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Yoga, like any science, is constantly evolving. But yoga is not just a science. It’s a philosophy and a way of life that seems to be more and more open to interpretation as it gains widespread popularity around the world.
Yoga began as an ancient practice that originated in India circa 3000 B.C. Stone-carved figures of yoga postures can be found in the Indus Valley depicting the original poses and practices. Yoga was developed as a way to achieve harmony between the heart and soul on the path to divine enlightenment. Along the way, it was discovered that yoga has a practical benefit of curing many diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure, and alleviating physical injuries and chronic pains. These side effects are partly why yoga has taken off in the West. And as yoga has become increasingly popular outside of India and in so many widely varying cultures, so has the practice cleaved into many different schools.
Yoga’s diversion from its roots is a popular topic, and everyone seems to have an opinion. According to a recent NPR piece, a group called the Hindu American Foundation has founded a "Take Back Yoga" campaign to bring yoga back to its original Hindu roots. While an integral part of Hinduism, yoga is itself not a religion — it’s a science. People of India, however, do often specify saints or munis (the Sanskrit words for saints) in their yoga practice in order to connect with the eternal and divine. This is just part of a bigger practice of gaining balance between the body and mind, which is thought to be the ultimate goal of yoga… at least by traditionalists.
Historically, yoga was mainly taught by the gurus (the Sanskrit word for teacher) to their sisyas (the Sanskrit word for students), either orally or by demonstration. The various forms of asana and meditations have continued to be taught this way into modern times, being passed from guru to sisya — although, modern forms of gurus and sisyas may look very different than the ancient ones. This word-of-mouth method of passing along knowledge means that yoga has changed quite a bit over the centuries.
There are a few written books that chronicle the early days of yoga and its original structure. Many theories and asanas were compiled into one such book by the scholar Patanjali in the 2nd or 3rd century B.C. and called the Yoga Sutras. The system that Patanjali wrote about was the classic Eight Limbs of Yoga, which is where the term “Ashtanga Yoga” came from, although the belief system laid down in the Yoga Sutras is now better known as Raja Yoga. Contemporary Ashtanga Yoga refers to a relatively modern yoga school founded by Indian guru Patthabi Jois in the second half of the 20th century. However, it was Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that gave birth to the modern yoga movement as we now know it in both the East and the West.
Though today’s yoga is often very different from Patanjali’s yoga, and offers much more variety, the essence of Patanjali’s sutras remains. The eight limbs he outlined in the sutras are:
1. Yama (restraint)
2. Niyama (observances)
3. Asana (the physical yoga exercise)
4. Pranayama (breathing techniques)
5. Pratyahara (preparing for meditation)
6. Dharana (concentration, which helps prepare for meditation)
7. Dhyana (meditation)
8. Samadhi (absorption, where we try to submerge with the eternal and divine)
The great majority of modern yoga styles and practices concentrate on just two of these limbs: Asana and Pranayama. Thought to cure disease and reduce stress, they are the most practical and useful of the eight limbs of yoga for modern Westerners. The other eight limbs are more esoteric and require a lifestyle commitment that is not practical for the average householder (to use a common Indian term).
While yoga traditionalists question whether those practicing only asana are really practicing true yoga, as a native Indian yogi who has both a personal yoga practice and a company devoted to sharing my love of yoga globally, I believe that the evolution of yoga is a healthy phenomenon and that the variety of interpretations of yoga practice available to us makes yoga accessible to people of all different cultures, belief systems and socio-economic levels.
What’s important, regardless of the style of yoga one chooses to practice, and the depth of intensity that one chooses to engage, is that a qualified and inspiring teacher is chosen to lead the way. At its heart, I believe that the essence of yoga is this student/teacher relationship and the intuitive passing along of knowledge from one generation to another, in whatever form that may take.