Over the past few years I find myself continuing to pull at the layers of yoga, looking for some clue as to what it is, where it came from, when did it begin. I break down all the pieces and stare at it for hours as if I am scrying, hoping for a reply. That's the funny thing though about history, it is a never ending investigation where discoveries lead to more questions.
In anthropology classes I've been taking, we've been learning about the difference in the way Westerns look at history verses other cultures. We Westerners look through the lens of science and history. We are only beginning to become more open to the other way of looking at the past - through storytelling, living cultures, and cultural beliefs. For so many cultures, the exact date something began or collapsed is irrelevant. What matters is who lived, who died, who were they, what they offered or took. This is, of course, an oversimplification of the entire process.
Ancient seals reveal yoga practitioners seated in meditation.
Image source: Basavaraddi, Ishwar. (April 23, 2015). Seals [Photograph]. Ministry of External Affairs. https://www.mea.gov.in/in-focus-article.htm?25096/Yoga+Its+Origin+History+and+Development
Yoga is therefore not without disagreement. India, the mother of yoga, believes yoga may have "started with the very dawn of civilization" (Basavaraddi, 2015). Shiva is the Adhi Yogi, the first yogi, and therefore this belief makes complete sense. Western anthropologists and researchers however, believe that there has to be a firm date of conception. This of course continues to shift as new discoveries are made. For them, they look to around 2700 B.C. where they believe the Indus Saraswati Valley culture gave rise to the practice (Basavaraddi, 2015). However, many nationalists are opposed to this as they believe it infers that yoga was given to India by non-Indians and therefore another form of colonial thinking. If we move away from dating yoga to a specific time, we can acknowledge that yoga is for us, ancient.
What we know yoga as today is a far cry of what it was. Yoga today has been heavily Westernized (i.e. influenced by a physically focused European/North American culture), and the surge of asana in India was also a nationalistic response to British occupation. So much of what people in North America and Europe know about yoga centralizes around asana (physical postures). With that said, asana went from the "seat" for meditation thousands of years ago to a more complex system between the 10th to 15th centuries where yoga postures increased to approximately 84. Today, there are hundreds. And "we" are obsessed with them. So much so that countries in the West have commoditized them calling yoga an industry.
For those who study and practice yoga, we know it is not an industry, but a way of living. Yoga seeks to merge us with this ultimate being, known to some as Brahman or Shakti or God. Many of the ancient texts like"The Vedas" and "The Bhagavad Gita," give us tools on how to do this. Whether it is meditation, serving others, devotional practices, or living our dharma without want, we live a life focused on yoga, walking this path as best as we can from sunrise to sunset.
Krishna says to Arjuna in "The Bhagavad Gita," "Be steadfast in the performance of your duty, O Arjun, abandoning attachment to success and failure. Such equanimity is called Yog." (Slokah 2.48).
It is that focus then that reminds me that it doesn't matter for my practice when yoga started. I have the tools I need to follow it thanks to an endless road of teachers, Swamis, and sages who came before me.
Basavaraddi, I. V. (2015, April 23). Yoga: Its Origin, History and Development. Public Diplomacy. https://www.mea.gov.in/in-focus-article.htm?25096%2FYoga%2BIts%2BOrigin%2BHistory%2Band%2BDevelopment.