Modern day yoga means many different things to many different people. But in the Yogamatters History of Yoga month, I am honoured to try and unravel this question and to delve into the origins of Yoga; how this links to Yoga as we know it today; and, in particular, the yoga of BKS Iyengar, who was largely responsible for bringing yoga from India to the rest of the world.
What does Yoga mean?
To define yoga is like trying to pin a snowflake down. Yoga is one of the 6 systems of Indian philosophy. It is multi-faceted through its development over 5,000 years and has a multitude of definitions and meanings depending on those defining it.
At its most uncontentious yoga, or its root, means to yoke or bind together. And this refers to our “yoking” or harnessing our attention and consciousness in order to reach liberation. All interpretations seem largely to agree that yoga is the path to SAMADHI, variously translated as ecstasy, the ecstatic state, liberation, super consciousness or ultimate reality. It concerns our state of being or our consciousness and is a union of the body and the spirit, the ecstatic state of SAMADHI.
Yoga encourages thought not only of the body but of the mind, emphasising self-knowledge. An understanding of the ephemeral nature of our existence and our happiness or satisfaction not being linked to acquisitions or physical sensations, but to the mastery of the mind. This control of our consciousness is the path of Yoga. And this quest for self knowledge and equanimity is why Yoga is still as relevant today as it has ever been.
Patanjali defines Yoga in his Sutras as citti vritti nirodha “the restriction of the whirls of consciousness” – the ability to focus the whole body and mind until one’s entire being is quieted – no small task, but nevertheless a state of mind to which we still aspire.
Where did yoga originate?
Yoga reaches back over 5,000 years to the ancient sages and civilisations of India and is rooted in the ancient literature of Hinduism. An enormous body of teachings, spiritual values, attitudes and concepts across philosophy and religions marry together to create what we understand as Yoga.
The earliest and most treasured texts are the Vedas, which were hymns. Written in Sanskrit, they contain knowledge of the ancient Vedic civilisation, dating back to 4500-2500 BCE. They include the ancient rites and practices of the Vedic priests and the rigorous mental training which they required to perform their duties as part of this revered civilisation. The charting of these mental disciplines was a foundation for the Upanishads written, it is believed, around 2,000 years later and which propose that meditation could be the path to enlightenment or SAMADHI.
After this came the Pre-Classical Era – the era of the Sutras and Shastras and the earliest complete Yoga work, the Mahabharata in which the Bhagavad-Gita is contained.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, probably the most famous of all the Yogic texts, were written in the Classical Era of 100 – 50 BCE. A compilation and systemisation of the writings and thinkings to that point, Patanjali gave Yoga its classical format. The Sutras defined and regularised the most important elements of Yoga theory and practice. Using 195 Sutras, Patanjali gave Yoga what has become its modern route map.
Sutras, which means thread, are short, succinct, pithy phrases or short sentences (aphorisms) in Sanskrit which are like an aide memoire. To be used by a student alongside a teacher or guide (an important concept in Yoga), who has existing knowledge of the subject. Each sanskrit word has a multiplicity of meanings, all subtly different, giving a great depth and significance to each Sutra. The Sutras focus on the philosophy of Yoga, why Yoga is necessary, and what it could achieve. Within the Sutras, Patanjali shares the path to controlling the mind and body through the 8 limbs of Yoga, a concept with which we are familiar in modern Yoga.
Although well-known to us, I think they bear repeating in this discussion of Yoga, as they are seminal to our modern understanding of Yoga. They are:
1) Yama – discipline
2) Niyama – restraint
3) Asana – posture
4) Pranayama – breath control
5) Pratyahara – sense withdrawal
6) Dharana – concentration
7) Dhyana – meditation
8) Samadhi – ecstatic state/liberation
These are collectively Ashtanga Yoga. The stages 1- 5 are the external preparation for achieving or reaching stages 6-8.
The final text I want to mention is the medieval writings of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, bringing us into the Common Era. Whilst Patanjali focused on achieving control of the mind and gave us an outline of the path with the 8 limbs of Yoga, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika provides a clearer explanation of the physical requirements of Yoga. In its 4 chapters, it details a number of asanas and breathing practices (some of which we would recognise from our own Yoga practice).
So, simply concluded, the body-focused Hatha yoga of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika was a form of preparation for Patanjali’s mind-focused system of Yoga, both with ultimate pursuit of SAMADHI or liberation.
How has yoga developed to what we know today?
From the medieval period, the physical pursuits of Hatha Yoga had been practiced by a minority which had been further squeezed by the British rule in India and fears of “fringe” tendencies. However, with push back against colonialism and the rise of Indian nationalism, Hatha Yoga found a new (albeit small) audience.
The (Grand)Father of modern Yoga
Against this backdrop, Krishnamcharya enters the picture. After many years of studying Sanskrit and the ancient texts and learning with his Guru, Brahmachari (who lived in a cave), Krishnamacharya was invited to teach the sons of a royal household in Mysore. Under this royal patronage, he was able to study and develop a lot of what we recognise as the physical aspects of yoga. Focusing on the bodily aspects of Hatha Yoga, he adapted it and drew inspiration from Indian wrestling and gymnastics to develop dynamic asana sequences with the purpose of building physical fitness.
In addition to the royal household, Krishnamacharya took on other students, of whom three in particular were to raise the profile of yoga outside India. Amongst these were Pattabi Jois, who through his studies with Krishnamacharya, further developed Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. Originally designed for young, strong men, it gained traction more widely, possibly as a “gateway” to the more philosophical and spiritual aspects of Yoga.
Indra Devi was another alumni. Having received instruction from Krishnamacharya, she travelled to China, the Soviet Union and latterly, America teaching and proselytising about Yoga and setting up Yoga schools.
The Father of Iyengar Yoga
However, most famously, BKS Iyengar studied with Krishnamacharya. Having been a sickly child and failed his exams, he was sent by his family to live with his sister and brother-in-law. After showing promise, he was subject to a rigorous and sometimes harsh training regime under Krishnamacharya. He was then encouraged to go and spread the word of Yoga.
Moving with his wife, Ramamani, to Pune, Iyengar started to work with students who were not as young and fit as the royal princes in Mysore. So he began to study the poses in enormous detail and adapt them with use of props, to open up yoga to all. This precise study of the asanas and their therapeutic benefits by Mr Iyengar was captured for the world in his seminal book “Light on Yoga” which was published in 1966. Now considered the Yoga Bible, it was his association with Yehudi Menuhin (the world-famous violinist) and the same’s foreword in Light on Yoga, which helped to promote and propel Iyengar yoga initially to the West and then round the world. This, together with the rigorous and comprehensive teacher training programme, which Mr Iyengar created, ensured that the attention to detail, precision and focus on alignment is the gold-standard of Yoga and its teaching. And Iyengar Yoga continues to flourish in the 21st Century under the care of Mr Iyengar’s grand-daughter, Abhijata.