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Yoga – A Brief History

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Yoga means Preparing (Yoking) one to reach the ultimate goal. The main objective of yoga is to elevate a person across all dimensions of life i.e. physical, intellectual, spiritual and through the Life Energies. Yoga is the first democratic exercise ever introduced to human kind. It starts with the well being of an individual then traverses towards societal well being.

A true Yogi not only lives life to its fullest form but also enjoys it and has the ability to face the multitudes of life with utmost patience and calmness without cribbing about it.

Let us go through series of masters who helped to revive Yoga as a mass movement

1.Shri Krishna: God who is smart, focused, dynamic yet fun-filled. He was a born Yogi and he thrived to make each one of his devotees a true yogi. He was the embodiment of courage, knowledge and a great warrior. He had the unassuming ability of thinking and providing solutions which prevail over time. Gita which he spoke, embraces life as a yogic movement and divides the life into Karma, Bhakti, Jnana and Raja Yoga. It is up to the reader to follow whatever way they want but holistically each one should follow all these to become a liberated soul. He is the God who ordered us to spring into action whenever it is needed and asked us to shun the lethargical attitude.

2.Patanjali: saint, scholar, writer, thinker and intellectual who cannot be compared to anyone. He has written a long list of ancient Sanskrit scriptures on Medicine (Ayurveda) and Yoga. He has organized Yoga into 8 different components or steps using his yoga sutra. This Yoga sutra forms the basis of further innovation on yoga by contemporary saints and scholars. He seems to have learned yoga directly from Nandhi deva and he is counted as one of 18 Siddhas in Tamil Saivite tradition.

3.Chaitanya: Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was the initial founders of Vaishnavism which only follows Bhakti Yoga. He revived the tradition of pure devotion through which anybody can get liberated. He has written innumerable articles and texts on Bhakti Yoga and he made Bhakti Yoga(Chanting Hare Krishna) as a mass movement which helped in sustaining Hinduism against the onslaught of the then Islamic rulers.

4.Swami Vivekananda: A man who called entire universe as one and he is the first contemporary saint who introduced Hindu philosophy to the West. It is due to his efforts Yoga sutras of Patanjali became famous after the brutal rule of Islam and Christianity. Swamiji travelled far along the west and used his words not only to explain Hinduism and but also to expose the brutality of British and Islamist rulers to the entire world. He has written extensively and his works have revived a lot of scholarly texts on both Yoga and Hindu philosophy. He mostly preached Karma Yoga and asked entire humanity to offer selfless service, which continues to inspire millions of Youth till today.

5.Sri Aurobindo and Mother: A revolutionary turned Saint who mainly worked on internal yoga which mainly focuses on internal consciousness towards Divinity. When Gandhi was working outwardly on Freedom from Britishers this saint was confident about achieving it thru jnana yoga and in Pondicherry and used his internal yoga techniques for the same. His legacy was then taken over by Mirra Alfassa who is fondly called as Mother. Remember that August 15 was the Birthday of Sri Aurobindo.

6.Paramahansa Yogananda and Swami Prabhupada: Taking the cue of Vivekananda, when the West, especially Americans wanted to know more about Hinduism and its philosophy, other contemporary Saints and Scholars travelled the length and breadth of India and tried to understand the aspirations and philosophy of ordinary Indians then they headed back to the West and propagated more about their understandings to the civil society of America. Yogananda and Prabhupada after innumerable difficulties formed societies in the US which helped Americans to learn more. They focused their teachings on Kriya Yoga (identical to Raja Yoga of Gita) and Bhakti Yoga. Prabhupada formed ISKCON Society which has followers in most of the countries. Yogananda revived Kriya Yoga through Yogoda society. His autobiography is one of the best sellers and most sought-after books on the topic ever.

These saffron clad saints and yogis formed different civil societies across world, spent considerable time in west which led to serious exploration by westerners on Hinduism and led to growth of contemporary Indic Scholars in West like Dr David Frawley, Koenraad Elst etc. who fight and advocate for the survival of Hindus and Yoga at the international arena.

After the 1950s due to the aftermath of successive world wars and rise of communist movements, the West lost its faith in religion they started exploring lifestyle which was not influenced by religion. At the same time, the east also started unshackling its base and tried to evolve as a modern society. This led to growth of Modern Yoga techniques decoupled from religion.

7.Osho, Mahesh Yogi and Bks Iyengar: These 3 people can be categorized as Innovators and Disruptors. They invented a lot of meditation techniques, yogic exercises which caters to the physical and emotional well being of a human when the entire world was in emotional and economic turmoil. They all had a huge following and they decoupled spiritual component from Yoga which in turn led to following of Yoga not only by civil society but by all sections of people in West. Because of their influence commercialization of Yoga started at a grand scale. The west was in dire need of Yoga instructors and it led to opening up of yoga centres all across West.

With the deprivation of Spiritual component and along with controversies of the above 3 people, the entire west, after a while started having serious doubts which in turn led to a rapid fall in popularity of yoga among civil society members in western nations.

Again the answer came from India with now contemporary gurus like Swami Ramdev, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev(Isha) and Sri Sri Ravishankar. All of them never shied away from quoting the spiritual components and they led some serious research and innovation on the yogic process with medicine (Ayurveda), classical Indian arts, music and led to the new wave of thought process and techniques on Yoga.

The degradation of the Yogic process of preparing one for liberation started at the time when spiritual components of Hinduism were decoupled from it. So lets us not fell into the trap of evicting Hinduism from Yoga. Remember our saffron clad yogis not only preached for the liberation of an individual but also worked towards freeing up India from the oppressors.


Harishankar Nagarajan

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