Learn about the history of yoga, the roots of this ancient practice and tradition.
Sanskrit, the Indo-European language of the Vedas, India’s ancient religious texts, gave birth to both the literature and the technique of yoga. One definition of the word Sanskrit, “well-formed, refined, perfect or polished,” connotes substance and clarity, qualities exemplified in the practice of yoga.
The Sanskrit word yoga has several translations and can be interpreted in many ways. It comes from the root yug and originally meant “to hitch up,” as in attaching horses to a vehicle. Another definition was “to put to active and purposeful use.” Still other translations are “yoke, join, or concentrate.” Essentially, yoga has come to describe a means of uniting, or a method of discipline. A male who practices this discipline is called a yogi or yogin; a female practitioner, a yogini.
Yoga comes out of an oral tradition in which the teaching was transmitted directly from teacher to student. The Indian sage Patanjali has been credited with the collation of this oral tradition into his classical work, the Yoga Sutra, a 2,000-year-old treatise on yogic philosophy. A collection of 195 statements, the Sutra provides a kind of philosophical guidebook for dealing with the challenges of being human.
Giving guidance on how to gain mastery over the mind and emotions and advice on spiritual growth, the Yoga Sutra provides the framework upon which all yoga practiced today is based. Literally meaning “thread,” sutra has also been translated as “aphorism,” which means a tersely phrased statement of truth. Another definition of sutra is “the condensation of the greatest amount of knowledge into the most concise description possible.” Keeping these meanings in the mind, we might think of the art and science of yoga as a kind of magnificent tapestry that is woven together by the threads of universal truths.
Initially, the discipline of hatha yoga—the physical aspect of yoga—was developed as a vehicle for meditation. The repertoire of hatha yoga prepared the body, and particularly the nervous system, for stillness, creating the necessary physical strength and stamina that allowed the mind to remain calm.
The word hatha also has several translations. With ha meaning “sun” and tha meaning “moon,” we have the common interpretation of hatha yoga as “a union of the pairs of opposites.” A more technical translation of hatha yoga is “force or determined effort.” Thus hatha yoga, the “yoga of activity,” is the yoga that addresses the body and mind and requires discipline and effort. It is the yoga that we can feel, that we can experience, right here and right now. Hatha yoga is a powerful method of self-transformation. It is the most practical of the yogas, and sages have recommended its practice in some form for millennia as preparation for all the other yogas.