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The History & Origin of Yoga

Here’s what I’ve learned in my yoga teacher training with Zuna Yoga.

Where does yoga come from? How old is the tradition of yoga?

What is the difference between Hatha yoga and Tantra yoga? Read on for answers to these common questions.

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In a nutshell: Yoga originated around 5,000 years ago in India

Meet the Harappans

Northern India. Between the Indus River and the Saraswati River, a tribe of indigenous folk (Indus-Saraswati or Harappan civilisation) lived peacefully, called Harappan. They flourished between around 4,000 – 5,000 years ago.

It appears they followed the Vedas (ancient scriptures) as a ‘Handbook to Civilisation’ and once they got organised, they lived thousands of years peacefully. Carvings of yogi-like shapes were found in the area where they lived.

When the Saraswati River dried up, almost 4,000 years ago, the Harappan civilisation was forced to migrate east towards Ganga and south into central India and Tamilnadu, taking with them the knowledge of the Vedas, giving rise to Hinduism and indirectly to Buddhism and Jainism.

(Side note: The Indus River originates in the Himalayas, in Kashmir, India and flows through Pakistan. Pakistan now takes 90% of its fresh water from this river and a huge amount of it is used to grow cotton to feed Pakistan’s textile industry. Since 1960, a delicate political accord called the Indus Waters Treaty has governed the sharing of the river's resources between India and Pakistan.

The source of the Saraswati River is located in the Shivalik Mountains of Himachal Pradesh. The river runs through Punjab and Haryana states and penetrates Rajasthan. In 2022, Himachal and Haryana have started a project to build a dam in Himachal Pradesh to revive the Saraswati River)

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What you need to know about the Vedas

In Himalayan tradition, it is believed that the Vedas are at least 5,000 years old and are ‘not created by humans’. Only that, which has been perceived by Rishis (Indian Seers), has been written down, but the knowledge has always existed in cosmos.

There are four Vedas in total and the oldest one is said to be the Rig Veda, believed to have been created by the Harappan civilisation (also referred to as Aryans) around 5,000 years ago and it was written in Sanskrit as a collection of hymns in praise of a higher power. The Sama Veda (Knowledge of Chants) and Yajur Veda (Knowledge of Sacrifice) are excerpts of the Rig Veda and both written in the same style.

After traces of the Harappans disappeared and the Saraswati dried up, the Atharva Veda appeared around 2,500 years later. It contains some of the earliest mentions of Ayurveda and is usually cited as evidence of Tantric theory and practice existing in Ancient India.

The 4 Vedas are summarised in the Upanishads, of which there are 108 and the first one is called Vedanta.

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The wisdom of Vedanta

The core teaching of Vedanta, the first of the Upanishads, affirms the ultimate unity of everything. Conveyed in the fewest possible words, this commentary on the Vedas states that everyone and everything is an expression of one and the same reality, Brahman or Atman.

India’s great national epics

India’s great national epics, The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, followed the Vedas. If you have spent any time in India, you are likely aware of the various deities that are worshipped to this date throughout the Hindu parts of the country.

The Mahabharata tells the Story of Lord Krishna and The Ramayana tells the story of Lord Rama. One of the chapters of the Mahabharata is The Bhagavad-Gita (Lord’s Song), a dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna, composed as a poem. It is a hugely significant scripture of utmost importance and value to Hindus and yogis.

“It’s central teaching is to the point: To be alive means to be active and, if we want to avoid difficulties for ourselves and others, our actions must be benign and also go beyond the grip of the ego.” (Zuna Yoga)

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Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras – a brief interlude of dualism

Around 150 AD, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras describe the process which seekers must go through in order to achieve enlightenment. In his view, every human being is made up of matter (Prakriti) and spirit (Purusha). The practice of meditation should lead to a separation of the two, so that the spirit can be restored to its absolute purity and the state of bliss can be achieved. However, it wasn’t until the appearance of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, another 1,200 years later, that meditation was made more accessible through the practice of asanas.

Tantra Yoga is born

200 years after Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we enter the post classical period of yoga and everything goes back to non-dualist teachings. In previous periods, yogis were only concerned with transcending the body through meditation. Now, the new yoga masters created practices to rejuvenate and energise the body, to change biochemistry in an attempt at immortality. It was during this period that Tantra Yoga was created.

Tantra offered a very new approach to spirituality. In contrast to previous notions and opposing the long-standing Hindu and Buddhist religions, where the belief was that one needs to renounce the world in order to be liberated from suffering and experience Self-Realization, Tantra viewed life as a precious gift that we should embrace, rather than renounce. The body is there to help us experience all that life has to offer and the aim of Tantra is not just liberation from suffering, but finding fulfilment in the engagement of life.

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What is Hatha Yoga?

The original Tantric system included ritual and devotional, religious practices. Hatha Yoga was then derived from Tantra as a streamlined Tantric tradition, one that lacks the elaborate rituals and devotional elements, and just focuses on using the breath, body and mind. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the most important works on yoga, written by Goraksha, who is hence considered the founder of Hatha Yoga, a concise 4-step system of practices is presented for people to experience the “Ultimate Reality”, the union, to meet the guru within themselves. It is in this 4-step system, that asana is offered for the first time as a way to prepare for and make meditation more accessible.

To this day, Hatha Yoga is a system of practices which aim to understand and regulate the energy system of the body, the chakras. Asana, pranayama and meditation bring stability and balance to two of the three main energy channels: Ida and Pingala. When they are in balance, an opening in the third main energy channel, Sushumna, occurs through which Kundalini can start to rise up into and through the spine. That’s when energy and communication can flow between earthly and spiritual dimensions and that’s where Self-Realisation happens.

It has helped me tremendously to learn about the history and origin of yoga and how it has evolved over 5,000 years. I feel extremely lucky to be alive in a time where this knowledge is easily accessible and where we can walk this path in search of our Self, our true Nature.

Delving deeper into yoga history

Get in touch with me if you want to find out more, or go directly to my source to learn about the history and origin of yoga in a lot more detail and depth. I can’t recommend the 200 hrs Yoga Teacher Training with Zuna Yoga highly enough.

In the meantime, I would be delighted to share this 5,000 year old practice with you in a private one-to-one setting. I offer private yoga classes online via zoom. Get in touch or book a free welcome consultation to see if this might be just what you need.

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