europeans exercised. Systems based on the Scandinavian model sprang up throughout Europe and became the basis for physical training in armies, navies, and many schools. These systems also found their way to India (Singleton, 2011).

In the early decades of the 20th century, India – like much of the rest of the world – was gripped by an unprecedented fervour for physical culture, which was closely linked to the struggle for national independence. Building better bodies, people reasoned, would make for a better nation, and improve the chances of success in the event of a violent struggle against the colonisers.

During the 1920s, teachers – like the nationalist physical culture reformist Manick Rao, his famous student Swami Kuvalayananda (1883-1966) along with Sri Yogendra (1897-1989) – blended asanas and other indigenous Indian techniques for combat and strength with the latest European techniques of gymnastics, weight-resistance exercises, and naturopathy. Their work is a large part of the reason we practise yoga the way we do today.

The other highly influential figure in the development of modern asana practice in 20th-century India was Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), who studied at Kuvalayananda’s institute in the early 1930s and went on to teach some of the most influential global yoga teachers of the 20th century, like B.K.S. Iyengar, Indra Devi, and T.K.V. Desikachar.

During his tenure as a yoga teacher under the great moderniser and physical culture enthusiast Krishnarajendra Wodeyar (the Maharajah of Mysore), Krishnamacharya formulated a dynamic asana practice, intended mainly for India’s youth, that was a mix of hatha yoga, wrestling exercises, and modern Western gymnastic movement, and unlike anything seen before in the yoga tradition (Singleton, 2011).

Krishnamacharya’s yoga was intended for men only. There were no girls or women in his classes, until in 1938 when Indra Devi asked to study with him.

Born Eugenie “Zhenya” Peterson in 1899 in Riga in the Russian Empire (now Latvia), she lost her father and the family fortune in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Eugenie and her mother moved to Berlin, where she became an actress and dancer. In 1927, she went to India, where she was cast in Sher-e-Arab (Arabian Knights). The 1930 premiere made her a film star in India, under a new stage name: Indra Devi.

She became interested in yoga and wanted to study under the yoga guru Krishnamacharya, who reluctantly accepted her as a student after his employer, the Maharaja of Mysore, spoke on her behalf. She was obliged to keep to the strict vegetarian diet and the monastic hours, with lights out at 9pm.

Upon completion of her studies, Devi left India and went to China, where in 1939 she held what are believed to be the first yoga classes in China and opened a school in Shanghai at the house of Madame Chiang Kai-shek – wife of the nationalist leader and a new yoga enthusiast.

After WW2 Devi went to the United States. In 1948, she opened a yoga studio in Hollywood, the first in Los Angeles. Devi taught her own form of hatha yoga, with asanas and pranayama, and avoided spiritual teaching, which she preferred to leave to yoga gurus. She died in 2002, aged 102. Devi’s advocacy of yoga for stress relief contributed to the widespread acceptance of yoga in America, and earned her the nickname “The First Lady of Yoga”.

In the late 60s, popular interest in yoga received a boost when the Beatles became interested in Indian music and culture. In 1966, the Beatles guitarist George Harrison met Indian sitar virtuoso, Ravi Shankar in London and visited India later that year for six weeks to study sitar under Shankar in Srinagar. Subsequently the Beatles included sitar music in some of their songs. In February 1968, the band travelled to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh, India, to take part in a three-month meditation course. Their time in India marked one of the band’s most prolific periods, yielding numerous songs and inspiring a greater public interest in Eastern spirituality, yoga, and meditation.

The entrance to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh, which has been closed for many years. The sign on the gate says ‘No Entry’ Photo: Alina Suchanski

Today, Hatha yoga is the most widely practised type of yoga in the West. The Sanskrit word ‘Hatha’ means ‘forceful’, referring to physical strength required to perform some postures. The two syllables ‘ha’ and ‘tha’ (with the ‘th’ pronounced as in ‘thyme’) have respective meanings of ‘sun’ and ‘moon’, put together they represent the union of the opposites, such as hot and cold or male and female.

Hatha yoga made the body the central focus of its approach to enlightenment by combining physical postures, controlled breathing, cleansing processes for body and mind, and meditation.

Much of the yoga that dominates the Western world has changed almost beyond recognition from the practices of ancient and medieval India.

To quote Mark Singleton in his article The Ancient & Modern Roots of Yoga: “Understanding yoga’s history and tangled, ancient roots brings us that much closer to true, clear seeing. It may also help to move us to a more mature phase of yoga practice for the 21st century”.

 

 

Sources: 1. Yoga Morality: Ancient Teachings at a Time of Global Crisis 2. Yoga Philosophy Manual v.1.2 3. Omniglot, the on-line encyclopaedia of writing systems and languages 4. Yoga Journal, The Ancient & Modern Roots of Yoga 5. Indra Devi & 6. The Beatles, Wikipedia