Yoga 101 - A Historical and Philosophical Introduction
By Jaime Mathis
Where Does Yoga Come From?
There is archaeological evidence that some form of yoga was being practiced on the Indian subcontinent over four thousand years ago. A relief found in the Indus valley shows a person seated in a classical meditation posture which indicates at the very least, cultural reference to what we know as yoga.
The earliest writings about yoga are found in a collection of texts called the Upanishads. These were written during the Vedic period of India which spanned approximately 1750 B.C.Ee-500 C.E. Interestingly, these make little mention of asana, or postures, that we in the West associate with yoga. Rather, yoga is spoken about as a disciplined system of techniques and practices that reveals the true nature of humans. Along the way, the aspiring yogi experiences some major shifts in consciousness.
While there are many different forms of yoga, it was first codified or systematized by a sage called Patanjali who wrote a treatise called the Yoga Sutras. It is nortoriously difficult to pinpoint exactly when these were written, but it is certain that they were not written after 500 C.E. The date range for their composition is between 200 B.C.E- 500 C.E.
So, What IS Yoga?
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali gives a succinct outline of a system of yoga known as Raja Yoga. Sutra means “thread” in Sanskrit and the Yoga Sutras are known for their often obscure and hard to understand meanings. Because sutras were meant to be memory devices to aid in oral transmission of wisdom or traditions, the Yoga Sutras depend on a teacher or commentator to be fully understood. In fact, the yoga sutras begin with the sutra:
which means, “Now the teachings of yoga.” This indicates a continuation of instruction that has already started.
Yoga builds much of its philosophy on the central ideas of Sankhya philosophy which divides reality into two distinct components. These components exist simultaneously and continuously and are both eternal insofar as they will always exist in some form. They are called Purusha and Prakriti.
Purusha could be described as absolute consciousness, infinite love, unchanging nature, and ultimate beingness. Within the system of yoga, each person is infused with purusha, which witnesses the individual soul and from there, a mind with thoughts and feelings and a body with senses and points of contact with the rest of material reality.
Prakriti is everything we can be aware of, or watch, whose nature is to CHANGE. That includes what we can see, hear, taste, touch and smell AS WELL AS what we think and feel. In yoga, our minds are a very refined and subtle part of material reality, just as our bodies are a grosser, more dense form. Their essential characteristic is that they fluctuate or change. Think of the seasons moving through their cycles, the way the human body is born and dies, the way our thoughts and feelings can jump around from moment to moment.
Yoga, at its core is defined in the sutras as chitta vritti nirodhah, or calming the fluctuations of the mind.
Yoga comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, which has several meanings, the most common used in the west being “to yoke”—as in to yoke oneself to Absolute Truth. However, it also means, “to contemplate” which is the preferred definition by some of the earliest commentators since the goal of yoga is to unjoin purusha from prakriti so it can dwell in its true nature.
Patanjali provides the method for freeing purusha from prakriti through the practice of an 8 step process called ashtanga. (ash-8, tanga-limb)
What Are the 8 Limbs of Yoga?
The Yoga Sutras are composed with great intention and attention to the way information is presented and organized. For instance, the first and last things on a list carry the most weight. When studying the 8 limbs, then, it is worth noticing what heads the list.
Yama-These are the great principles that are fundamental to a successful pursuit of yoga. Some commentators remark that these direct our behavior with the outside world, but in truth, they apply to our inner landscape as well.
Ahimsa-non-violence. This is the most important of all the yamas. It means that we are to cause no harm to any living creature at any time. From a classical perspective, this meant having a vegetarian diet and practicing non-violence in words and also thoughts. Just as the elephant’s footprints cover all over footprints, so too should Ahimsa direct our interactions with ourselves and the world.
Satya-truthfulness. Saying what you know is true, not embellishing stories or thinking one thing, saying another and doing still another. Striving to be precise and truthful in all you think, say and do. This includes refraining from daydreaming, imagination, fiction or fantasy. Still, if saying the truth would cause someone pain or do them harm, it is better to say nothing at all since Ahimsa is the most important observance.
Asteya-non-stealing. This extends beyond not taking objects that do not belong to you to not even desiring someone else’s belongings. This could also be interpreted as not taking intangibles that are not freely offered, like someone’s time.
Brahmacharya-celibacy. Meaning, “to walk with Brahman”, this yama is one of the more challenging yamas to western thought. Some commentators reflect that this yama is important because as long as sexual desire is unchecked, the mind is fixed on sensuality instead of realizing the self. Other commentators have suggested that brahmacharya is about sense control, but in its literal and contextual sense, it is complete sexual restraint.
Aparigraha-not coveting or taking more than you need. This is a particularly sensitive yama in western society as it speaks to taking only what you need to sustain yourself and not acquiring possessions or hoarding wealth. It is quite an austere principle when you stop to consider what you actually need to keep body and soul together and compare it with what you have around you on a daily basis.
Niyama-These observances inform our personal disciplines and practices. Whereas the yamas speak about things to desist from, the niyamas tell us what we should engage in.
Sauca-cleanliness. This principle means to keep oneself clean outside and in. Eating pure food, keeping your appearance neat, and cultivating a friendly attitude all constitute elements of this niyama.
Santosa-contentment. Being happy with what you have instead of thinking you can only be happy when you have acquired something more.
Tapah-austerity. Being able to tolerate the hardships of life without becoming mentally agitated. This does not mean voluntarily depriving yourself or causing yourself discomfort, rather being able to endure life’s ups and downs calmly.
Svadhyaya-study. Patanjali is referring particularly to the study of sacred texts and scriptures. The idea is that the more you expose yourself to spiritual matters, the less you will desire worldly objects. This could involve reading the Sutras, the Gita, the Upanishads, and practicing mantras like “Aum”.
Ishvara Pranidhana-devotion to God. In the Bhaghavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that he can both fulfill his duty and attain enlightenment by devoting all his actions to god. Patanjali echoes this sentiment in this niyama, with the proviso that one needs to be unattached to the results of offering their actions to the god of their understanding.
Asana-physical postures. While this is the most emphasized limb of yoga in the west, it is the least mentioned in the Sutras. The purpose of asana within Patanjali’s system is to prepare the body to be firm and comfortable during extended periods of meditation. Out of the 195 sutras, only 3 mention asana.
Pranayama-breath control. There are three types of breath control mentioned by commentators. Suspension of breath after inhalation. Suspension of breath after exhalation. Complete cessation of breath. This is to be done while fixing the mind on an object of meditation, which can be anything from the god of your understanding to a blade of grass. The point is to further cultivate a still mind.
Pratyahara-sense withdrawal. So long as the senses are engaged in the world of objects and desires, stilling the mind is impossible. There are stories of sages submerging themselves underwater to avoid being lured by sense objects, which is quite extreme, but speaks to the power of the senses to keep the mind spinning instead of becoming still. There are other branches of yoga that encourage fixing one’s focus on a particular object or deity so as not to be distracted by negative mental fluctuations.
Dharana-concentration. Aspiring yogis are to develop the ability to concentrate on a particular object or deity. Though Patanjali does not specify a particular thing to focus on, other commentators and writers suggest everything from parts of the anatomy, like concentrating on the tip of the tongue, to choosing a particular god. The next three limbs are extensions of each other, meaning each successive limb draws out the effects of the previous one. These limbs are the internal part of raja yoga and as such, are put into different chapters of the Yoga Sutras.
Dhyana-meditation. This is where the mind is able to fix on an object without any interruption. Whereas Dharana could be likened to drops of oil flowing down a mirror, Dhyana would be like a curtain of oil continuously running over the surface.
Samadhi-meditative absorption. One becomes aware only of the object of meditation. There is no thought, such as, “I am meditating on this candle.” There is only the candle. Self-consciousness disappears and one dwells in complete absorption of the object. In this way, purusha is revealed to itself as the pure awareness that it is, undistracted by notions of “I” or anything the senses can perceive.
Patanjali set forth a system of spiritual attainment that requires an amazing level of dedication and discipline to achieve. When compared to what we define as modern yoga, the two seem to have very little in common. For many of us, it is nearly impossible to adhere to the yamas and niyamas as defined by Patanjali’s sutras.
Regardless of whether or not we feel we can become vegetarian or give up sex or be able to remain peaceful when we lose our job, we can practice an awareness of ourselves as more than our constantly changing world, thoughts and feelings. We can ask ourselves, “If I am not my job, my house, my depression or my health, what am I?” And we can show up to our mats and learn to breathe, knowing that it calms our mind and elevates our consciousness. As Krishna says to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita,
“The bhakta’s[yogi’s] achievement is never destroyed, for it goes on perpetually, be it complete or incomplete.”
Jaime is a RYT-200 and has been practicing yoga for over 10 years. As a student of Dr. Edwin Bryant, one of the leading scholars in Indology, Jaime brings a commitment to preserving the integrity of yoga philosophy and making it accessible to everyone. She holds degrees in History, Behavioral Science, Literature, Film and Theatre. Jaime is particularly passionate about personal evolution through integrating yoga philosophy with creative expression, music and movement.