Consider the medium of the World Wide Web, the vastness and the profundity of such a tool to deliver information and access to millions upon millions of people. In a very similar but more discrete movement, we are witnessing the incredible surge of yoga into the popular culture. What is yoga and why is it becoming so popular? Where does it come from, and what exactly does it do?
If you haven’t asked these questions before, you may b e starting to now, or you may be one of the millions of North Americans who simply flock to the latest yoga studios and gyms to partake in what would be commonly called a yoga class as if it were just another fitness class, and to you these questions may seem irrelevant. Except that the yoga class is more visceral and physical than anything else you’ve done before, and whether you know it or not, yoga is changing the relationship between your mind and body. Most westerners have the impression that yoga is just another form of physical excercise, like calestetics or aerobics. Although there is some truth to this impression – certainly one will find great physical outlets through yoga’s very intricate and scientific system – this is not the real purpose and technique of yoga. In many ways the physical aspect is just the point of contact, similar if you will, to your keyboard.
Beyond the physical, is the great vastness of the Science of Yoga, which, for all intents and purposes, is too comprehensive in its nature and too profound in its doctrines to fit into the framework of any particular philosophy, ancient or modern. Yoga stands in its own right as a Science based on the eternal laws of higher life and does not require the support of any other science or philosophical system. Its truths are based upon the experiences and experiments of an unbroken line of mystics, occultists, saints and sages, all who have realized and borne witness to the truth of yoga throughout the ages. The full value and consequences of yoga can be neither proven nor demonstrated. The appeal of yoga is to the intuition rather than to the intellect. The effect is upon the total, not the sum of the parts, which answers why many students cannot explain the effect of their practice, or what specifically they like – they just experience a greater sense of health and well-being.
In a tradition that has traveled to us from long before recorded history and still travels forward to this day, let us travel back to its roots and touch in on some of the prevalent points of reference in order to more fully understand this amazing and profound system, perhaps the oldest, of human development. With all due respect one must understand that the following is by no means a concise or exhaustively accurate depiction of the history of yoga, for to do that would literally be a lifelong work. The scope of the evolution of yoga as you may well understand is vast and extensive and quite simply more than an academic exercise, due to the nature of the topic. We however, understand ourselves better in the moment, by placing history in context, and that is, in very simple terms and execution what I offer you here . Let us begin!
Imagine yourself on a journey through time, going back as far as recorded history to the mid east – India, Tibet, Iran and Arabia. This period is classified as the pre-Vedic age (6500 – 4500 b.c.e.) a time when Hinduism, and Sikhism paralleled the richness of the shamanic cultures of the African continent. Hinduism, the most prevalant tradition of the Indian subcontinent, is perhaps the world’s most dominant tradition. Hinduism is best understood as a complex cultural process between spiritual and social life, and is said to have commenced with the Vedic civilization, possibly as early as the fifth millennium B.C.E. The Vedas are hymns in Sanskrit – the oldest spoken language – which cover vast topics, such as mathmatics, astronomy astrology and human development or consciousness. The Aryans are said to be the composers of these rich, ancient hymns. The essence of the Vedas or “Vedanta” as it would become known, is that Reality is nondual. This perhaps proceeded or merged into the Hindu tradition which weaves these teachings into a philosophical system that is applied to daily life. More than that, Hindu philosophy and Indian philosophy as a whole has a spiritual thrust, acknowledging the existence of a transcendental Reality and agreeing that a person’s spiritual well-being and subsequent physical well-being, is dependent on how he or she relates to that Reality.
As we continue to journey through time we come into a period where a major war ended the Vedic Age and gave birth to the Brahman Age (2500-1500B.C.E.) In this period, the priestly class developed into a highly specialized elite that soon dominated the Vedic culture and religion. The blessing of this period was the creation of the Sutra literature which was texts dealing with ethical and legal issues. As you work your way forward you would encounter the Post-Vedic age called The Upanishaddic Age which emphasized renunciation of the world, this era naturally led to Buddhism and Jainism in the period known as The Pre-Classical or Epic Age (100-100 B.C.E.). This is where you would discover the great text of the Bhagavad-Gita.
Continuing on our journey through time we come to The Classical Age (100 B.C.E. – 500 C.E.) most notably remembered as the time when the great scholar Patanjali codified and organized the goal of yoga and its various disciplines in to a text called The Yoga Sutras. Moving further along the time line we would discover the Tantra/Puranic age (500-1300 C.E.) and witness the great cultural revolution of Tantra or Tantrisim. This tradition boasting an extraordinary psychotechnology evolved and integrated the highest metaphysical ideas with practical beliefs and practices. Not only did Tantra continue to amalgamate and assimilate age old systems but it was also innovative, incorporating the energetic’s of the physical form with a spiritual lifestyle, as well as honoring the feminine cosmic energy, largely left unaddressed previously.
The Sectarian Age follows around 1300-1700 C.E. giving rise to what is known as the Bhakti movement which sought to include devotional aspects to its monotheistic aspirations. In an interesting full circle this completes the cycle initiated during the Pre-Classical Age of dharma (cosmic order) by incorporating a more emotional aspect into practices which had been developed previously by the Tantras (the physcofeminine).
Modern Age 1700 – present. Here we are living in a time when the popularity of yoga is unprecedented, at an estimated 30 million people practicing. By all accounts it would seem that this system has something to teach us. From the mystics and the scholars to the gym club the question’s of “Who am I ?”, “When shall I find the peace, joy and beauty of harmony?” “When shall I be happy?” play consistently in the back of many peoples minds. When the material gains and pleasures no longer satiate or divert one’s energies, or when illness or trauma strike we recognize that we are unhappy, unfulfilled and often fragmented. It is then and dear friends it is now, that the gifts of yoga become more apparent and more important as a way of realizing the True Self and rediscovering the peace and happiness that results in true freedom and contentment.