History & Context
Derived from the ancient Sanskrit word “yuj”, the definition of yoga is commonly translated as “to yoke”. From there, the interpretations of what is being yoked and why vary depending upon school of thought and intention. It is understood the original mention of yoga in the Rig Veda (approx. 1500-1200 BCE) was referring to yoking horses, as in the sun god Surya in his chariot being pulled by seven horses.
The invention of yoga as we know it today cannot be ascribed to one individual although Patanjali is credited with compiling the Yoga Sutras (approx. 400-500 CE). This text is a collection of ideas and philosophies from various traditions organised into a system which focuses upon behaviour and disciplining the mind. Patanjali’s commentary on postures was simply for practitioners to find a comfortable seat which has been interpreted both literally and figuratively.
For those seeking its spiritual offerings, it is important to remember that yoga is not purely a Hindu-based practice. There are influences of Buddhism, Jainism, and I would propose, both prehistoric and ancient matriarchal spiritual practices (reconfigured as patriarchal, as has been the practice of many organised religions).
In an effort to qualify and mystify contemporary yoga, there are those who claim the physical practices are from the Bronze Age. An ancient artefact unto itself, such as the Pashupati Seal (approx. 2,300-2,000 BCE), does not offer conclusive evidence of a systematized physical practice or ritual discipline; the human body has a finite capacity of articulations, and the pictorial context can only be guessed at. It is because these representations are susceptible to cultural interpretation, doctrinarism, and fundamentalism they have recently begun to be used as evidence of early yoga practices. The physical poses, the asanas, we are familiar with today have only been developed over the past 100 years.
What all of this means for practitioners is that it’s irrelevant if you can touch your toes or perform acrobatic feats, the essence of yoga is far more meaningful. It’s not in the appearance of being spiritual, but in our thoughts and behaviours that the spirit of yoga resides; it’s in how we reflect the ethics and principles of the teachings. Maybe you can reach down to touch your toes, but what sort of person are you once you’re down there? Were you mindful during the entire journey – did you notice your breath change, how your back or hamstrings felt, did the weight distribution shift in your feet, what were your thoughts about the idea of trying the pose, how did you feel once you arrived there – or, perhaps your concentration was fixed solely on attaining the goal, and you were distracted with comparing yourself to others. Yoga is an opportunity to be with our true selves, physically and mentally, and to observe how we respond to that. What we do with that knowledge of Self informs us about who we are, and how we interact with the world.
Styles of Yoga
It’s important for students to choose the style of yoga which best suits their individual needs, and therein lies the rub. It’s common for people to gravitate towards a yoga which most reflects their current habits, lifestyle, or assumptions, but if yoga is about helping us find balance in our life, perhaps we should consider what cultivating balance means for us and choose accordingly. Just like people, not all yoga is the same. Below is a general description of several styles to begin to familiarise you with the cornucopia of options:
The classical form, typically focused on physical postures and associated with a slower, gentle pace. These classes will usually include breathing practices, pranayama, as well as some form of meditation. Origins can be traced to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a 15th century text.
Created by Paulie Zink in the late 1970’s, Yin incorporates many of the Taoist yoga concepts of the far east. Poses are held statically for long periods of time to allow joints and muscles to open and relax rather than activating them into contraction; this can be a soothing practice. Don’t be fooled though – whilst the pace is slow and it is sometimes described as passive, this can be a very strong practice.
Derived from Iyengar, poses are held comfortably for long periods of time fully-supported by yoga props in order to induce a relaxed, meditative state. Ideal for those suffering from stress, others may find it to be one of the more mentally challenging styles as it allows students ample time to fully-immerse in their consciousness.
A breath-driven practice adapted from the teachings of T. Krishnamarchya and his son, T.K.V. Desikachar, this style is highly-personalised as it is adapted to the individual student’s unique needs and conditions. Krishnamarchya, the father of modern yoga who began teaching in the 1920’s, went on to instruct BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and Indra Devi, while heavily influencing others, including Vanda Scaravelli who trained with Iyengar and Desikachar before crafting her own signature style.
A meditative practice, recently adapted from Tantric scriptures by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, where students are guided to the edge of sleep without succumbing in order to induce a deeply relaxed physical and mental state.
Created by BKS Iyengar, this version of yoga focuses on the perfection of physical alignment. Iyengar is credited with inventing the multitude of yoga props found in many classes today.
Also known as Flow Yoga, these classes will typically incorporate sequences of poses which will flow, slowly or quickly, from one into another. The origins of Vinyasa are found within Ashtanga.
Created by Sharon Gannon and David Life in the 1980’s, this dynamic physical practice incorporates elements of Bhakti yoga, a devotion-based practice which may include chanting or singing (Kirtans).
A physically-demanding practice, Ashtanga is comprised of a precise order of memorised movements which students practise independently, both in a private or shared space, to produce internal heat and increase strength. K. Pattabhi Jois is credited with establishing Ashtanga in the 1940’s.
Practised in a room heated to 35 to 42°C, this physically-demanding practice is a 26-posture sequence of poses invented by Bikram Choudhury in the 1970’s.
Regardless of which style(s) you choose to explore, always research a teacher’s experience and qualifications. Enthusiasm is no substitute for proper training.