Yoga is the ancient science which originated in India and is now used by people all over the world for maintaining physical, emotional and mental health. As per one of the classical texts of yoga called Hatha yoga pradipika, mentions Lord Shiva as the first teacher of yoga, whereas Bhagavad Gita mentions Lord Krishna as the first teacher of yoga.
Some historical researchers have proved that yoga was in existence during the time of Vedas. Post the Vedic period, the great sage Patanjali systematized yoga, elaborated its meaning and the knowledge related to it through Patanjali yoga sutras. After sage Patanjali, many sages contributed largely to the field with their practices and literature.
For the sake of systematic study of the historical development of yoga, the yogic period can be divided into three periods, namely:
1. Pre-Patanjali period (Before 500 BC)
2. Patanjali period (500 BC to 800 AC)
3. Post Patanjali period (800 AC onward)
Pre - Patanjali Period
The historical evidence of yoga indicates the existence of the ancient science in the 4500 BC. So the period extending from 4500 BC up to the Patanjali period is considered pre Patanjali period. The main sources of information available from that period include Vedas, Upanishads, the teachings of Buddha, Smriti, Jainism, epics, Puranas and Panini.
Vedas - In the Hindu tradition, there are four Vedas namely Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda. No direct explanation of the word yoga can be found in any of the Vedas. But the meaning of other important yogic terms such as asana, pranayama, mudras, meditation techniques, cleanliness techniques Yama and Niyama and the dharanas are all elaborated in the Vedas. The asanas explained in the Vedas were more focused on meditation. The pranayama explained in the Yajurveda is similar to Anuloma Viloma.
Upanishads – Upanishads are the essence of Vedas. Out of all the Upanishads available, there are 10 which are of utmost importance. These 10 Upanishads talk about yoga and its various aspects. The panchkosha theory which is used in the treatment of diseases through yoga is elaborated in the Taittariya Upanishad. While the Kathopanishad explains how to attain Samadhi. Other Upanishads with information related to yoga are Ishavasya Upanishads, Kenopanishad and Shwetasvatara Upanishads.
Smriti - The Smritis laid out the disciplines one needs to follow in his life. The Smritis which talk about yoga are Yajnavalkya Smriti, Manusmriti and Harita Smriti. These smritis also explain the four stages of life namely:
The epics The two main epics which give out major details about yoga are Ramayana and Mahabharata. Ramayana explains the moral disciplines, Yama and Niyama in detail.
Puranas Out of the available Puranas, eighteen of them are of great importance. The Bhagavata Purana explains bhakti yoga. The Linga Purana elaborates details about Yama, Niyama and pranayama. Vayu Purana mentions the details about dharana, pratyahara and dhyana.
Based on the information available in these texts and as per the teachings of Jainism and Buddhism, the practice of yoga kept evolving through the pre-Patanjali period.
During the Patanjali period, yoga was a combination of various beliefs, ideas and techniques that often contradicted and conflicted with each other. The Patanjali period is defined in the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, the first systematic presentation of yoga. These texts were written sometime in the 2nd century and are mainly focused on the path of Raja Yoga, also known as the “classical yoga”. Sage Patanjali laid down the practice of yoga into an eight-limbed path comprising of the stages and steps towards the obtainment of Samadhi or enlightenment. Sage Patanjali is considered as the father of yoga and most of the modern yoga styles are influenced by his yoga-sutras.
A few centuries after sage Patanjali, yoga masters created a system of practices aimed to rejuvenate the physical well being and prolong life tenure. They sidelined the teachings of the ancient Vedas and embraced the physical body as the ultimate means to acquire enlightenment. Tantra yoga was developed during this period, which was more about radical techniques to cleanse the mind and body to break down the knots which bind us to our physical existence. It was during this period that yoga developed gradually and several classical texts were also authored during this period. The exploration of the spiritual and physical connections and body-centered practices led to the birth of hatha yoga which is one of the most popular forms of yoga. The Natha yogis of the hatha yoga tradition such as Gorkshnatha, Matsyendaranatha, Swatmaram Suri, Cauranginatha, Shrinivasa Bhatt, Gheranda are some of the prominent names who popularized the hatha yoga practice during the post-Patanjali period.
The post-Patanjali period was followed by the modern period which extended from 1700-1900 A.D. This is the period when great yoga gurus such as Ramana Maharshi, Paramhansa Yogananda, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Swami Vivekananda, etc. contributed greatly for the development of raja yoga. During this period, Vedanta, Hatha Yoga and Bhakti Yoga flourished and at present are the most popular forms of yoga being practiced all over the world.
Yoga may have evolved and developed all through these eras and has turned into a mishmash of the teachings and tenets of the various eras but it still holds its true essence, which is to balance out the energies and harmonize the body mind and soul equation.