In recent years yoga has become a global, international phenomenon. Dressed in yoga pants and carrying colorful mats the modern-day “yogi” attends one-hour classes that focus on physical stretching, movement, and detoxing from their busy modern lives. We hear a lot about the benefits of yoga, from its ability to decrease stress, chronic pain, as well as the risk for chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
What we don’t hear about as often, however, is the history of yoga. It’s origins are rooted in the soils of the Indus Valley, beneath the Himalayan Mountains, what is Northern India and Pakistan today. It’s traditions so ancient, that it’s claimed to have been practiced since the beginning of civilization. Through internationalism, the seeds of yoga have scattered, blown in the wind and spread to those who seek light. Yoga now touches upon the lives of people all over the world.
Yoga is incredibly complex — the word “yoga” has taken on hundreds of different meanings and practices throughout the years. The word “yoga” was first mentioned in the ancient India Rig Veda text around 3,000 B.C. Most of the 5,000 years since then, yoga was primarily a meditative practice. How much ‘yoga’ related to what yoga was thousands of years ago?
Original yoga traditions
Yet the traditions of yoga have altered significantly, in their travels from South Asia. If you take yoga class somewhere in Himalayan regions of India or Nepal you will see those changes.
Classes are conducted with an opening mantra, an Om, and an intention, then proceeded by a series of asanas, or poses, followed by a lengthy savasana. Sometimes the class begins or concludes with pranayama, breathing exercises, and then a final meditation to use the benefits of the physical practice in stilling the body to ease into the mental practice. The local yoga instructors have been practicing as a part of their culture, their heritage. They probably woke up at 3 or 4am to do their own practice before the sun rose, and established their own equilibrium before teaching the class that you participate in.
Classes are very simple and sometimes take place on roof top you feel the wind on your face, and outside is a sea of green fields.
Modern yoga classes
In the West, the yogic experience differs depending on where you practice and who you practice with. Classes are more focused on the anatomy, which is safer than in India where you’ll be put into headstands and shoulder stands without caution. Sometimes there are real gems out there, where you get the mix of modern Western and classical Eastern traditions. The class will begin with a centering, focus on the breath, an Om you can join into, a sequence of poses that gets your heart pumping while simultaneously bringing you into yourself and connecting to the core of your being. Then a calming savasana, and a final centering that reflects on the intentions of the class. These classes exist. The music played during class may not be a traditional method, but traditions can change, as long as the intention remains.
How to find your path
The origins of yoga comes from Sanskrit, to yoke, or union. This is the intention of the practice. It can be done through chanting, breathing, meditating, or physical movement. Whatever form of yoga you practice, if your intention is to create a union of the body and mind with the true nature of yourself, then you are following the roots of the yoga tradition. It doesn’t matter if you use modern music to carry you through your practice, if you laugh, sweat and shake, call the poses by their Sanskrit, or locally invented name, if your intention is pure then you are amongst the traditions of yoga. Find your path and allow yoga to become your teacher as you explore its roots, and find a tradition that remains alive and intact in each of us.