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Yoga History & the Modern Practice

Posted by on Jun 15, 2010

Yoga came from Northern India well over 5000 years ago as far as western researchers can tell, but many experts believe yoga has been around for over 10,000 years.  The word “yoga” was first used in the Rig Veda, a religious text which explained the rituals of the Vedic priests. Later, the Upanishads, a document containing a collection of over 200 scriptures on yoga was compiled.  The most well-known of these scripts was the Bhagavad-Gita.

Though yoga has its origins in religious texts it has been adapted and refined through thousands of years of practice.  Rishis (mystic seers) practiced the rituals outlined in the ancient texts and man of them were passed down orally from master to student.     It was assumed that yogic knowledge could only been passed down in this way, as the teacher would have a singular and intimate knowledge of a student’s particular strengths and weaknesses, and the lessons passed on from guru (teacher) to Sadhak (student) were based on the teachers insights into the students personalized spiritual evolution.  That teacher would be able to know what particular difficulties the student would have in letting go of her egoic mind, for example. A guru would not just teach a student the myriad yoga asanas, but also guide them in internalizing wisdom, completing karmic yoga in order to burn off samskaras (emotional and mental tendencies toward guilt, fear, and ego), and how to accumulate wisdom.

When yoga was first practiced by the ancients, it was an accumulation of a variety of ideas, not unlike the dawn of any evolutionary movement in human culture. Think of the romantic era, the eighteenth and nineteenth century reaction in literature, philosophy, art, religion and politics from the neoclassicism from the previous period to a more evolved view of the world.   Teachings in yoga, as in the romantic period, often contradicted each other, in the same way that one artist or musician might convey the same philosophical slant with different techniques or styles.  This, as in yoga, did not make one style more violate than another, only greater diversified the yogic history from which we draw our practices today.  

Modern yoga does not adhere strictly to its many-centuries old roots, but its benefits should not be discarded just because it is not see as a “pure” practice.  Although it should be learned from a well-versed teacher, if you question what you learn and apply it to your own personal practice the same way you would weigh a diagnosis from a doctor, then you should progress on your yogic path.  Even good teachers can lead a yogi astray if she does not listen to her own intuition. There are times in your practice you may need a more invigorating asana practice and other times when strict meditation ay be right for you, such as during times of illness or stress.  No one practice can be prescriptive.  If nothing else, yoga should teach you a greater awareness of your own body and mind so that you can make intuitive decisions about how to continue with greater confidence.
C. Sarich (C) 2010

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