history of yoga

History of Yoga

The History of Yoga and Why I’m not a Yogi

I’m a yoga practitioner and a yoga teacher but I am not a yogi. Let me tell you why with a bit of the history of yoga.

First, Sutra Studies

My friend Mayuko and I meet up on Zoom, her from Japan and me from Oregon, every week for an hour to talk about our lives and our reading in the Yoga Sutras. We’ve been at it for a year and a half and we’re going through the Sutras very slowly. Some weeks we feel more inspired than others.

One thing that became clearer and clearer to us as we studied was that although we both practice yoga, neither of us feel like true yogis. We definitely don’t adhere to the practice in all the ways the Sutras describe aspiring yogis should do.  

From Ignorance to Disenchantment

In the first few months of our studies, I got increasingly disenchanted. Yoga, once a magical, infinitely inspirational idea to me, turns out to have an entire context that didn’t cater to my 21st Century American idea of wellness. Could it be? Could the world not be made for my pleasure and satisfaction?  

Hopefully you’re picking up on my tongue-in-cheek sarcasm here. Of course Yoga wasn’t made specifically for crystal loving girlies like myself to manifest the Instagram following of her dreams. It begs the question…where did Yoga come from?  

I can’t answer this question like a scholar, but I can give some interesting historical context.

Where did Yoga come from?

Prehistory

From archeological evidence it appears Yoga had been practiced for thousands of years prior to the Common Era, since before anything about it had been written down. There have been seals found in the Indus Valley, in modern-day northwest India and Pakistan, of people sitting in Yoga asanas, presumably in meditation, that date from circa 3000 to 1900 B.C.E (Edwin Bryant, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, p xx). 

Written References

There are written references to Yoga in the Rg Veda, dated roughly 1500-1000 B.C.E. In the earlier years during this time frame, the dominant religious practices were not Yoga. They were largely based on elaborate ritual and animal sacrifice. Practitioners followed a very specific ritual to sacrifice a specific animal in a specific way to please a specific god who was thought to, if you did it just exactly right, give you a very specific boon. Like a good rice crop, or a baby boy (I imagine, I don’t know anything particular about these practices).

What’s the context?

Most people in this early Vedic period and place were practicing their religion in order to manipulate their physical environment for sense gratification (begging that favor from the gods with devoted sacrifice).

It’s very human, isn’t it? As a species we are exceptionally adept at modifying our environment for our benefit. Think of climate controlled homes and buildings, or modern medicine, or modes of rapid transportation.

Yoga as a radical practice

Yoga, on the other hand, was a radical practice that developed on the fringe of the mainstream as a reaction to the mainstream. The Sutras essentially speak to a goal opposite of sense gratification. They say that no matter how much you get what you want, you’ll still want more. You’ll never be satisfied with material boons and eventually the wise find out there’s just more suffering up next.

It’s kind of depressing sounding, but I can understand there’s some truth to it. And although in the back of my mind I intellectually agree that it is true, I’m still not motivated by it, and I don’t practice my yoga towards eliminating this kind of suffering. Almost on the contrary…I practice to feel more nuance, more subtlety. To sense more, if you will.  

Where do I fit in?

This is what Mayuko and I always come back to in our Sutra conversations. We like finding pleasure, sense gratification, in small and large ways in our lives. We like delightful meals and indulgent walks on an autumn day. We, like humans from time immemorial, enjoy using our senses to find enjoyment in the outside world.

Classical Yoga, that of Patanjali, well…it’s all aiming towards an inward turning of the senses (pratyahara, the fifth limb of Yoga) for concentration (dharana, sixth limb) on a single-pointed focus in meditation (dhyana, seventh limb) for liberation from the cycles of birth and rebirth (samadhi, eight and final limb) aka liberation from the very human state of constant suffering, even if we don’t realize it’s all suffering yet.  

Is it ALL suffering or just some suffering or…?

I want to be like “it’s not all suffering!” When I ponder it more, though, I think about when I’ve used my yoga in times in my life when I was suffering. Suffering in ways that felt unimaginable and unending. Deep, deep pain. We’ve all been there. Some of us may well be there right now.

It does help, yoga. It doesn’t make the circumstances change, but it makes me feel more focused within them. Yoga helps me feel calm and at peace. The more years I put into my practice, the easier it is for me to sense that as a result. Maybe it isn’t *all* suffering, or maybe it is and I’m successfully attached to the parts that feel more pleasurable than painful. You’re in luck to get on with your day, though, because I don’t care to consider it further!  

Why I’m not a yogi

There you have it. My reason why I don’t call myself a yogi. I know how to get on that full and time-honored path, at least as prescribed by Patanjali, and I choose not to. Which is totally ok. Yoga isn’t a religion (although it’s intricately intermingled with religion and is inherently theistic.) Rather, it’s a metaphysical system, a structure of practices that’s made to be used by humans to eliminate (partial or full) suffering. And it’s okay to practice without any sort of belief or agreement in place.

To be responsible, seek out context

I just think, to be responsible consumers of an ancient tradition (or truly anything else we consume at all), we should always be curious about the context. Sometimes the context is shocking, or disappointing, or makes us question our choices. This can be overwhelming. Ignorance is so much easier, but it’s a struggle to maintain once you know it’s there. 

In gratitude to the ancient yogis and modern practitioners, the translators and scholars, all who have helped us today carry on a practice that can help us cope with suffering, and thrive within it.