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The History of Yoga

Because yoga has been around for so long, a lot of the ancient history of yoga was just transmitted orally and through sacred texts. The early writings about yoga were even written on fragile palm leaves. Obviously, these were all too easily lost, destroyed, or damaged. Consequently, it is difficult to tell how old the practice and history of yoga really extends. Some believe it is over 5,000 years old, others think that number may be closer to 10,000 years. There are four main periods of innovation, practice and development.

The Indus Valley Civilization (c. 3000 BC) hints of the practice of yoga, as does the Vedic civilization (c. 1500 BC). It was discussed much more elaborately in various Hindu texts, was incorporated into many Buddhist and Jain philosophies, and now it is popular within modern life.

Depending on the perspective of the historian, records can show that the history of yoga may extend back eight thousand years – because of the Mohenjo-daro seals. Also, there are five thousand year old carvings from the Indus Valley Civilization that show a figure some people believe is of a young yogi sitting in a meditation posture – in the traditional cross-legged position, with hands resting on knees. This figure was named Shiva Pashupati by the archeologist who discovered the seal.

Yoga was clearly expounded in the Vedic shastras – which are the Hindu religious texts. This is the point from which those who believe the history of yoga is “only” four thousand years old get their point of reference. A scholar of Vedic says, “Yoga can be traced back to the Rig Veda itself.” That is the oldest Hindu text. It talks about yoking our mind and insight to the Sun of Truth. The idea of uniting the soul, mind, and body into a cosmic “one” was not found in writing until the more important texts of Hinduism, the Upanishads, and Vedanta.

Contribution of the Upanishadic (ca. 800-100 BC)
In the Upanishadic we first see examples of the now traditional concepts and terminology. Some of the things that are written about are: uniting of the six limbs, breathing control, sensory inhibition, medication, concentration, examination, and ecstasy.
Hatha Yoga – Its Impact on the History of Yoga
In the West, away from the Hindu culture, “yoga” generally refers to Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga, however, is just a particular system that Swami Swatamarama developed in the 15th century in India.
One famous text that greatly influenced the history of Hatha yoga is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. It was written by Swami Swatamarama, and it lists detailed information about the postures and mantras that today’s yogi find familiar.
In the West currently, Hatha yoga is very popular, but it is as a physical exercise, with no spiritual component for most. Currently about thirty million Americans practice Hatha yoga. In India, yoga is a very commonly used word. People perform their sun salutations wherever they like.
Throughout the history of yoga, there have been some constants and many variations. One of the constants has been the change in practices and beliefs that a yogi undergoes and takes into his life.

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