Most of us know yoga as a set of poses performed in a gym or yoga studio setting. The majority of yoga styles practiced today were invented in the last quarter of the 20th century and are either a far cry from yoga’s roots or have no authentic lineage. If we really want to examine the roots of yoga, we need to go back to the Harrapan culture, dating back 3,500 years, when yoga was a meditative practice. According to some, around 1500 BCE, Harrapan culture was diminished due to Aryan invasion. Barbarians from Normandy introduced the caste system and enforced a set of religious rituals that involved blood sacrifice practices. Along with these religious practices came sacred scriptures called the Vedas, a large body of spiritual texts originating in India. The word “yoga” was first mentioned in the oldest of the Vedas, Rig Veda. It referred to the concept of discipline.
Fast forward to 800 BCE. The Upanishads, a collection of texts that contain some of the earliest concepts of Hinduism, prescribed the method of achieving enlightenment by studying under a teacher and dedicating one’s life to a yoga practice. The Upanishads outlined two paths to enlightenment: Karma Yoga (selfless dedication to the service of others) and Jnana Yoga (intense study of spiritual writings). Around the 3rd century BCE, the Maitrayaniya Upanishad prescribed a six-step process to enlightenment, which included mastering pranayama (breath control), pratyaharia (sense withdrawal), dhyana (meditation), dharana (one-pointed concentration), tarka (self-reflection), and samadhi (absolute absorption) in order to unite the Atman (individual’s spirit) and Brahman (universal spirit or source of creation). The sacred syllable om appeared in this particular Upanishad as a symbol of union between mind and breath.
At around the same time that Maitrayaniya Upanishad was introduced, Bhagavad Gita gained prominence. This scripture combined and mythological tales that later made their way into a celebrated collection of tales, Mahabharata. Three methods of devotion were outlined inBhagavad Gita: Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, and Bhakti Yoga (devotion). Compiled around 400 CE by Patanjali, The Yoga Sutras introduced the eight-fold path to yoga practice, which is considered to be the classical yoga manual and the foundation of many of today’s yoga practices, particularly Ashtanga Yoga. We will hear more about this eight-fold path in The Eight Limbs of Yoga (here), which include yama (self-restraint) niyama (self-purification by self-restraint and discipline), asana (seat or posture), pranayama (control of breath), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (one-pointed concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (total absorption). Around the 4th century CE, Tantra Yoga emerged. This new form of yoga celebrated the physical body as a vehicle to enlightenment. The philosophy behind Tantra Yoga can be summarized by the idea of uniting all the dualities within a human body (e.g., male and female; good and evil), which gave Tantra a very sexual reputation. This is, however, a common misunderstanding, since Tantra practices extend far beyond sexuality.
Hatha Yoga was introduced in the 10th century CE. It combined the physicality and conscious intent of using bodily postures, or asana practice, and pranayama breath control for the goal of selfrealization. In 14th century CE, the Yoga Upanishads were introduced. One of these sacred texts, Tejo Bindu Upanishad, added seven more important parts of yoga practice on top of Patanjali’s eight. They were as follows: mula bandha (root lock), balance, undisturbed vision, tyaga (abandonment), mauua (quiet), desha (space), and kala (time).
It was not until the 20th century that yoga gained any kind of popularity in Western Europe and North America. Swami Sivananda Saraswati was one of the first yogis to travel outside of India to spread the teachings of yoga to the West. He established yoga centers in North America at the time Swami Satchidananda also delivered an opening speech at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. However, T. Krishnamacharya is arguably the father of the yoga practice with which Westerners are familiar today. In the 1930s, he began teaching his students the Mysore vigorous sequences of yoga poses that emphasize strength and athletic ability. Students were only allowed to learn the next and more challenging pose after they had grasped the previous one. His three most prominent and influential students are Pattabhi Jois, Iyengar, and Indra Devi. Pattabhi Jois established Ashtanga yoga. It is one of the most popular types of yoga practiced in the West. Iyengar became successful by creating his own sequences of yoga poses, which were characterized by a focus on the alignment of the body and the use of various props. Indra Devi is considered the first famous yogini (female yoga master). Krishnamacharya also educated his son Desikachar in yoga. An engineer by training, Desikachar saw great value in studying yoga only when he was already a college graduate. Desikachar developed Vinyoga, which is a more therapeutic and less intense approach to physical practice, as compared to Ashtanga.
The 21st century presents us with an endless variety of yoga “styles” or “brands,” such as Bikram Yoga, Power Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, and countless more. It is important to be open-minded, try as many styles and approaches as possible, and figure out what gives you the best results in terms of achieving both your physical and spiritual goals. There is no wrong way to achieve self-realization. Just make sure you are mindful, patient, practical, and consistent in your practice.
A Note on the Naming of Poses:
One of the ways that the distance from yoga’s roots expresses itself in Western culture is in the naming of the poses. “Seated forward bend,” “eagle pose,” and “dolphin pose,” for example, are all imprecise translations of the original Sanskrit name. Garudasana, for example, is widely known as eagle pose, but traditionally this pose was named in dedication to Garuda, who is a Hindu deity, portrayed as half-man and half-eagle. He is the charioteer of Lord Vishnu, who is part of the Holy Trinity in Hinduism. Knowing this history adds a whole new dimension to our understanding of the significance, philosophical depth, and essence of the pose, and can in turn enrich our practice.
The poses throughout this book are identified by both their English and Sanskrit names. The English name is a direct translation of the Sanskrit, which sometimes differs from the more common Western name, also provided in the notes. For a literal translation of each part of the Sanskrit name, you may consult the glossary at the back of the book. The intention is to provide you with as much information about the name of the pose and its history as possible, so no matter what style of yoga you practice, you will have the most complete understanding of the names of the poses.