ARTICLE: What Is Yoga and Where Does It Come From?

By Margaret (Saraswati) Kruszewska

Origins of Yoga
No person or place can claim that they invented yoga. We can, however, consider the origins of yoga by studying the following sources: written references in sacred books (the most important being the Vedas), practices that have evolved in schools and communities that formed around influential teachers (called gurus), and depictions of yogic poses in ancient art.

What Is Written
You will not find any ancient book describing the yoga postures that you might do in a yoga class today.  Despite a popular belief in the yoga community that our current system of yoga is based on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (written down some time between 200 B.C.E. – 300 C.E.), the actual yoga poses are never described in this text.  The Yoga Sutras are a collection of short lines written down by Patanjali that provide a philosophy for the later development of yogic practices.  The 195 short sutras (lines) explore certain beliefs about how our mind and senses work in the world.

Likewise, yoga as we know it today, is not described in the Vedas either. Vedic texts consist of four or five sacred books, the oldest being the Rg Veda which dates to 1500 B.C.E.  References to prana and the importance of breath appear in the later sacred texts of the Upanisads.

More detailed written instructions on meditations and visualization practices appear in later Buddhist texts.  The idea of stilling the mind and creating a comfortable steady sitting pose is mentioned in all of these written references.

Philosophical commentaries, such as those written by Sankarahcarya, appear around the 8th century which create many debates and schools of thought about the physical world and the nature of our existence in it.  Yogic principles become further delineated into the margas (paths) and practices of hatha yoga (the strengthening and cleansing of the physical body), raja yoga (the power of the mind), jnana yoga (the seeking of knowledge), bhakti yoga (the devotion of emotions to the divine) and karma yoga (the ability to act in the world).  The role of karma yoga is more fully explained the famous text, the Bhagavad-Gita.

Guru Lineages
In more recent times, the poses and practices became more fully developed by gurus who interpreted Vedic passages and commentaries and blended them with existing oral knowledge and rituals within specific communities. There are also exist communities whose practices remain experience-based rather than centered on Vedic traditions.  Such non-Vedic practices are associated with various Tantric paths which continued older indigenous practices centered around sakti (divine female) worship.  The multitude of combinations and influences from all these sources is why there are many different schools of yoga, with many possible ways of understanding and defining what is considered yoga.

For example, the physical practice of the asanas (postures) in hatha yoga has become more important than other aspects of yoga for practitioners outside of India.  However, most of today’s leading yoga instructors have been taught or influenced by the teachings of gurus from India namely B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, T.S. Krishnamacharya, Swami Sivananda and T.K.V. Desidkachar.

Bhakti yoga, as expressed through kirtan and puja devotional ceremonies, which usually focus on a deity such as Durga, Siva or Krishna, have also become more prevalent within yoga communities of non-Indian devotees.  Contemporary spiritual leaders and saints such as Amritanandamayi (“Amma”) travel internationally serving practitioners through their darshan appearances.

Images of Yogic Postures
Although written history is often favored over evidence of yoga in paintings, drawings and statues, art reveals that similar yogic postures existed well before their written descriptions.  Also, many of these pre-history depictions show a female body in yogic postures whereas much of the later brahminical (controlled by the caste of priests called brahmins) practices excluded women from sacred rituals and practices.

These images also suggest the clear connection between plant and animal forms in yoga postures which later acquire such names as the Cobra, the Tree and the Eagle.  Considering that many of the philosophical thoughts about yoga were written down in very recent times, these pre-history images become even more significant.  Images also point to similar practices that already existed in Africa well before Vedic times in India.


Leave a Reply