When I thought about putting a blog together based on yoga, I thought it definitely made sense to start from the very beginning, with a look at the origins of yoga. Obviously this is a blog, not a research paper, so we won’t go too in-depth! But I hope it might just get some of you thinking a little bit more about your own practice, and where it has come from.
Many Western yogis think of yoga as a purely physical exercise class, much like any other you would do in the gym. A lot of people also think that yoga a newly developed exercise. But there is so much more to it than that. It has a very old, rich and intricate history. My own background as a History graduate leads me to believe in the importance of understanding the history and the development behind this practice which gives so much to us. So. Let’s go! Yoga orginated in India, where it’s estimated to be about 5000 years old- some researchers think it may be even older- as much as 10,000 years old! It was initially practised by Vedic priests- a religion in India- and they used it as a way to ease the aches and pains that they picked up day to day- yes, even pre-technology societies suffered stress and pain in their lives! As yoga allowed these pains to ease, they could sit for longer periods of time in meditation- where they pondered on the big questions in life. What we recognise as yoga in Western society- the poses and movements- for the priests, was actually the smallest part of yoga. In the second century AD, an Indian sage by the name of Patanjali, wrote the Yoga Sutras, sutra meaning verse, which has become widely known as a classical yoga text. In it, he condensed the work of the yogis that had come before him into a short, easily read text. The main takeaway from his work is that there are 8 limbs in yoga- and one of these limbs is the yoga that we practice on our mats. (I will write another blog on Patanjali, where we will look at his work in more detail.)
So if the origins of yoga are in India- how did they come to spread across the world? Most yoga researchers agree that yoga came west in 1894(!), when a monk from Calcutta by the name of Swami Vivekenanda travelled around the United States to lecture on Hinduism and yoga. He planted the seed and after that, many more teachers and disciples of Indian gurus would travel to Europe and America. In the same vein, many yogis from the west travelled east to learn from those gurus and sages in their home lands. And in India, yoga started to move into the main stream- it was no longer just an activity for spiritual men, it was being practised by ordinary men and women, who may not have wanted to achieve enlightenment, but who were eager to maintain their bodies and their minds as they moved through the world. Today it’s estimated that there could be as many as 300 million yoga practitioners worldwide. And the number is continuing to rise as the benefits become more widely known, for example, the British Medical Journal reported reduced risk of cardio-vascular issues in those who practice regularly, as well as a link to increased mental health. For myself I know that no matter where I start a new class, I will always have someone tell me that their doctor recommended they take up yoga! Maybe you were also that person who has been recommended to give it a try! So the origins of yoga go back for millennia, and the roots are connected to a deep spirituality. This spirituality is not included in many western classes (although this is changing to a degree). But I do believe that there is a certain level of spirituality gained as you progress in your practice- as you become stronger in your body, you learn to control your breath and you learn to sit back from all of the thoughts swirling around your head. Once you can move through a few of the poses without too much effort, you start to realise just what a gift your body is- no matter what it can or can’t do. As you start to lose the stiffness in your joints with a regular practice, this can have a knock on effect for your day to day mood, and this translates off the mat as well, in our interactions with those around us, and also how we perceive and talk to ourselves. Thinking about how many people are practising around the world, you start to realise that we are all connected in different ways- and that’s something that we all need to hear and feel- particularly as many of us feel so disconnected at the minute. If you would like to begin your own origin story in yoga, feel free to sign up for one of my classes here ----- Or check out my Facebook and Instagram pages for more yoga pictures and stories.