Yoga: the trendy practice that your hippie, hipster, or fitness friends rave about. Garbed in yoga pants and carrying colorful mats bought off Amazon, the modern-day “yogi” attends one-hour classes that focus on physical stretching, movement, and detoxing from their busy modern lives.
We hear a lot about the benefits of yoga, from its ability to decrease stress, chronic pain, as well as the risk for chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
What we don’t hear about as often, however, is the history of yoga. Most people are aware of its Indian spiritual and religious roots, but those tend to get washed out by the manufactured, commodified versions of yoga we see today.
Perhaps that’s because research on yoga’s origins is hard to find, and its history is a complicated, lengthy narrative. In fact, yoga is incredibly complex — even the word “yoga” has taken on hundreds of different meanings and practices throughout the years. What you and I might assume is “yoga” is probably not even closely related to what yoga was thousands of years ago.
“Nearly all of our popular assumptions about yoga theory date from the past 150 years, and very few modern-day practices date from before the twelfth century,” David Gordon White, a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, writes in his paper, Yoga, Brief History of an Idea. “This is not the first time that people have ‘reinvented’ yoga in their own image.”
We can try to delineate the history of yoga — at least a brief one. But a practice so rich in religious, spiritual, and physical meaning would take years or even a lifetime to fully understand, grasp, and manifest.
3300-1500 BCE. Historians aren’t entirely sure when the notion or practice of yoga first appeared, and it’s often left to debate. The term “yoga,” however, is found in ancient India’s earliest known scripts — the Vedas. They that date from the Vedic period, which began in 1500 BCE. Composed in Vedic Sanskrit, the Vedas are the oldest writings of Hinduism and Sanskrit literature.
White notes in his paper that the term “yoga” in the Vedas actually refers to a yoke, as in the yoke over animals — and at times a chariot in the midst of battle. Interestingly, in some of these very early writings, yoga was used to describe a warrior dying and transcending into heaven, being carried by his chariot to reach the gods and higher powers of being.
During the Vedic period, Vedic priests who were ascetic — severely self-disciplined and avoidant of any forms of indulgence — conducted sacrifices, or yajna, in poses that some researchers believe are precursors to the yoga poses, or asanas, we experience now.
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