A glimpse on yoga history

July 30, 2015
A Glimpse on Yoga History

I love learning. I love understanding where we come from to get where we want to go. That’s why I started asking myself questions about where does yoga really come from. How did it all started? It seems like a completely different reality in India, and I wanted to know more about how such a philosophy and way to live got to us in the form that we actually practice it nowadays. 

The First Practioners

At the beginning there were the Yoga Sutras. Early practioners, if they were to follow Patanjali’s teachings, were practicing asanas for what they were, as one of the eight limbs of yoga. These asanas were being used as a way to learn to control the body to be able to sit longer in meditation. BTW, that’s also what asana means: the art of sitting still. These guys didn’t really care about fitness, they didn’t have the dilemma of having to choose between yoga or spinning to get their health fix. They were focusing on getting free, not looking for an another spin on earth (what a play of word enh? Spinning, spin on earth as in Samskara, the never ending circle of suffering until liberation, Sadhana…yogi jokes, I know, it’ll get better as you learn more and will be able to share those insides, and I’ll feel less lonely for sure!)

Yoga in India only became a way to build stronger bodies at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Indians realized that being physically fit would improve their chances of success if they were ever to fit the colonizers. “Yoga” teachers traveled the country to teach combat techniques inspired by a mix of European gymnastics and weight-resistance exercices and the Indian physical culture systems to prepare the population for an uprising against the British.  The work of Kuvalayananda and Yogendra, two of these teachers in the 1920s, is what inspired yoga as we mostly practice it today. Funny enh that a discipline that we think of as very peaceful and calm was developed to fight back?!

The 20th-Century Masters

In the twenties and the thirties, yoga exploded in India, with the work of two important masters, Krishnamacharya and Sivananda.

In the early 1930s, Krishnamacharya, who studied at the Kuvalayananda’s institute, opened the first Hatha Yoga School in Mysore. He was steeped in the traditional teachings of Hinduism, but also not afraid to innovate. Inspired by the hatha yoga, the wrestling exercices and the European gymnastics like his teacher, Ksihnamacharya developed a dynamic asana practice never seen before in the traditional practice of yoga. It was the beginning of what we know today as Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, and other contemporary types of flow practices and Power Yoga methods. Krishnamacharya also taught to three of the most popular masters of the twentieth century, B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V Desikachar and Pattabhi Jois, who each developed their own method.

As for Sivananda, he founded the Divine Life Society and wrote more than 200 books on yoga, leaving us this great heritage of knowledge and wisdom.

Bringing It To The West

Bringing over these teachings to the West was slow, but the ground was fertile for yoga teachers like Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois when they arrived with their personalised method. Women like the Americans Cajzoran Ali and Genevieve Stebbins and the European Mollie Bagot Stack had already developed spiritual traditions using posture, breath and relaxation to elevate themselves and practice awareness.

This can change the way we see our practice these days, as the asana-based yoga systems were probably interpreted through what we were already practicing in terms of gymnastics and spiritual traditions of breath and relaxation. Yoga might have taken its roots from India, but since then, generations of yogis have taken what the teachings and practice and innovated to make them correspond to their present needs. Which is great I believe, since we can use our past experience to reflect on the present and improve the future.

“Use your past experience to reflect on the present and improve your future.” – Dare To Be Jolly

The desire to practice in an authentic way, respecting the tradition and values of yoga is legit, but now we know that it wasn’t as pure and perfect as we would often like to think about it. Who would have taught that the yoga we know nowadays was develop to fight back colonizers? And I’m not even getting into all the accusations of abuse and stories of betrayals that some of the masters were supposedly involved in.

Which brings us back to now, and our very own practice. What really matters in the end for me is the experience we live in today, and what we can learn through our yoga practice. I’m inviting you to reflect on what your practice means, or what you would like it to. And that will help you define the kind of method that suits you.

Thanks to these wonderful authors that taught me more about the history of yoga in order to write this article for you today:

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