“New Age spirituality is often a potpourri of different belief systems sapped of historical and cultural significance.”

Kim Tran

In an age of mass Western commercialization of sacred Eastern practices, it is more important than ever to truly understand and appreciate the roots of yoga. In doing so, we recall that yoga is a whole human practice, not just a physical one. Rather than focusing solely on physical improvement, yoga began with the intention to connect to a deeper awareness – a state of being that is immersed in compassion and love. 

Yoga originated in India as an ancient spiritual practice for achieving enlightenment, and comprised one of the six major schools of thought, or darshana, of Hinduism. The first appearance of the word “yoga” can be traced to the sacred texts of Hinduism called the Vedas. The word itself comes from the root “yuj”, meaning  “to yoke”. In more modern definitions, this is taken to mean “to union” the mind and body. One of the most prominent Vedas is The Bhagavad Gita, which is a scripture of yogic philosophy, that dates back to between 400 BC and 200 CE. In this scripture, Krishna speaks of four types of yoga: 

  • bhakti, or devotion
  • jhana, or knowledge
  • karma, or action
  • dhyana, or concentration 

These are all believed to be paths to achieving moksha, meaning enlightenment.

A more recent Hindu text, called the Dhyanabindu Upanishad, expands upon this foundation and explains yoga as having six limbs:

  • asana (seat- postures)
  • pranayama (“life energy” + “control”- breathwork)
  • pratyahara (“against” + “ingestion”- control of the senses, inward focus)
  • dharana (“to make stable”- concentration)
  • dhyana (“the mind” + “moving” – meditation)
  • samadhi (“together” + “toward” – enlightenment)

A sage in ancient India named Patanjali built upon this theory in his 8-limbed path, which includes these six branches and two additional parts outlining the ethical codes for acting in our internal and external world

  • yama (restraint)
    • this limb sets a code of conduct for how to act ethically in our environment, emphasizing non-violence and truthfulness
  • niyama (observances)
    • this limb encompasses inner practices to improve oneself and includes study, gratitude, and dedication

The practice of yoga has broad historical roots in teachings directed at the whole human. These 8 Limbs are meant to come together to create the practice of yoga, but modern-day practices have focused mainly on the postures. Throughout its history, yoga has been criminalized and heavily commercialized, and has experienced significant distortion as a result. It has lost its essence through westernization – it is asana without true understanding, intention, or wisdom: essentially diluted to physical exercise.

Even at this level, the physical exercise and practice of postures have been shown in research to be incredibly beneficial and healing. But when the other elements are practiced in tandem – when we withdraw the mind and the senses from the external world and send our focus inward as well, the benefits for our health are unparalleled. There is a release of suffering and an opening of space for love – for ourselves, for others, for this beautiful life. Yet, it’s important to understand the roots of yoga not only to practice it more fully, but also to cultivate much-needed appreciation, gratitude, and respect. 

Today’s yogis have been given the privilege to practice yoga and be taught the wisdom of Hinduism. Even though most yoga practices in this day look very different from those of its origin, this practice is still a powerful tool in soul healing. Through a more full understanding of yoga as a true mind-body practice, we can reconnect to its true purpose: To develop compassionate awareness and to unify with higher consciousness. 

Yoga has faced numerous obstacles on its journey to the 21st century that have distorted the practice in many ways. When India was under British colonization, yoga was seen as threatening. Yoga and other cultural rituals were ridiculed and banned among the people for centuries, and its practice was a punishable offense. As the practice later became westernized and commercialized, asana became the only represented limb. Practitioners were more interested in spreading their own names than honoring the practice as it was created. However, yoga has persevered nonetheless and yogis today have been given the privilege to practice yoga and be taught the wisdom of Hinduism.

Curious for more information on this topic? Check out this article!