Updated: Mar 31, 2022
a brief essay on the roots of yoga by Lauren Buys
Our story begins in the year 2021, some five to (liberally speaking) nine thousand years after the first Vedic litanies were said to be revealed to the Rishis; the seers of ancient times. A predominant number of yoga studios within my bustling habitat of New York City are lavished with scantily clad yogis wondering when their Urdhva Dhanurasana will be good enough to post on social media. The first years of my own ever evolving love affair with yoga were saturated in spandex and the fervent hunger to turn myself into a baked pretzel on a beach somewhere in South Asia. Globally, we see the yoga industry worth more than an astounding $80 billion. Furthermore when the average person is asked what yoga is, among the first images that spring to mind is an unrealistically flexible woman, draped head to toe in Lululemon, sporting the most fabulous rear-end you’ll ever see. All it takes is a couple thousand years to go from attempting to dissolve the mind by the light of knowledge, to assuming you might finally be happy if only you could nail your alignment in that darned warrior pose. Within a community imbued with trendy but empty “Namastes”, where do we go to find the true meanings of yoga? Where do her roots lie and what can we learn from digging deep into the soils from which she grows?
Our journey takes us to the Bronze Age civilization of the Indus Saraswati Valley, the area currently known as modern day Pakistan. Liberal historians date this ethnology to 7000BCE while their more conservative colleagues reign the date in to around 3500BCE. Couched within these years we find the existence of a caste of individuals known as Rishis- the seers- who were legendarily bestowed with a series of texts that later came to be known as the Vedas. The Vedas were never expounded by any teachers that we know of and the Rishis, to whom they were received, remain anonymous. Some scholars opine, though controversially, that these revelatory texts, with passages that wax lyrical but whose meaning is lost to time were inherited from other dimensions that lie beyond our intellectual grasps. As the world’s oldest surviving litanies, the Vedas hold within them ethereal passages with other-worldly qualities. With the mention of the ancient seers, we are met with another controversial topic- Soma. Soma was originally thought to have been a substance, plant medicine or alcohol that was ingested by the Rishis in order for them to commune with the elemental gods and nature sprits through detailed rituals. Now more commonly we can see Soma as a metaphor for an ambrosial substance, attained through a sustained spiritual practice, that can bring wisdom, knowledge and bliss. In more material findings, nestled within the Harappa archaeological site of the Indus Valley, small clay sculptures assuming potential yogic postures were discovered. These minute figurines were said to have been sacrificial offerings, thrown into the ceremonial fire, Agni, to be transformed from matter into spirit. We also have the unearthing of what would come to be known as the Pashupati seal or the proto-Shiva. Again, we encounter much contention as to whether these symbols hold within them any semblance to yoga at all with some historians strongly opposing any relationship between the two.
Like the Vedas, our next point of interest- the Upanishads- were originally an oral tradition passed down verbally through hymn, mantra and song. Upanishadic seers who were beginning to discover how the Vedas might be employed more practically undertook the job of discerning its underlying symbolism. They endeavored to look at things such as Agni- literal fire- and recognized how within their own bodies was a fire that dwelled in the belly, dissolving food- the sacrifice fed to their inner Agni. Vayu, the God of Wind, was found to exist within the human form too. In every breath they took, in every sneeze, laugh, cough they found various winds moving through the body. And as they became interested in these winds, they found that by changing the breath, they could change how they felt. With these hints into a plethora of metaphorical meanings within the Vedas, the Upanishadic seers moved away from their city dwellings into the surrounding forests and other secluded areas to create commentaries, if you will, on the Vedas. Here is where the first Upanishadic texts were developed, devoted to the teachings of ascetic renunciates- making practical the esoteric dimensions of the Vedic litanies. Literally translated, Upanishad means “To be totally immersed in truth” or “To sit near truth/to sit near a teacher”. This format of the Upanishads is central to Indian Philosophy; the accepted student or disciple would sit near the teacher or realized being and listen to and debate their teachings. This exchange of thought remains a focal point among yogic scholars today. And it is from these Upanishads that the earliest known definition of yoga comes to fruition, in the third century BCE, in a dialogue between the boy Naciketas and Yama, the God of death whereby Yama expresses that to be united and yoked with the Divine is the attainment of the supreme goal of life. Yama says to the boy “Know the Self as lord of the chariot, the body as the chariot itself, the discriminating intellect as the charioteer, and the mind as reins. The senses, say the wise, are the horses; selfish desires are the roads they travel.” He goes on to explain that if these senses are not brought under control, the result is rebirth. The condition under which the senses are held steadily and without distraction is called, in the sixth chapter of the Upanishads, ‘yoga’.
Around 500BCE Indian philosophy is flourishing. A powerful thinker is born to a great Northern Indian kingdom. His name is Siddhartha Gautama and he will later come to be known as the Buddha. His father, the king, was told that the prince had two possible destinies; he would either become a great emperor of the world or, much to the king’s dismay, he would become a monk. As a means, at all costs, to avoid the latter from coming to fruition the king sheltered Siddhartha within the pleasure gardens of the kingdom. Up until his late twenties, Siddhartha, being showered with opulence and beauty, had no idea of the ills of the world. It was only when he demanded that his servant take him outside of the palace that he was able to see through the illusions created for him by his father. He was made privy at that moment to sickness, old age and death and was shaken to his very core. Another thing that he happened to see while outside of the safety of the palace walls was a monk. This image of a monk, possibly meditating, stirred within him a desire to seek for himself a way to end the suffering that he had just witnessed. That evening, on horseback, he left his beloved wife and child, the richness and ease of his palatial existence, and began his life as a monk and a yogi. As he ventured deeper into this new world he began to notice an error- that the practices prescribed to these yogis created within them the same errors that they were trying to erase. Rather than dissolving the ego and the sense of self, his opinion was that these practices of austerities fortified the ego of the practitioner with a “holier than thou” mindset. Ever attempting to solve the issue of suffering, he began to meditate under the Bodhi tree. After some 49 days of meditation the Buddha finally rose and was legendarily met by a child who looked at him and asked not “who are you?” But instead “what are you?”
“I am the Buddha,” he responded “The one who is awake. The one who is realized.” The Buddha recognized, under the fig tree (the Bodhi tree) that life itself is suffering and that this suffering comes about through desires, attachments and clinging. He began to teach to the common people what was formerly only taught to those who left their lives to study under a Guru within the outskirts of society. He taught the idea of emptiness, of the great void, that was believed to ultimately bring liberation to anyone who desired to end suffering within the world.
Fast forward to around 200 BCE and the earth is gifted with a sage by the name of Patanjali. The mystic was said to have authored books on medicine and Sanskrit- the ancient tongue from which most of our modern day languages find their roots. Among his studies and writings he created his renowned masterpiece The Yoga Sutras where finally, yoga became spotlit in all of her glory. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras came to be known as a practical guide, a roadmap to accompany one along their spiritual journey. He was able to take what had, for eons, been passed down mainly through oral faculties and transform this knowledge into an understandable and translatable collection of aphorisms. As mentioned in the Katha Upanishad, the path to God-Realization is very difficult, like walking along the edge of a sharp razor blade and the Yoga Sutras were a much needed manual that would reach the hands of countless seekers. Patanjali’s corpus of knowledge describing ways in which to educate the body, mind and senses for spiritual advancement in natural evolution would come to assist practitioners of yoga for centuries.
Contemporary yoga of the 21st century places a dominating emphasis on posture, asana and alignment. Prior to the 15thcentury, however, the word asana referred to a comfortable way of sitting for meditation or pranayama. Non seated yoga postures weren’t taught in yogic texts at all until the end of the first millennium CE. Between the years 500-1500AD Hatha yoga, or the Yoga of Force, flourished and became predominant in the East. Austerities or tapas were a method used by yogis to burn off past karmas. Fierce mental and physical exercises were practiced and trained in order to acquire and become closer to Truth. Most commonly, extreme breath control, retention and suspension were expanded upon as a means to control one’s life force or prana. With this supreme control of the breath came control of the practitioner’s life. Extensive cleansing practices were exercised in order to purify and strengthen the physical body thus allowing it to become molded and formed into an alchemical vehicle for spiritual realization. The texts of Hatha yoga are where we discover the idea of the body as a microcosm of the universe. The earth, air, fire, water and ether are all found in the energetic centers of the body called Chakras. The Hatharatnavali elaborates- “The spine is Mount Meru and the bones are the major mountains. The fire of time is at the root. The disc of the moon is at the skull. Other heavenly bodies are said to exist like this. The wise should practice yoga on them.”
Following it’s peak in the medieval ages, Hatha yoga fell into a dark age of it’s own. It was practiced by small groups of outliers that resided on the very edges of society. By the 19th century it was considered no more than a cultural curiosity performed by charlatans and con artists. It was only at the beginning of the modern era of yoga, the late 1900s that, in an effort to promote Indian culture, Krishnamacharya began to revitalize Hatha yoga. Along with names that most yogis will be more than familiar with such as BKS Iyengar and Sri. K Patthabi Jois, Krishnamacharya became known as one of the teachers that brought Hatha yoga to the west. His ability to remain shrouded in the spiritual world of yoga while still maintaining his stature as a man of society, a householder with a wife and child, was an easily translatable demonstration of how one didn’t need to be an ascetic or devotional monk in order to include yoga in their lifestyle.
A two thousand worded essay allows one to just skim the depth and richness of the history of yoga. It gives us but a glimpse into her complexities and beauties which go so much further than what many of us are taught in a 45 minute vinyasa class. It does seem that yoga has morphed and evolved to suit the seekers of her times but one thing remains strongly throughout the ages, we are all searching for liberation, for happiness and regardless of how she presents herself to us or rather, how we imagine her presentation within the turning of our own minds, yoga permits us to go just a little bit deeper into ourselves than we may ever have thought possible; to take a look at our own roots and to tend to the soil from which we grow and evolve.