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Danielle Powell
Religion in Eastern Cultures
Dr. Eric Dale
Final Writing Assignment
The Evolution of Yoga
The yoga that most Westerners are familiar with involves a physical regimen
with some meditative aspects designed to strengthen the body and relieve stress. It
is an evolution of the yoga practiced by ancient Indians over 5000 years ago, which
then was a spiritual and physical discipline that integrated aspects of reality. The
word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word “yuj,” which means “to yoke,” or join. Yoga
can be the goal of spiritual practice: the yoking -- or union-- of the individual with
the divine. But yoga can also be translated to mean discipline; a yogi is a man of
discipline (Miller 157). When used in this sense, yoga is a spiritual and physical
practice that serves as the path or technical system for achieving liberation (Stokes
97). There are various different paths a practitioner can take to achieve liberation,
thus creating different kinds of yoga. Understanding yoga can be difficult to
understand because it has evolved into different forms to serve various purposes; it
can be the way of achieving spiritual or physical goals, or it can be the goal itself.
The earliest yoga is estimated to have originated more than 5,000 years ago
(swami). The practice was used by ancient Indian rsis to focus the mind for long
periods of time, so they could transcend the limitations of the ordinary mind and
realize the reality of the divine. These master yogis had transcendal experiences, or
visions, and acted as the channels through which the Vedas were delivered; “the
rsis, or seers, identified as speakers of particular Vedas, are understood to be mere
channels through which the transcendent word passes to make itself available to
humans at the start of each creation cycle. Thus the risis are said to speak the Vedas
in each cycle of creation, and the very language in which the Vedas are spoken -Sanskrit -- is itself held to be divine” (Coward 4). The risis are not considered
authors who created the content of the vedas with their minds, but master yogis
who controlled their mind and in doing so, were able to see the eternal truth of the
Vedas. “the rsi, by the progressive purifying of consciuousness through the practices
of yoga, had simply removed the mental obtsructions to the revelation of the Divine
World. While the Divine World is inherently present within the consciousness of all,
it is the rsis who first reveal it and in doing so make It available to help others
achieve the same experience. Once rsis became masters of yoga and understood the
messages of the Vedas, they could teach others how to uncover that same truth.
The upanishads are a teacher’s attempt to explain the nature of the universe
to his student. For example, a teacher attempts to describe atman to the student
using dialogue: “that finest essence which you do not perceive-- verily, my dear,
from that finest essence this great [sacred fig] tree thus arises. Believe me, my
dear… that which is the finest essence -- this whole world has that as its soul. That is
reality. That is atman. That art thou” (Chandogya Upanishad 6.12.2-3, Coward 35).
The upanishads present yoga as the end goal: the union of Atman and brahman. One
way of doing that is by chanting the word “om.” Sanskrit is believed to be the
perfected language of the gods, and saying this word is thought to unite whoever
says it with the vibrations of the cosmos.
“Om!-- This syllable is the whole world. Its further explanation is:-- the past,
the present, the future-- everything is just the word ‘om.’ And whatever else
that transcends threefold time-- that, too, is just the word ‘om.’ For truly,
everything here is Brahma; this self [atman] is Brahma… Thus om is the self
[atman] indeed. He who knows this, with his self enters the self -- yea, he
who knows this” (Mandukya Upanishad 1-12, Coward)
Yoga is used to achieve deep meditation through which yogis can transcend the
body and mind and discover their true nature -- atman, and they can then unite with
In the Hindu epic the Bhagavad Gita, yoga is used as a path to achieve a
spiritual goal. Here, yoga means discipline; it can be thought of in this sense as
yoking oneself to Krishna’s divine purpose (Miller 157). A yogi may choose one or
more discipline, or path to liberation, based on his personality and attainments. For
example, bhakti yoga is the path of love and devotion to God. When somebody is
following this path to liberation, he will not act selfishly, but will always remember
the divine and act in service to God. Another path is jnana yoga, which is the path of
wisdom and self-knowledge. On this path, the yogi will use yoga to acheive deep
meditation through which he can transcend the body and mind, and discover his
true nature; that atman is brahman. The third path is karma yoga: the path of
selfless action and work. Through this type of yoga, the yogi acts without being
attached to the results, or fruits, or the action. This is the path suitable for people
who participate in society and are not monks, but are still deeply religious and
devote their life to God through their work. They’re not attached to the results of
their actions, and act to be of service. They focus on giving instead of tending more
to what they will receive as a result of the action. Karma yoga is a way in which
yogis can unite with the divine because it is working through them in a sense; they
are transcending their self because they know their true self is atman. An example of
thisIn the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna advises Arjuna to fight in the war, thus following
the path of selfless action. During this tale, Arjuna is conflicted on how to act and
can’t determine which action is right.
Yoga changed around 200 AD when a yogi named Pantajali used the
teachings of the Vedas and summarized them to compile the Yoga Sutras. In this
context, yoga meant the derived meanings of “to yoke,” including to master, subdue,
or control. We learn many things, but this knowledge is not an end in itself. The goal
is to find oneness with the absolute ultimate – yoga (spirituality foundation). The
Yoga sutras are concerned mainly with mental control; the Sutras explicitly define
yoga in Sanskrit as “yogash chitta vritti nirodhah.” While there are varying English
translations of this phrase, it essentially means “yoga is the restraint of mental
modifications” (Bharati). There are many passages in the Upanishads that reflect
this goal of training the mind:
“Do you know that thread by which this world and the other world and all
things are tied together?… that inner controller who from within controls
this world and the other world and all things? … he who knows that thread
the the so-called inner controller knows Brahma, he knows the worlds, he
knows the gods, he knows the vedas, he knows created things, he knows the
soul, he knows everything” (Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad 3.7.1, Coward 25)
By controlling the mind, we can practice meditation and keep ourselves from being
distracted by thoughts and external experiences. By quietting our thoughts, we can
reach a state of mental stillness and have an internal experience, not paying
attention to the internal world. , All the great prophets, sages and yogis have found
divinity and wisdom through inner experience, and raja yoga teaches us to uncover
those experiences by observing the internal states through the daily practice of
meditation. The instrument is the mind itself. The mind studies the mind and
illuminates it.
Raj yoga, which is also called royal yoga or classical yoga, developed from the
teaching of the Yoga Sutras. While raja yoga encompasses all eight steps of
Patanjali’s yoga, the focus is on the last two steps: the mind, meditation and diving
into the inner universe (spirituality foundation). Raja means king, and it is supposed
to signify that the mind is the king and controller of all the other body parts. The
purpose of raj yoga is to control the mind to realize the true Self and the union
between the individual consciousness and the universal consciousness. As yoga has
evolved to fit the needs of modern-day yogis, yoga has come to mean union of the
spiritual and material world; living a spiritually balacned life. Raj yoga is a practical
way of being commited to a spiritual life without needing to renounce society like
ancient yogis did; it is accessibleto everyday people who participate in society.
Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras also provide a way to liberation: the eight limbs of yoga. The
first two limbs lay the moral foundation for practice and remove the disturbance of
uncontrolled desires. Yama is restrain from vice. Niyama is observance of purity and
virtue. The purpose of the next two limbs is to calm the physical body. The third
limb is asana, or physical posture. The fourth limb is pranayama, which is control of
the breath. Prana is known as breath, but also as life energy and force. The purpose
of the fifth limb is to detach the mind from the external world; it is known as
pratyahara, which means withdrawal from the senses. The aim of the last three
limbs is to achieve internal control of consciousness; they must be achieved
successively. The sixth limb, dharana, means concentration. Once this is achieved, a
yogi can move onto the seventh limb: dyana, or meditation. And finally, the last limb
is samadhi. This is the final goal of yoga according to the Yoga Sutras, and is
described as a state of supreme peace, illumination, enlightenment, and bliss where
the sense of self disappears.
As yoga continued to evolve and be used for different purposes, a greater
emphasis was put on the physical aspects of the practice. Hatha yoga deals primarily
with the body, and its purpose is to get the body in shape so meditating is
comfortable and bliss can be experienced.. Hatha yoga is intricately connected to
raja yoga, and some consider it to have grown from the third limb, asana. “Hatha
yoga is the third of eight limbs in Patanjali’s system of raja yoga… to practice hatha
yoga is to accept the doctrines of raja yoga, involving the coiled serpent-power at
the base of the spine (kundalini), seven chakras, postures, breath control, and
meditation” (stokes). “not that there are two modes of procedure -- one called hatha
and the other raja --which are mutually reflexive; but, rather, that the goal known as
raja-yoga cannot be achieved without the practice of hatha, and the practice of hatha
remains incomplete until raja-yoga is attained’ (burley 104). The main doctrine of
hatha yoga, The Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā, lists the indicators of success in hatha-yoga
as follows: beauty (vapus) and slimness (krsatva) of physique, radiant complexion (,
the “bursting forth” (sphuta) of the “inner sound” (nada), clear eyes, freedom from
illness, control over seminal fluid (bindu), intensification of the “inner fire” (agni),
and purity of the nadis” (Burley 105). Hatha yoga practiced Westerners consists
mostly of asanas understood as physical exercises. Because there is an emphasis on
the physical, many people consider it to be less than other forms of yoga, but “to
practice hatha yoga is to accept the doctrines of raja yoga, involving the coiled
serpent-power at the base of the spine (kundalini), seven chakras, postures, breath
control, and meditation” (stokes)
Yoga is now a commodity in the West; there are nearly 16 million yoga
practioners in the United States who propagate the $6billion yoga industry. Yoga
was first brought to the West by an Indian yogi named Vivedanka, who came to
America in 1893. To him, yoga was “realizing God,” and he tried to encourage
Americans to live more by “being” rather than the typical American way of “doing.”
Vivedanka was the first and most popular yogi to come to America, but others
followed him and published books, set up ashrams and yoga centers, and gave tours
where they lectured about yoga. But in 1924 the US immigration service imposed a
quota on Indian immigration, which made it necessary for Westerners to travel East
to seek teachings (Hammond). The teaching of yoga by Westerners put less of an
emphasis on Hindu philosophy and doctrine, and more of an emphasis on the mindbody experience. Richard Hittleman was one of the most influential Western yogis
in the 1950s; he sold millions of books on yoga and pioneered the practice on
television. Although he was a spiritual yogi, he presented nonreligious yoga to
Americans with an emphasis on the physical, hoping that this would open the door
for them to yoga, and lead them to learn about philosophy and meditation. While
some did go on to study traditional yoga, many only adopted the physical practice.
Other Westerners besides Hittleman came back to America from India in the fifties,
opening studios and publishing books to spread yoga to the masses. Yoga was
established in California in the 1950s, and spread throughout the rest of America by
the 1970s. It grew popular among the youth in America during the sixties, who as a
whole were interested in accessing higher states of consciousness with drugs. In
1966, an Indian yogi by the name of Swami Satchidanada came to America and
created an ashram; he would also go on to open Woodstock festival with
inspirational words of peace in 1969 (Hammond). Another proponent of yoga
among the youth of America in the sixties was Ram Dass, a former Harvard
professor who went to India on a spiritual journey and returned with a message to
spread. He went on a tour of college campuses in 1970, and published his book Be
Here Now, which established the spiritual quest as a lifestyle for the hippie
generation. One of the other influential yogis who brought yoga to the West is Yogi
Bhajan; he was the first Indian to share the way of a special yoga called Kundalini
with the West.
Kundalini Yoga is an ancient practice of yoga that combines Raj Yoga and
Hatha yoga. It deals with the energy within the body, which can be very powerful
when a person knows how to access it. The ancient science of Kundalini Yoga was
practiced in ancient India for thousands of years, and was originally spread the
same way as the teachings of the Upanishads: orally, from masters to student. The
teachings of Kundalini Yoga were kept secret until Yogi Bhajan broke tradition and
brought it to the West in the 1960s, making it accessible to an American audience.
He saw that many youth were experimenting with drugs, and he perceived this as a
desire to experience altered states of consciousness and a holistic, liberating sense
of awareness (yogi bhajan website). Yogi Bhajan also believed that this expressed a
deeper desire and longing for family and connection with themselves and others.
Although Kundalini Yoga had traditionally been practiced by gurus and their
qualified students, Yogi Bhajan believed that it could also greatly benefit Americans,
and decided to break the tradition of secrecy and share it with the public. He created
a family, known as 3HO (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization) and soon 3HO teaching
centers began springing up across the United States and throughout the world.
Kundalini yoga is concerned with shakti: a person’s creative energy. The
purpose of this type of yoga is to connect with the divine by awakening the
kundalini energy that is coiled at the base of a spine like a serpeant – “kundalini”
means coiled. As it is awakened, it travels up the spine, passing through various
chakras along the way. Chakras are energy centers that the kundalini energy flows
through; each chakra represents a certain part of the body. For example, the
bottom-most chakra, the root chakra, is near the tailbone and represents our
feelings of being grounded, and survival issues such as financial independence,
money, and food (mindbodygreen). Kriyas, or sequences of poses, are designed to
awaken the Kundalini energy in specific chakras.