Explore The Ancient Roots of Yoga

Learn where the principles of breathing, flexibility and strength emerge from

By Google Arts & Culture

Shrimad Jagadguru Adi Shankaracharya (1890) by Ravi Varma PressOriginal Source: From the Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Yoga is an ancient practice focusing on breathing, flexibility and strength to boost mental and wellbeing. It is composed of a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines.

The main components of yoga are breathing and postures (a series of movements designed to increase strength and flexibility.)

The practice is said to have originated thousands of years ago in India and has been adapted in other countries in a variety of ways. Here we explore where it emerged from, what elements make yoga unique, and how it has been adopted by people all over the world.

Hsuan TsangThe Yoga Institute

Where does yoga come from?

Yoga's origins can be traced to northern India over 5,000 years ago. The word yoga was first mentioned in ancient sacred texts called the Rig Veda. The Vedas are a set of four ancient sacred texts written in Sanskrit. The Rig Veda is the earliest amongst the vedas and is a collection of over a thousand hymns and mantras in ten chapters known as mandalas, which were used by Vedic age priests. Yoga was refined and developed by Rishis (sages) who documented their practices and beliefs in the Upanishads, a huge work containing over 200 scriptures.

Yoga is amongst the six schools of philosophy in Hinduism, and is also a major part of Buddhism and its meditation practices. You can find out more about the history of yoga here, from the Shri Yogendra Museum of Classical Yoga – the world's first museum dedicated to yoga.

Proper BreathingSivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres & Ashrams

Why is there specific terminology?

If you’ve ever taken a yoga class (and if you haven't, you should!), you may have heard some words that you couldn't recognize. The language of yoga is actually Sanskrit, the root of many Indian languages and one of the oldest of in the world.

Here are a handful of words often used in a session of yoga and what they mean:

Proper ExerciseSivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres & Ashrams

Literally translated as seat, the term āsana these days is used to refer to the practice of physical yoga postures or poses.

For example, Caturaṅga Daṇḍāsana
Caturaṅga Daṇḍāsana is a posture commonly referred to as "low plank". It requires arm, shoulder and core strength. It is often performed before lifting the chest up to "upward-facing dog".

Teaching Asanas at The Yoga InstituteThe Yoga Institute

Prāna in Sanskrit refers to the life force within every being. In relation to modern-day yoga classes, the term prānāyāma is used to describe breathing exercises, which clear the physical and emotional obstacles in our body to free the breath.

For example, Ujjayi
Commonly translated as “victorious breath”, ujjayi breath is performed by restricting the air flow at the back of the throat, while breathing in and out of the nose. This creates a note on exhalation, often compared to the sound of the oceans.

Proper RelaxationSivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres & Ashrams

What about the postures?

When starting with yoga, there will be certain postures which become the foundation of your yoga practice. Anchoring your practice with these postures allows you to reap the benefits of yoga - flexibility, improved muscle strength, protection of the spine, increased blood flow, and even improved happiness.

CobraSivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres & Ashrams

It is believed that there are 19 different types of yoga and 66 basic yoga postures. You can get an insight into some of them here, where you'll find archival photographs of yoga disciple Swami Vishnudevananda with his guru Swami Sivananda Saraswati demonstrating some of the more foundational postures. You can also get a better understanding of Classical Yoga, from The Yoga Institute here, and an even more detailed account of other postures from Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres & Ashrams, here.

Yogendraji in BhadrasanaThe Yoga Institute

In bringing yoga to diverse and global audiences, Swami Vishnudevananda kept in mind the lifestyle needs in current times, so he adapted the ancient wisdom of yoga into five basic principles: Proper Exercise (Āsana), Proper Breathing (Prāṇāyāma), Proper Relaxation (Śavāsana), Proper Diet (Vegetarian) and Positive Thinking & Meditation (Vedānta & Dhyāna). You can read more about them in detail here.

Book of Mantras (incantations; chants) (19th century) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art

What role do mantras play in the practice of yoga?

Mantras are repetitive sounds used to “penetrate the depths of the unconscious mind” and “adjust the vibration of all aspects of your being”. Mantras can be chanted aloud, delved upon, or listened in to.

In yoga, mantras are typically chanted in Sanskrit. The Sanskrit word mantra is derived from the root word "man", meaning “to think,” and tra (from trai) meaning “to protect or to free from bondage” or “to free from the mind.”

The earliest mantras were composed in Vedic Sanskrit in India, and are at least 3,000 years old. Mantras now exist in various schools of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. They come in many forms; typically they are melodic, and have mathematically structured meters. The sounds “Aum” or “Om” are some of the most basic of mantras.

On more sophisticated levels, mantras are melodic phrases with spiritual interpretations. These can be many things, such as a human longing for truth, reality, light, immortality, peace, or love. Some mantras have no literal meaning, but are meaningful in a spiritual way.

Swami Vivekananda - Studio photo standing (1900)Vivekananda House

When did yoga arrive in the West?

Yoga, as it is known in the West, took off in the late 1890s, when Indian monks began spreading their knowledge to the Western world for the first time. People who traveled to India were also able to rub shoulders with the yogis and observe their practice firsthand.

The introduction of yoga to the West is often credited to Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902). He first came to the United States of America in 1883 and was soon organizing world conferences on the subject, by describing yoga as a “science of the mind”, and he translated Yogic texts from Sanskrit into English. In 1893, during a visit to the US, he sparked the country's interest by demonstrating Yoga at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. As a result, many other Indian Yogis and Swamis were welcomed with open arms in the West.

Swami Vivekananda on the Platform of the Parliament (1893-09)Vivekananda House

One of these teachers was Shri Yogendra, an Indian Yoga guru, author, poet, researcher and one of the most important figures in the revival of Hatha Yoga, both in India and United States. Having founded The Yoga Institute in 1918 – the oldest organized yoga center in the world – Yogendra came to the US for the first time in 1919. The difference in Yogendra's teaching was how he began to "domesticate" hatha yoga, by working with doctors and seeking scientific evidence for yoga's health benefits. As a result he is often thought of as the "Father of Modern Yoga Renaissance" - find out more about his teachings here.

Swami Vivekananda at Green Acre (1894-08)Vivekananda House

Part of The Yoga Institute's success was also due to the work of Shri Yogendra's life partner, Shrimati Sita Devi Yogendra, who was affectionately known as "Mother". As Secretary-Treasurer of the Institute, she encouraged women in the community to practice yoga and also wrote numerous articles and journals about her work. Find out more about Sita Devi Yogendra's impact here.

Yoga master Swami Satchidananda opens the Woodstock Music and Art Fair (1969)Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

Despite the success of Shri Yogendra and other teachers, in 1924 the United States Bureau of Immigration imposed quotas on migrants from India. This meant Indian yogis and teachers were unable to travel to the US and continue their work. The restrictions ultimately forced people to travel to East instead, like Theos Bernard who returned from India in 1947 and published Hatha Yoga: The Report of a Personal Experience, an important text for yoga in the 1950s that is still read today.

Despite the immigration limitations, many associations and federations dedicated to yoga began in across the world as early as 1950.

BKS Iyengar teaching Yehudi Menuhin yogaRamamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute

Fortunately, a change in US Law in 1965 removed the 1924 quota on Indian immigration, and this saw the country open up to a new wave of teachers who brought their ideas to the West. By the 1970s you could find yoga and spiritual teachings everywhere.

BKS Iyengar is another influential figure in the spread of Indian spiritual philosophy across the world. Iyengar introduced Yoga to Western countries by appearing on television in the UK and the USA, where he demonstrated his incredible physical suppleness. In 1963, he appeared on BBC with David Attenborough and violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and in 2004, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Yoga Psychedelic Trip (1970-05) by Ralph MorseLIFE Photo Collection

Traditional yoga and contemporary yoga practices are no longer quite the same, and today yoga has been adapted for people of all ages and physical abilities. Its popularity around the world has been cemented as part of everyday life for many people, and with the aid of social media, it has allowed yogis and teachers to share their expertise wider than ever before.

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