Intro to Yoga

A Beginner's Guide to the History and Practice of Yoga

Yoga is an ancient art that is about much more than exercise – it is physical, emotional and spiritual.
It focuses on finding a balance with the body and the mind.

Yoga is considered one of the best forms of exercise to promote flexibility and is one of the top 15 most popular exercises for American adults, but little is known about when the philosophy of yoga actually began. Originally thought to have been invented around 500 BCE, when the term “yoga” was first coined, it wasn’t until the 1920s that researchers uncovered evidence that yoga existed as far back as 3000 BCE. Depictions of asanas (yoga poses) were discovered at the site of the Indus Valley civilization, one of the earliest civilizations known to man. The images discovered are early versions of asanas still used today, even after thousands of years of study and evolution. Widely considered a form of exercise in the modern Western world, yoga’s beginnings had much more spiritual roots, with the earliest yogis practicing yoga in order to achieve mental clarity and self-awareness. However, through the development over the many centuries since its creation, other practical, physical and spiritual uses for yoga have been revealed. Even so, regardless of developmental period, yoga has always focused on striking a balance with the body and the mind.

Historical Development of Yoga

Vedic~1500 BCE
Creation of the Rigveda
~500 BCE
Creation of the Bhagavad-Gita
Preclassical~6th Century BCE
Creation of the Upanishads
Classical~100 – 200 AD
Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali
~19th Century AD
Introduction of Yoga to the Western World
Postclassical
~3000 BCE
Approx. Origin of Yoga

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Today

Vedic Period

(~1500 BCE – ~500 BCE)

The first of these periods, Vedic yoga, follows the teachings of the Rigveda, an ancient Indian text. Like yoga, the actual duration of the Vedic period is undetermined but is believed to have lasted between 1500-500 BCE, during which time the Rigveda was written. Sanskrit for “praise knowledge,” the influence that the Rigveda had on yoga was largely religiously spiritual; practitioners would focus their bodies and minds for prolonged periods of time in order to transcend the normal limitations of the human mind. The yogis considered this a sacrificial act to a higher power, relinquishing their own attachment to their physical presence in order to become closer to the spiritual world. In fact, a master of Vedic yoga was called a “seer;” having achieved mental clarity to the extent of merging with the spiritual world, seers demonstrated incredibly keen intuition and were allegedly blessed with “visions” of the transcendental reality.

Preclassical Period

(~6th Century BCE – ~200 AD)

The second period, Preclassical yoga, covers a timeline of over 2000 years and has many different focuses. Several different yoga philosophies were cultivated during this time, with some staying in line with the religious, sacrificial aspects of Vedic yoga. However, other schools of yoga began veering towards more personal uses, such as discovering one’s true inner nature through deep meditation. Karma yoga, also developed during this time period, is the yoga of action — the philosophy of fulfilling one’s duty and following a just and righteous path as an act of selfless service. These new developments and concepts were key in the creation of modern-day yoga, made evident by the fact that most of these elements are still practiced in yoga today.

Classical Period

(~200 AD – ~19th Century AD)

The next historical stage of yoga, the Classical period, is possibly the most pinnacle part of yogas history. This is largely based on the fact that the one of the earliest and most important yoga texts, the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, was written during this time. Patañjali was once thought to be the creator of yoga, and is often referred to by many as the “father of yoga” — even though he lived thousands of years after yoga is now thought to be created. Despite the confusion of its origins, it cannot be denied that the Yoga Sūtras is not only important, but is also revolutionary. Since its creation, yoga supported the concept of nondualism, or the idea that the body and mind are one in the same. However, Patañjali suggests that our bodies and minds are separate — a philosophical dualism similar to the more popular concepts later developed by French philosopher René Descartes.

Postclassical Period

(~19th Century AD – Present)

The fourth and final stage, Postclassical, encompasses pretty much everything between the Classical period and modern day. Before the Postclassical era, the physical body was largely only relevant in that the yogi’s goal was to separate himself spiritually from it. However, over time some practitioners of yoga began to view their body as a sacred temple for their spirit, a gift that must be taken care of with just as much care as their spiritual self. This marks the beginning of yoga being used as a form of exercise, the way many people view yoga today!

Yoga Fundamentals

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Applications

Because of the innumerable amount of physical and mental benefits of yoga, almost anyone could find some application of yoga that may increase their overall well-being (even if that application is simply breathing exercises, or “pranayama”). However, if practiced half-heartedly or without complete knowledge or professional direction, attempting yoga can have negative effects on the body, just as with any sport or athletic activity.

Know Your Limits

Keep in mind, yoga itself is not damaging to the body unless performed incorrectly. It can even be possible to rehabilitate yoga injuries through yoga. The key is understanding your own body and knowing your limits, being sure to cater to your physical needs as opposed to focusing on learning more advanced techniques.

Partner Up

Finding a professional yoga trainer is the best way to start out as a beginner as they can offer you advice based on your skill level, body type and medical concerns. Yoga partners in general are incredibly beneficial because they can help you position your body alignment until you become more comfortable with your own center of balance. To help prevent injury and enhance the overall physical and mental experience, understanding alignmentanatomy, and your own individual needs is essential. Every move is not beneficial for every body type, and every body type cannot perform every move. Understanding the human body and the function of every muscle can be very crucial, especially if you are unsure of your weak areas.

Becoming Self-Aware

Self-awareness is your number one weapon against yoga injuries, but developing that awareness is not necessarily a solo activity. While learning yoga from videos is common and often very beneficial and successful, having a trainer or experienced friend is an irreplaceable tool when starting out, or at least before attempting more advanced techniques. However, don’t become over-zealous if you feel yourself becoming an expert yogi! Even trained practitioners can receive yoga injuries, so maintaining a careful yet focused mind is always essential. If you’re thinking of practicing a new position that seems more advanced, consider what parts of the body the position uses in alignment with the most common yoga injuries (neck, shoulder, spine, legs, knees).

Benefits of Yoga

FLEXIBILITY – The first thing that comes to mind when considering the benefits of yoga is often flexibility. Yoga safely stretches muscles, and with thousands of pose variations, there’s something for every muscle! Stretching tight muscles helps relieve the built up lactic acid that comes with muscle use, which not only causes tension and pain, but also increases physical and emotional fatigue. Stretching through yoga is an excellent way to increase flexibility and help relieve stress at the same time!
STRENGTH – Some forms of yoga, such as ashtanga yoga, were developed to increase strength. While on the surface its purpose seems to be purely physical, the rigorousness of this stamina-building exercise may also help develop discipline and mental strength as well. Because of the variety of poses, yoga is an excellent way to strengthen core muscles, even if you’re performing milder or less-advanced techniques. Furthermore, different poses target different muscles and can allow you focus on areas that you want to strengthen.
POSTURE & BALANCE – Posture and balance are also benefited through the use of yoga. Finding your center of alignment will become second-nature after consistent use of yoga, and you will find it almost instinctive in your daily life as well. This will help prevent you from slouching at your computer or in the workplace, and will thus help prevent unnecessary neck and back pain.
BREATHING – As breathing is an involuntarily physical requirement for us to live, we may think we’re experts because we’ve been doing it our whole lives. However, the deep and focused breathing performed in yoga has even greater benefits past basic survival. Those that practice yogic breathing exercises report feeling improved concentration and overall mood. Physically, the breathing exercises increase lung capacity, strengthening physical endurance. Also, the rhythmic nature of the breathing exercises naturally relaxes the body, bringing peace of mind and relieving stress.