Community on Yoga, Meditation, Ayurveda and Spirituality
The origin of Yoga lies hidden in the mists of prehistory. It was slowly evolved and developed by the ancient sages, not only in India but all over the world. Generally the techniques of Yoga were passed on from teacher or guru to their disciples by word of mouth. In this way there was a clear understanding of the meaning of the techniques and aims of Yoga, for the teacher , though his personal experience, could guide the students along the right path and away from any confusion and misunderstanding.
The Yoga that we know, that which developed in India, was utilized, at least in its rudimentary form, more than five thousand years ago. In archaeological excavations made in the Indus valley at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro in what is now Pakistan, various statues have been unearthed depicting people practicing yoga. They show Lord Shiva( the mythological originator of Yoga) and his wife Parvati sitting in various asanas and practicing meditation. These discoveries are a definite indicator that Yoga was practiced in India even before the Aryan civilization invaded and started to flourish in Indus subcontinent.
The first books to mention Yoga were the ancient Vedas. Though scholars are not positive, it is generally felt that these books were written at least four thousand ,five hundred years ago. The Vedas are regarded as the first yogic texts, for they illustrate, even in an indirect manner, the essence of yoga.
The seers of the Vedas clearly recognized that there existed a dynamic life principle which they called Vayu (Prana).They also clearly saw that this Prana was closely related to breathing. The Vedas also briefly mention the existence of pranic centers (chakras) within but not of the physical body. The science of sound was clearly recognized for they mention various Mantras(psychic sounds) that can be used for the attainment of both material or worldly goals as well as spiritual aims. In this sense they were probably more advanced than the people of today in this science of Mantras, for it is only recently that people have begun to understand the power of sound.
It is with the advent of the Upanishads that we begin to see Yoga take shape and assume the form that it has today. They mention Japa (meditative techniques involving chanting of mantras) and Mouna (be tanother technique for inducing meditation, which canranslated as inner silence) as being two important aspects of yoga.In these texts the universal mantra AUM is mentioned in written form for the first time, together with its significance.Its is the Upanishads, however,which put yoga on a firmer foundation. It is in these varied texts that we start to see yoga assume a more definite shape.
The Sanskrit word Upanishad is made up from the words shad, ‘to sit’, upa, ”near’ and ni,’ learn’. The whole word can be interpreted to means sit down near and receive teaching from a master. The word Upanishad can also be interpreted as secret teaching. There are believed to have been about two hundred different Upanishads,the oldest of which was written somewhere around 600B.C. and the most recent as late as the fifteen century A.D. Traditionally, one hundred and eight of these Upanishads are regarded as authentic,and of these only about twelve or thirteen are regarded as being authoritative.
Many of Upanishads devote much space to describing prana and its implications.They describe the psychic pathways which exist within, but not of the physical body,through which prana flows,including the all important nadis, ida,pingala and sushumna. The different forms of prana within the body were mapped out according to the functions performed and it is stated that there are seventy two thousand nadis or pranic channels within the body.The concept of the kundalini (psychic and spiritual power) in the form of a serpent within the body is also indicated.
The early Upanishads lay down some of basic rules of Raja Yoga which were later fully systematized and expounded by Patanjali.In fact,various useful suggestions are mentioned such as the following examples:
“ With the body, head and neck held upright, direct your awareness to the heart region, and then AUM will be your boat to cross the river of fear”...Swetasvatara Upanishad. In fact this is the first time that a sitting pose suitable for meditational practice was specified in a scriptural text.
The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are the two vast epics which were written about three thousand, five hundred years ago, a little before the time of Buddha. The Mahabharata can be roughly translated using a little imagination as ‘The Great Book of Indian Culture’ and the Ramayana as ‘The Path of Rama’. Though these two books are works of art in themselves, they don’t in the main give a systematic treatment of yoga, apart from the Bhagavad Gita, which we will discuss shortly.
The Ramayana is a particularly popular scripture even today in India. It portrays the life of Rama in poetry of unsurpassed beauty, which is often sung to the accompaniment of music. Though it contains little or no direct instruction on yoga, it conveys in symbolic form the essence of yogic life and the path that must be undertaken in order to attain self-realization.
Another spiritual text called the Yoga Vashishtha is regarded as a direct offshoot and continuation of the Ramayana. The text attempts to explain all aspects of creation and link them ultimately to consciousness. All aspect of life are discussed, from health and disease to happiness and misery. It speaks of various yogic paths, in particular the path of meditation and Gyana. Pranayama is also recommended as a method of controlling the mind and inducing meditation. It is not, however, a book to be read by beginners of yoga, for although it is a goldmine of knowledge and beautiful poetry, it does not map out in any detail the path to be taken.
The Bhagavad Gita is a Yogic scripture par excellence, and is applicable to people throughout the world and in every walk of life. It maps out in concise, but specific manner, the Yogic paths of Karma Yoga (the path of action), Gyana Yoga (the path of intuition), Bhakti Yoga (the path of devotion) and Dhyana Yoga (the path of meditation).
Since the teaching of yoga were generally passed on orally, its development was haphazard. Different teachers taught different methods so that before it was systematized, yoga was a collection of varied and unrelated techniques, riddled with all types of personal beliefs and superstition. One of the most successful of these writers was Rishi Patanjali who wrote the text called the ’Yoga Sutras’ some time before the birth of Christ. this is still regarded as the classical and authoritative book on Raja Yoga. In a mere one hundred and ninety six verses, Patanjali has considered the essential philosophy, background, techniques and attainments of Raja Yoga.
The whole subject of raja yoga is treated in a most scientific manner starting from moral precepts,leading on to the physical and mental aspects and finally self-realization.
The essential foundations of yoga as we now know it were laid down by the time Patanjali had finished writing his Yoga Sutras. Many more texts and developments were to follow,but the structure of yoga was outlined, all that was required was the filling in of the empty spaces.
There are many other contributors to the development of yoga who we have yet to mention. Bhakti Yoga, Though practiced throughout the eras of yoga, was given a particularly strong boost in the middle ages by such Bhakti Yogis as Kabir, Tulsidas, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Nam Dev and many more. They all wrote wonderful poetry which even now inflames the heart with its devotional feeling.
Large numbers of Hatha Yoga texts were written throughout the ages. The most well-know of these are the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Shiva Samhita, the Gherand Samhita and many more. These texts give details on Asanas, Pranayama and other Hatha Yoga practices, together with techniques for performing Mudras, Bandhas,etc. However, all the books emphasize that the Hatha Yoga practices are not specifically aimed at making the body healthy. They are a means to higher ideals, which first demand a Healthy body.There are many sages and yogis who have contributed to the growth of yoga, such as the ancient yogis Gorakhnath, Mastsyendranath, Janaka, Yajnavalkya, Ashtavakra, Vyasa and so many other, as well as the yogis of recant times such as Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Ramana Maharshi, Swami Sivananda and our guru Swami Satyananda. The list is endless. The number of books on yoga runs into the thousands.
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