It all started when...
A Brief History of Yoga Philosophy
Yoga’s exact origin remains a mystery. There is some evidence to indicate that early forms of Yoga may have existed as far back as 2500-1500 BCE, in the Indus Valley region of India. Sculptures of figures seated in what look like lotus postures have been found from this era, but because the script accompanying the figures is unknown, it is not possible to determine with any certainty if the sculptures are representations of a yoga posture, or simply one way of sitting on the floor. What is clear is that since earliest times there has existed an understanding that human consciousness is vast, can be explored, and from that exploration insights unfold as revealed wisdom about the human condition, the universe, and our place in it.
In the early centuries of the first millennium BCE, two streams of culture existed in India: Vedic and non-Vedic. The Vedas contained sacred texts of revealed wisdom, or Sruti, meaning “what is heard from a higher source.” The four Vedas comprise the oldest scriptural texts of the Hindu faith. The non-Vedic Indian culture included Jainism and Buddhism, neither of which accepted the authority of the Vedas, and consequently evolved into separate faiths. It is important to remember that, within the Indian culture, wisdom was passed down orally from Guru to student: the Guru weaving threads of his own wisdom into something meaningful and appropriate for that student. Given this method of transmission of knowledge, different schools of philosophy intertwined and influenced each other in a way much less rigid than we may imagine.
It is unclear whether yoga evolved from Vedic or non-Vedic culture. Scholars have noted that during this period Sramanas (literally, “those who exert themselves”) were involved in austerities—activities practiced by individuals who were renunciates and ascetics from the non-Vedic culture.
The first millennium BCE onward was a period of dramatic social and cultural change in India. Around the seventh century BCE, large urban centers began taking shape in northern India. Urban centers grew where there was an abundance of food and means to store it. Not entirely dependent on agriculture, other goods began to be produced, commerce evolved along trade routes, and ideas as well as goods were exchanged. During this period of rapid change, philosophy was also evolving. Possibly as a result of epidemics spreading from isolated villages to major urban centers, that resulted in widespread death, philosophies began questioning the very meaning of life and the nature of existence. Around the seventh century BCE the oldest Upanishads were written, and were known as “Vedanta,” — the end, or culmination, of the Vedas. Upanishad literally means “to sit down near”; this gives a clue as to how this wisdom was transmitted, from teacher to student in close proximity. The teacher or Guru might practice the technique of reciting information to a student, then reaching over, taking his head and shaking it and asking the student to repeat the exercise to make sure he did not forget.
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Two important beliefs that influenced the development of yoga arose during this period of change and reflection, notably Samsara (the eternal cycle of birth, disease, old age, and death) and Karma (the belief that all actions bear fruit). It follows that if every action bears fruit, and if you cannot experience the fruits of all your actions in one lifetime, then you are reborn. Thus evolved the concept of existence as a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The next major philosophical question asked was, “Is there anything else?” Is there a way out of this endless cycle of rebirth? Life, in the notion of Samsara, is seen as an endless and often painful experience, a fundamentally negative world view of something to transcend, to escape.
At this time in history, Indian culture was characteristically masculine. Although references
to female sages in the Upanishads were not uncommon, by and large the yoga traditions of
this time were dominated by austerity and asceticism, and a martial character of domination
of the mind and body. Part of the great, sustained effort and sacrifice made by the Yogis of
this period required withdrawing from the world—the world of distraction. One of the
persistent questions householders raised was whether a cave-dwelling Yogi is doing anything
of benefit for the world. By the same token the ascetics asked, “Why live in a madhouse?”
So one can see that the question of whether it is possible to integrate yoga into our lives has
been there from the start.
Around the fifth century BCE, the pre-classical period, three main streams of the yoga tradition had developed: the Upanishadic traditions, Buddhism, and Jainism. The Bhagavad Gita was written shortly after the fifth century, and was probably completed before the end of the millennium. Within this sacred Indian text, there is nothing short of a revolution in Yogic philosophy. There is a broadening of the practice of yoga. Different forms of practice are described: Karma Yoga, or the yoga of action; Bhakti Yoga, or the yoga of devotion; and Jnana Yoga, or the yoga of study and wisdom. In this way, yoga practice and the highest states of consciousness are made available to everyone and renouncing the world and moving into a cave is not necessary. It is also implied within the text that women are not excluded from this practice, a first in the yoga tradition.
In the beginning of the first centuries of the Common Era, a synthesis of Indian philosophies was born. This is Classical Yoga, or the Yoga of Patanjali. The Yoga Sutras authored by Patanjali are an organization of Yogic philosophy into short aphorisms, or verses. Patanjali is often equated with the Ashtanga Yoga system, or the Eight Limbs of Yoga, but what Patanjali is primarily interested in is neither a sequential approach to enlightenment, nor a system of limbs of ascending subtlety. Patanjali is interested in one thing: Samadhi. Samadhi is the highest meditative state in which a person transcends their individual ego and merges with the universal. In the Yoga Sutras, he gives the definition of yoga in the second sutra, “Yoga citta vrrti nirodhah” or “yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of consciousness.” He then goes on to describe various ways to achieve this state. In Patanjali’s view, there are only two things to consider: the Self, or the inner witnessing consciousness called Purusa, and everything else that is perceived by that witness. Everything else—thoughts, emotions, even memory—resides outside this witnessing consciousness. This is called Prakriti, or nature.
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Patanjali tells us that at some point, in some way, we forgot our essential nature. We became identified with the physical world, which is called “Prakriti.” We develop ways of thinking, attachments to our ideas, we see we are male or female, large or small, and somehow these things become our identity. The inability to see the difference between our essential nature (Purusa) and everything else (Prakriti) is called Avidya, or ignorance. How do we overcome this fundamental ignorance? Patanjali says the only way to see the difference between our witnessing consciousness and everything that consciousness perceives is to create stillness. Like a calm lake with no waves or ripples–in that stillness we can again see our essential nature, undisguised by the movements of the mind.
From the time of the Yoga Sutras, there was a period of great interaction and creativity in Yogic philosophy. Around the sixth century, Tantric Yoga was born. In the eighth century a teacher called Sankara formulated a non-dual (Advaita) school of Vedantic philosophy. Sankara looked back at the large and disparate collection of the Upanishads and organized them in a way that made sense. Sankara’s world view, however, was still far from rosy. His belief was that, although there is only one reality, because of our own ignorance (Maya), we superimpose limitation and separation onto what we see, and like a man walking in the dark seeing a coiled rope and thinking it to be a snake, we are deluded by our inability to see clearly. The only way to see clearly in the darkness is to bring light, so in Sankara’s view a thing can only be cured by its opposite; darkness by light, ignorance by knowledge, and not by anything else. The world of form and multiplicity is still not valued in and of itself in this philosophy; it is seen as an illusion.
The practice of Tantra Yoga evolved over a period of centuries, and found a later articulation in the school of Kashmir Saivism around the eighth century CE. Tantra Yoga, evolving when it did, had the benefit of centuries of development and therefore was able to look back and weave the previous knowledge into a more sophisticated tapestry. Kashmir Saivism agrees with the non-dual philosophy of Sankara’s Vedanta but asks the question, “If there is only one reality, what then is this thing called ignorance?” Vedantic philosophy cannot answer this question because ignorance, to Sankara, is not a thing in itself, but simply the absence of knowledge. Kashmir Saivism’s answer is that if there is only one reality, it has to follow that anything happening (or appearing to happen) to that reality has to be an operation of that reality itself. So the reason we see diversity of form even though there is only one ultimate reality is that this is what that reality has created–not an illusion, but a physical world vibrating into being. We are seen as a condensation of Source, containing the full power of this Source. The practice of yoga is then ultimately one of remembrance of this potential. We do not have to run from the world. The world is where our yoga takes place.
Kashmir Saivism philosophy dictates the need for the grace of a guru to bestow the spiritual jump-start called ‘Shaktipat.” Without this transmission of energy, the student cannot attain enlightenment. This somewhat problematic dilemma is addressed by yet another school of Tantra called “Shri Vidya” or auspicious wisdom. The most recent (that I know of) form of this approach is currently being taught by Dr. Douglas Brooks (2010). Douglas learned a form of yoga called “Rajanaka” from his teacher Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy. Rajanaka
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can be translated as “Little Prince” or “one who is sovereign unto themselves.” In this horizontal model of yoga, there is no singular attainment of an enlightened state but a continual expansion of understanding and appreciation. As yogis–ones who have decided to engage with the gifts and opportunities life presents–our sensitivity and intimacy with ourselves and others increases through the sharing of experiences, unique gifts, and insights.
The Upanishads are a collection of over two hundred teachings including stories, metaphors, and instruction on meditation. This non-homogenous array reflects the orally transmitted nature of the teachings. The wide variety of information in the Upanishads does not reflect a unified Yogic philosophy. Nevertheless, deep consideration concerning the innate divinity of humanity is clearly present.
The roots of the word Upanishad “Upa, Ni, Shad” mean literally “Near, down, sit.” The implication is that these teachings were given from teacher to student in close proximity. It also implies the teachings may not be immediately obvious and require studentship and dedication to absorb. The Upanishads were teachings given by the highest classes of society–the warrior/ruling class and the priest class. These teachings were not available to others in society.
Although the Upanishads are part of the Vedic corpus, they carry quite a different message. Veda literally means “knowledge,” so the Vedas were books of knowledge. The focus of the earlier Vedas is on how to live a good life and the explanation of the correct performance of rituals. Early Vedic teachings do not show a clear interest in spiritual liberation or yoga. The Upanishads, forming part of the later Vedic teaching, speak of the concepts of transmigration and re-birth.
The process of embodying the teachings of the Upanishads is also given:
• Contemplation • Meditation
This methodology of learning is not casual. In first listening to a teaching—really listening —we open to the teachings fully, with a beginners mind. It is said in the Upanishads that we should listen “like a deer listens to music.” If you can imagine the sensitivity of a deer’s ears and the alert quality of the animal, the nature of this sort of listening is apparent.
After listening fully, we contemplate the teaching. We should contemplate the teachings “like a cow chews grass.” A cow will continue to chew the same mouthful of grass, preparing it for digestion for quite a while. During this process, we start to make the
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teachings relevant to us, to embody them as wisdom and not just information–chewing them over, looking at them from different viewpoints.
Finally, we assimilate the teachings “the way a swan can separate milk from water in a lake.” If milk is poured onto a lake, a swan can separate out only the milk to drink, and leave the water behind. In this way we take the essence of teachings that are relevant to us.
The key teaching of the Upanishads is simple:
Atman = Brahman
Individual self = Universal Self
In Sanskrit, the phrase “Tat tvam asi,” or “You are That,” says it all. You are that which you seek. Consciousness is ever-present, not a state of mind or being to be attained. Rather, our true Self simply needs to be revealed by identifying, and then putting aside, all that is not our true nature. As the artist Michelangelo said, in order to make a sculpture he simply had to “remove all the stone that was not a part of the statue.”
The Upanishads also transmit the teaching that this Universal Self can in fact take human form. This teaching is profound in that it allows a respect for any other religion, as Supreme Consciousness can take any form, or no form at all. This is an inclusive way of looking at the variety of spiritual practices we pursue.
The Bhagavad Gita
Written in approximately 400 BCE, the Bhagavad Gita tells the story of Arjuna, a great warrior and archer poised and ready to fight in a battle between two armies led by warring cousins–the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Arjuna asks his chariot driver, who happens to be Krishna–a manifestation of God–to drive his chariot between the two armies so he can see who he is going to fight. He scans the opposing army, the Kauravas, and sees in the ranks his relatives, friends, and teachers. Disheartened by the prospect of killing his revered teachers and friends, he drops his bow and collapses to the chariot floor in dismay–he cannot bring himself to fight.
It is in these circumstances that Krishna, who up until now has been Arjuna’s friend, becomes his teacher and explains why Arjuna must fight. Arjuna is a warrior and it is his dharma, his work, to fight. Arjuna’s skillful actions in battle will only bring about an ending of life in a specific form, as in fact all beings are immortal and have had many incarnations before and will have many after.
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Krishna goes on to explain how the practice of yoga can free Arjuna from the karmic bonds of his action. He clarifies that the fruits of actions, any action, are not under our control. It is only the actions themselves that we have authorship or power over. There is a subtle but important difference here between attempting to be unattached to outcome–truly an impossibility, as any action we take, even brushing our teeth, we do to effect a result–and simply directing our attention to the work itself, understanding that causality is often beyond our present limited understanding.
Krishna also outlines different forms of yoga: Karma Yoga, or the yoga of action; Bhakti Yoga, or the yoga of devotion; and Jnana Yoga, or the yoga of wisdom. Krishna states that any of these practices can lead to a complete understanding of who we really are.
The Bhagavad Gita is a revolutionary text in that it opens the doors of yoga practice to everyone, in any class of society. As far as we know this had never happened before in the yoga tradition. Yoga had until now been reserved for only the upper echelons of society and excluded women. Monastic traditions were exclusive in their own way as well. Not only is yoga now made inclusive, but also the need for an intermediary between man and God, such as a priest, is removed. Krishna explains that even a humble offering from the heart like a leaf or a little water can be a devotional offering.
The Bhagavad Gita’s allegorical significance is illustrated at the end of the fourth chapter, as Krishna inspires Arjuna to take action, “Kill therefore with the sword of wisdom the doubt born of ignorance that lies in thy heart. Be one in self-harmony, in yoga, and arise, great warrior, arise.”
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Around the second century of the Common Era, the Yoga Sutras were composed by Patanjali. Patanjali means “fallen angel”–the idea being that he came to assist humanity. The Yoga Sutras are a collection of 196 short verses, or sutras, organized into four chapters. In the first chapter, Patanjali gives his definition of yoga almost immediately. The next three chapters outline practices and approaches to help the students of yoga who have difficulty following his initial teaching without more guidance, as well as describe some of the experiences the Yogi might encounter.
All enlightened masters transmitting teachings through books or otherwise, start with the highest teachings first. The sutras are incredibly condensed packets of wisdom, meant to be unpacked and considered, if possible, with the help of a teacher. Often even the verb is left out of a sutra to make it smaller and easier to remember. At the time Patanjali composed the sutras, they were not written down–they were transmitted orally. When considered this way, the organization of the sutras makes more sense. His teaching at its most concise is given first. Then the text expands on the essential teaching. Some non-linear repetition and re- visiting of concepts is part of the way we speak, not necessarily the way we would write, and
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this is reflected in the sutras. Rich with wisdom, they can be interpreted in the light of our present culture and circumstances. Let’s unpack the first sutra:
“Atha yoganusasanam” – Now we begin the practice of yoga.
The word “Now” is often seen in Yogic scripture as an invocation–an auspicious beginning. The word “Now,” used at the very beginning of these sutras implies that whatever else we may have done prior to this study, now we begin in earnest the study of yoga. This study is not to be put off any longer, for now is the time to begin. The time to understand our human condition is now.
“We” – Patanjali informs us that this study is not meant to be done in isolation. The support of a community of people with a common aim is indispensable in creating a momentum for study and an exchange of ideas. Any community with the ability to exchange ideas freely evolves those ideas more rapidly than when there is the impediment of distance, or a self- centered and fearful hoarding of information.
“Yoga” – The term yoga has meant different things at different times. For Patanjali, Yoga means Samadhi. Samadhi is a state of being in which Supreme Consciousness flows unrestricted through us. The individual ego dissolves in this river of clarity.
“Yogah cittavrtti nirodhah” – Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness.
In this sutra Patanjali gives us his definition of yoga, “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness.” This is the most famous of all the sutras. Patanjali gives us his definition of yoga right here, immediately after his welcome. Yoga occurs when the movements (vrttis) of the mind (citta) are still (nirodhah). In this stillness, in the absence of distraction and mental pre-occupation, our true nature can be experienced. A “vrtti” is anything that turns or moves.
So movement of the mind includes thought, emotion, and memory. Anything that is a disturbance to the quietude of the mind requires restraint.
One can see why Patanjali has another 194 sutras to help explain how to achieve this. Stilling the mind is not an easy thing to do. In the next sutra Patanjali explains why we would want to undertake this vast task.
“Tada drastuh svarupe vasthanam” – Then the seer dwells in his own splendor.
So, when the movements of the mind are still, we live in that place of Supreme Consciousness. That is the essence of Patanjali’s teachings. The remaining sutras go on to help us understand how this state of being can be achieved.
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Vedanta – The Non-Dual Philosophy of Sankara
Between the second and sixth centuries CE, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as well as other philosophies including Jainism and Buddhism, evolved in a very intellectually fertile period, fueled by patronage of schools of higher learning. As far back as the second century BCE, a text was written by the teacher Badarayana called the “Brahma Sutra.” Within this text Badarayana attempts to systematize the Upanishads. Systemization of a text as broad and varied as the Upanishads is very difficult to do, especially since some teachings of the Upanishads suggest a dual nature to the universe, and some suggest total union, or non- duality. However, varied interpretations of Badarayana’s Brahma Sutras opened up even more creative discussion amongst scholars as to the nature of the universe.
The Life of Sankara
Sankara lived for only thirty-two years, between 788–820 CE. In his short life, Sankara systematized the previous teachings of the Upanishads and the Vedas, created four Mathas, centers of learning, in the four corners of India, making each one a custodian of one of the four Vedas, and assigned to each Matha one of his four main disciples, ensuring the continuation of his teachings. These Mathas continue to this day. Sankara was an extremely prolific writer, offering commentaries on the major foundational yogic texts as well as his own articulation of the nature of the universe.
Sankara is seen as a manifestation of Shiva–an aspect of the Supreme. As the legend goes, Sankara’s parents were childless and went to pray for offspring. They were given a choice by the gods: they could either have many children who would be completely unremarkable and dumb, or one child who would be brilliant, but live a very short life. They opted for the second choice, and Sankara was born. Sankara’s father died early, so Sankara was raised by his mother. Very soon, he expressed his desire to become a renunciate. Being the only child, his mother would not allow it–one who renounces must leave the family home forever.
One day while playing near the river, a huge crocodile emerged from the water and seized Sankara’s leg. Sankara cried out to his mother “Let me renounce NOW!” –it is understood that if one renounces at the time of death, he will achieve liberation. His terrified mother agreed. As soon as she had spoken, the crocodile released Sankara’s leg and receded into the waters. Sankara could now embark upon his path, helped along by some meddling from the gods.
Sankara’s philosophy of the nature of the universe was informed by the foundational texts of the yoga tradition–the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and also by the Brahma Sutras. But he refined his philosophy by borrowing an idea common to Buddhism—maya. Maya means illusion. In Sankara’s philosophy, there is only one reality. But because of maya, our perception is flawed. We experience the world from an un-awakened perspective, and therefore do not see reality clearly. We both project illusions—like a man seeing a rope in
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the dark and thinking that it is a snake—and are fooled by a veil of ignorance. If we could see clearly, we would see there is only one unchanging reality that resides above this phenomenal world.
In this articulation of reality, Sankara is able to refer to the previous teachings of the Upanishads to support his philosophy. The Upanishads, as a collection of yogic wisdom compiled over time from a variety of teachers, sometimes refer dualistically and sometimes non-dualistically to the nature of things. In Sankara’s view, the non-dual teachings were spoken about from the perspective of the Supreme, and the seemingly dualistic teachings were given from the lower perspective of everyday life, so there is still only one reality, just two ways of perceiving it–a very clever way to harmonize the broad teachings of the Upanishads. There is, however, one major problem in Sankara’s philosophy: maya. In the view of Advaita Vedanta, maya is neither real, nor unreal, as it does not exist on its own, but its effects can be felt. It is not something, but the absence of something–it is the absence of knowledge. Still, Sankara states that there is ultimately only one reality–so where does that leave maya? Is it part of reality, or is it illusion? Sankara says it simply cannot be spoken about—a somewhat unsatisfactory answer. The idea of maya and its inherent challenges to a truly unified philosophy would be explored a few centuries later in the teachings of Tantra Yoga, in the region of Kashmir.
The roots of the practice of Tantra could be traced back to the prehistoric period, where representations of worship of the female, or the female aspect of the Supreme, can be found. Somewhere around the fifth century CE, the practice of worship of this feminine energy became more systematized. These rituals and practices, and an articulated philosophy meant to bring about a transformation of consciousness, is what is known as Tantra Yoga. Early Tantric practitioners were very different in their approach to spirituality–using a human skull as a begging bowl or meditating in a cremation ground were common practices for one branch of Tantra. Eating meat or fish, engaging in ritualized sex, using wine or parched grain were other ways of attempting to transform consciousness by illustrating that the Supreme can be found everywhere–even in the places where others see only impurity. Later, many of these practices became sublimated into ritual–much like the eating of a wafer and drinking a sip of wine in a Catholic mass is symbolic of the eating of Christ’s body and the drinking of his blood. Tantra’s aim was to use everything around us as a means to increase consciousness, rather than denying the world of form.
Tantra Yoga, like all traditions, evolved over time. Tantra incorporates many of the earlier teachings of the Upanishads, the Vedas, and even the Classical Yoga of Patanjali. One sure way to differentiate a Tantric approach from some other schools of yoga is that Tantra always affirms our reality. Tantra states that this world we live in is real. As everything in the universe is a manifestation of the divine, everything has an innate sacred quality. Tantra does not deny relative value—good, better, appropriate or inappropriate–but always seeks to see the ultimate divinity in all things. In this way, this philosophy is radically life-affirming— quite different from the teachings of Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta.
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Tantra Yoga found a more refined articulation in the region of Kashmir, India, between the ninth and twelfth century of the Common Era. It may not be a coincidence that this sublime and embracing philosophy of life arose in one of the most beautiful and enchanting places in the world. Although there were different teachers and schools of thought informing one another concerning principles and practices of Tantra (and it is important to note that the term “Tantra” was only applied later by western scholars to this development of Yogic philosophy), the greatest of these teachers was certainly Abhinavagupta, who lived between 975-1025 CE. Extremely prolific in his writing, his most important offering was the Tantraloka—literally meaning “Light on Tantra.” This treatise systematizes and summarizes the foundational texts of Tantra.
Kashmir Saivism and the Tattvas
The teachings of Kashmir Saivism are truly sublime. Not only does this view of reality affirm this world as part of Supreme Consciousness, Kashmir Saivism actually offers a map of reality called the “Tattvas.” This map, beginning at the top, illustrates how Consciousness unfolds itself in 36 steps into the world we see, hear, feel, touch, smell, and experience in all other ways. This understanding is in many ways beyond words, and was revealed through meditative states. Essentially and very briefly, Supreme Consciousness vibrates with creative energy, which is called “Spanda.” This vibratory energy has an innate desire to create, and when it does, it unfolds itself into form. The forms it creates are limited in understanding, action, and power, but like a drop from the ocean, they are still part of the ocean of Consciousness itself. So a human being is seen as a condensation of Supreme Consciousness. Although a more limited form of the Supreme, we contain all the ingredients —like a limited-time demo version. To take the analogy a little further, this demo version actually contains the whole program in its entirety–we need only discover the key. The only journey necessary is the journey to a deeper understanding of who and what we really are.
Maya and Kashmir Saivism
Earlier, in the Advaita Vedanta philosophy of Sankara, maya was seen as a veil of illusion, or a lack of knowledge that obscures true reality. In Kashmir Saivism, maya is seen as the play of Consciousness. What we experience here in the world is not illusory–it is what Consciousness, out of its own free will and joy, has created. We can experience reality by closing our eyes and going within, or by opening our eyes and looking at what Consciousness has created. The more we look, the more we see the signature of divinity everywhere. The pattern within a leaf is a miniature of the tree itself. The movement from day to night, inhalation to exhalation, are all forms of this vibratory creative energy present in all things.
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The movement of yoga from East to West began in earnest with Swami Vivekananda in 1893. Vivekananda was invited to speak at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago that year. His message of tolerance and compassion to all living things was received with a standing ovation. He stayed in America much longer than he had intended, spreading his teachings informed by Advaita Vedanta. From then on, the 20th century saw a continued movement of wisdom from India to the West. But the most influential yogi of all was Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya was a master of yoga, Ayurveda, Sanskrit, and Logic. He was responsible for creating Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, teaching Pattabhi Jois, who continued to teach this style throughout his life, as well as B.K.S. Iyengar, Indra Devi, and his own son Desikachar. Krishnamacharya himself never crossed an ocean, but his influence is responsible for the incredible spread of asana practice in the West. He was the first Brahmin to teach a woman yoga, and a western woman at that. He lived to be 100 years old, still vital and teaching even late in life.
The yoga we are familiar with in the West is largely the asana practice–the physical practice of performing postures. The arrival of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, with its intensity, heat, and level of difficulty appealed, and still appeals, to body-conscious practitioners. For many people, this practice in its entirety is impossible to perform based on bone structure limitations. For this reason, many teachers began to teach Power Yoga, or a flow-based derivative of Ashtanga Yoga based on the idea of “Vinyasa”–the linking of one posture to the next using breath and movement.
As yoga continues to grow in popularity, it is also evolving. Teachers such as B.K.S. Iyengar have explored deeply the therapeutic benefits of the practice and its specific application to illness and injury. John Friend has researched modern biomechanics and applied his knowledge to an inclusive school of yoga called “Anusara,” which means “to be in the flow of Grace.” New authentic schools of yoga are emerging such as “Dru” and “Vijnana.” Yoga is also being “branded” as a marketing device. As yoga moves from East to West, it is also losing its original cultural and religious context. Some see this as unfortunate. What needs to be considered is that any system of ideas needs to be relevant to the culture practicing it. Joseph Campbell reminds us that whatever symbols we are using–whether a crucifix or a dancing Shiva—are always meant to point us toward our own experience of divinity—not someone else’s. We are at a point in the evolution of this practice of yoga where we are able to apply the magnificent teachings of the past to our present situation. The yoga practice will adapt itself–it always has. But it is up to us to create meaning within the practice that is appropriate to our present situation.
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Chronology of Yoga
Exact dates are extremely difficult to pinpoint when looking at yoga’s ancient history as many teachings were orally transmitted. The dates below form a rough guide:
• 2,500 – 1,500 BCE – Indus Valley civilization, where carved figures depicted in what may be seated meditation postures were found. Untranslatable text accompanies the figures.
• 1,000 BCE – The Vedas are composed. “Veda” means knowledge. These teachings describe rituals, hymns, practices, and spells.
• 700 BCE – The oldest Upanishads are written. A collection of orally transmitted teachings.
• 500 BCE – The Bhagavad Gita is written. Concepts of rebirth and a broadening of the practice of yoga are clearly explained.
• 200 CE – The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are composed. Short, well-organized verses explaining the nature of the Self and an approach to self-realization.
• 600 CE – The beginnings of Tantra Yoga.
• 800 CE – Sankara’s “Advaita Vedanta” school of non-dual philosophy is formulated.
• 900 CE – Kashmir Saivism. One of the more clearly articulated non-dual yoga philosophies, reliant on the transmission of grace from guru to student, called “Shaktipat.”
• 900 C.E (?) –Rajanaka Tantra. Horizontal model of yoga without the concept of a singular, fixed attainment or enlightenment.
• 1900s – Hatha Yoga. Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was responsible for preserving, evolving and popularizing Hatha Yoga. Teacher of B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi and his son Desikachar, among many others.
• 1950s – B.K.S. Iyengar develops his system of yoga based on physical alignment and therapeutic benefits, using props to make postures more accessible.
• 1960s – Hatha Yoga begins to take root in the West. 27
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• 1970s – present – Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga as taught by Pattabhi Jois gains popularity.
• 1980s – present – Flowing styles of yoga based on the physically demanding form of
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga become widely popular.
• 1997 – present – John Friend’ interpretation of Tantric philosophy joined with modern bio-mechanical alignment principles into a school of yoga called “Anusara” – a Sanskrit word meaning “to be in the flow of grace.”
• ? – present – Dr Douglas Brooks’ offering of the Southern Indian teachings of Tantra, which he refers to as “Rajanaka.” This is a horizontal model of yoga with no fixed attainment as a goal. Enlightenment is self-conferred, not dispensed by a guru.
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