This blog post is for all the people out there who keep telling me they can’t do yoga because they aren’t flexible enough, or they don’t like yoga (even though they’ve never tried) because it looks so pretentious on Instagram…
Real talk: the image of yoga today, is far from the reality of the over 5000 years-old tradition. Everything is about how deep you can go in a sexy pose, how good you look in a super difficult pose that almost nobody can do, and how expensive the clothes you’re wearing are. With the rise of athletic wear brands like Lululemon and new health trends poping up every week telling us what is now good and what isn’t, yoga has become hyper-industrialized, overly marketed and appropriated by young, able bodied white women. The true meaning, beauty, wisdom and traditions that have changed countless people’s lives and outlooks for many millennia has been somewhat corrupted and overshadowed lately. Hopefully, this will give you a little bit of insight into what this practice is truly about.
Firstly, although I can write every single thing I know about yoga down, it will never cover the full range of this topic. The practice is so large and all-encompassing that one lifetime, let alone one blog post, is not enough to cover it. So, if this doesn’t seem like enough knowledge for you, I encourage everyone to go out and learn more about this practice, its roots, history, traditions and wisdom!
A Quick History
Yoga was first invented over 5000 years ago in Northern India. The first written mention of yoga was seen in the ancient Vedas, sacred texts with rituals, chants, and mantras within them. Students interested in spirituality would study them, to attempt to connect with the divine. These spiritual students and masters would write down their ideas and knowledge in the Upanishads, a sacred religious book within the practice of Hinduism, with some overlapping concepts within Jainism and Buddhism. These Upanishads mark the beginning of 2 of the 6 branches of yoga: jnana yoga (wisdom or knowledge), and Karma yoga (action). Another very famous book that comes from this period is the Bhagavad Gita, still popular and widely read worldwide, and a staple of yoga literature.
One of the most marked and known aspects of the classical period, is the introduction of Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras. This is what would frame and organize the yoga practice from now on. Sage Patanjali wrote them in the 2nd century by synthesizing and bringing together older yoga practices. Patanjali is known for bringing about the beginnings of another of the 6 branches: raja yoga. Thi is known as classical yoga, or the “best/highest” form of yoga. He famously writes about the 8 limbs of yoga: Yamas (ethical rules), Niyamas, (habits, behaviours, observances) Asana (physical postures), Pranayama (regulating breath), Pratyahara (bringing in one’s awareness), Dharana (concentration, introspection), Dhyana (contemplation, reflection, profound meditation) and Samadhi (union with the divine). These eight limbs are what many modern yogis try to incorporate into their lives, with Samadhi being the ultimate goal. Not everyone reaches Samadhi in their lifetime, but those who at a young age often become teachers, masters and perhaps gurus.
This is when we begin to see an embracing of the physical aspects of yoga, and a rejection of the traditional texts and knowledge. This marks the beginning of another of the 6 branches: tantra yoga. Although tantric yoga is now associated with sexuality, this is only the modern take on it. Traditionally, tantra yoga is about the connection between the physical and spiritual bodies, and the goal is to break down the barriers that restrict our mind, by connecting the body’s movement with bodily energies. This is when we start to see the first ever type of physical movements within yoga: Hatha Yoga.
This period marks the transition of yoga from India to the West. This happened in the 1800’s and 1900’s, when masters would come to the West to teach their knowledge here. The first time this was done, was by Swami Vivekananda in 1893 in Chicago, where he impressed audiences with his knowledge. Another important point in the popularity of yoga was in 1947, when Indra Devi opened her yoga studio in Hollywood.
The 6 Branches
As previously mentioned, there are 6 branches of yoga.
1) Raja Yoga: The highest form of yoga, “Classical” yoga, emphasis on meditation.
2) Jnana Yoga: The pursuit of wisdom or knowledge.
3) Tantra Yoga: “Tan” means to expand or to weave. An exploration of the energies which weave through the body and mind.
4) Hatha Yoga: Means the yoga of force. It is meant to affect the mind and body through physical force or movements (asanas).
5) Bhakti Yoga: Bhakti is about devotion. This branch of yoga focuses on love, and sometimes devotion to a god/goddess.
6) Karma Yoga: This branch is about the yoga of action. This branch believes in selfless service (seva, or volunteering with no ulterior motive), and acting without expecting anything in return.
Styles of Yoga:
From the tradition of Hatha yoga, came many different styles invented by many different yogis. There are many of these, and are practiced all over the world. Below are a few examples:
Kundalini: Based off the concept that primal energy is located at the base of the spine. One exercise associated with Kundalini yoga is to force laughter until it comes out naturally. It was invented by Yogi Bhajan around 1968.
Ashtanga: Ashtanga is one of the most physically challenging styles of yoga. It is composed of three series. Once a student has mastered all the poses within the primary series, they may move on to the secondary, and then the tercery. Of course, these series can take a lifetime to master, and not everyone makes it all the way to the end.
Vinyasa: Vinyasa is the Sanskrit word for “flow”. It comes from the Ashtanga practice, and is also typically physically challenging. It’s most famous characteristic is the use of vinyasas (like Sun Salutations) several times throughout the practice, or to alternate between positions.
Sivananda: Sivananda yoga, like Ashtanga, is composed of the same positions in every routine. It combines asanas with pranayama, mind focusing techniques, tantric techniques and more.
Hatha: Hatha yoga is based off the first style of yoga, and is usually more traditional. Poses can range from the ancient to the modern, and many styles can count as Hatha yoga.
Asana means “pose” in English. There are a lot of different poses, and variations to these poses, that can be practiced. Poses range from the first and most traditional pose (lotus) to new and modern poses (wild thing, boat crunches, etc.).
Meditation comes in many forms, and varies based on the style and branch of yoga being practiced. However, all styles of yoga include the practice of meditation. Meditation is said to calm and silence the mind. Once the mind is clear, connection to the divine consciousness, or the universe, is possible to achieve. There are several ways to do this, from simply closing one’s eyes and breathing in silence, to staring at a candle, and chanting songs.
The ancient yogis believed that we are only born with a certain amount of breaths in our body. Therefore, slowing down and deepening the breath leads to a slower, deeper, and longer lasting life. Therefore, pranayama means breathwork, and is similar to meditation in that there are countless techniques and ways to go about it. Pranayama is meant to clear and cleanse the mind and the body. Some practices are very common such as deep belly breathing, and some are rarer and more difficult such as nauli bandha abdomen rotation breathing.
A lot of people these days have been turning to vegetarianism and veganism as an ethical lifestyle choice. These choices are characteristic of the yoga philosophy and lifestyle. As mentioned before, long before today a man named Patanjali wrote about the practice of yoga. In his writing, he discusses the ethics of yoga, and yamas and niyamas, which we must live by. The following are the yamas and niyamas, and they are the rules that most yogis strive to live by.
Yamas (restraint, moral discipline, moral vow):
1) Ahimsa: Non-violence in the mind, through actions, or through words
2) Satya: Truthfulness
3) Asteya: Non-stealing
4) Bramacharya: Using energy in the right, or positive ways. Sometimes known as celibacy, or the restraining of sexual energies to transfer these energies into something more useful.
5) Aparigraha: Non-greed or non-hoarding
Niyamas (positive duties, observances):
1) Saucha: Cleanliness
2) Santosha: Contentment
3) Tapas: Discipline
4) Svadhyaya: Study of the self and of the sacred texts
5) Isvara Pranidhana: Surrender to a higher being, or contemplation of a higher power
To recap, there is much, much more to yoga than just what I’ve mentioned here. However, I didn’t want to overwhelm anyone with information, or write a 10-page essay. If there is anything I forgot to mention, or anything someone would like me to go into greater detail about in the next blog post, feel free to comment below and let me know!
Founder, Author & RYT-200 Yoga Teacher @ MAP Yoga
Here are some of the sources I referenced for this post! Check them out if you’d like more information