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Watch: A Brief History of Yoga

When you hear the word ‘yoga’, chances are that an image of people twisting in presumably painful poses might pop up in your head. Yes, postures or asanas are an important part of the teachings of yoga, but they are not all that there is to it. So, how well do you really know yoga? Let us try and unravel the mysteries surrounding this ancient technique.

In the hierarchy of Vedic knowledge, there are four vedas—Rigveda, Samveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda. These are followed by four upvedas, or sub-vedas, Ayurveda, Arthaveda, Dhanurveda, and Gandharvaveda. Further down the line are six upangas, or components, Shiksha, Kalpa, Vyakarana, Nirukta, Chandas, and Jyotisha. These are further classified into six sub-components—Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Sankhya, Mimansa, Vedanta, and Yoga.

The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means union of the individual and universal consciousness. The Rigveda is one of the oldest and most sacred books in human history, having been written 8-10,000 years ago. Yoga is a part of this Vedic literature and was propounded by Maharishi Patanjali nearly 5000 years ago. He elucidated eight limbs of yoga, namely—Yama (social ethics), Niyama (personal ethics), Asana (postures), Pranayama (life force), Pratyahara (turning the senses inwards), Dharana (one-pointed focus), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (merging with the self).

Yoga comprises different schools of philosophy, for example, Gyan yoga, Bhakti yoga, Karma yoga, Hatha yoga, Raj yoga, Mantra yoga, Shiva yoga, Naad yoga, Laya yoga, and many more. Of these, asanas are a part of the Hatha yoga tradition. Somehow, in today’s age yoga has come to be associated with only physical postures whereas the central teaching of yoga is maintaining an unanimous state of mind. It is said in the Bhagavad Gita, “Yogah Karmasu Kaushalam” or ‘yoga is skill in action and expression.’

Hatha yoga promotes physical as well as mental being through the medium of asanas. The different types of yoga are like spokes in a wheel and are all equally important for the overall development of an individual. While Hatha yoga endows one with physical fitness, other types of yoga empower us with wisdom, devotion, etc. This holistic approach towards one’s development was highly respected in the Middle Ages, but was confined only to the royal and scholarly caste. It was only taught to students in Gurukul after passing a rigorous test.

However, the past few decades have seen yoga going through a complete transformation. From being frowned upon to being hailed as one of the best natural therapies out there, yoga has come a long way. The barriers of caste, creed, and social status have been uprooted from yoga to bring it to every home. The benefits of yoga have not gone unnoticed in the international community and the United Nations passed a resolution to celebrate June 21 as the International Day of Yoga.

Yoga is not just exercise, it is how skillfully we communicate, and act in any given situation. So here, yoga is described more as a mind skill. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says, “Samatvam Yoga Uchyate”—equanimity in the mind is a sign of yoga. The ability to remain centered in adverse situations is yoga. Whatever brings us back to our nature, which is harmony and joy, is yoga. While postures make the body healthy, pranayama and meditation take the mind deep within. Uniting diverse aspects of life is yoga.

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