In general people talk about yoga as a 6,000 year old tradition and this is definitely a distortion of the facts. I’d like to lay out an entertaining overview of the tradition based on academic scholarship and a bit of fun. If you want something exhaustive I can point you in the direction of the right books but this is for light consumption with the hopes of showing people how cool the real stories are because bad history in my mind does us a great disservice less in the falsehoods it perpetuates and more in the way that it deprives us of greater stories.
It all began with cowboys, or so most of us yogis weren’t told. That is the gentlemen who composed poems in Sanskrit known as the Vedas were cowboys who thundered across areas not absolutely certain but we know that they came to settle down maybe 3,000 years ago in northern India. Now I said we weren’t told because the authors of the Vedas are often denied their cowboy glory in pursuit of ascribing values to them that they may or may not have agreed with. We know they were cattle drivers who ate beef and had to learn agriculture from other folks, presumably the people they conquered. We know they fought often or at least liked to talk about the wars they got in.
Everything we know about them comes from their poems. The Aryans as they called themselves had deep veneration for sound, they believed that the universe itself was the result of a kind of sound DNA and they felt that the poems they wrote were less composed and more heard by their poets. In other words, their poets were listening to and reciting the sound DNA of reality. Now you’ll have forgive me because my Sanskrit isn’t very good but the general consensus on Vedic Sanskrit is that it is quite hard to translate so we only grasp the gist of what was being said. There’s a lot of talk about fire, sacrifice, progeny, heaven, cows, conquest, and a substance they were ritualistically fond of called Soma.
What was Soma? I’m sure a number of recreational drug users would love to know because it was apparently very powerful stuff. Probably it was something related to DMT, as the properties are described in hallucinogenic terms. That being said we know these Vedic cowboys put some distance between themselves and their favorite ritual intoxicant because it disappears from the record eventually.
So where is the yoga in this story of poet cowboy conquerors that enjoyed contemplative-chemically enhanced dream quests? They certainly don’t talk about a system of yoga in their poems. The closest thing would be something called tapas which translates to a kind of heated austerity. Tapas is interestingly both process and product in terms of word usage so they perform tapas (austerity) to achieve tapas (energy). But overall that’s a vague topic in Vedic poetry that forms the closest thing to an ancient “yoga” tradition.
As it goes with generations of cowboys, these folks settled down and turned swords to plowshares eventually and gradually. The Dravidian people they conquered (or slowly mixed with) had their own gods and systems of belief that merged with those of our Vedic cowboys. The cowboys it seems ever increasingly ritualized their poetry and associated ceremonies to such an extent that it caused some question about their value with relation to their great cost. It’s here perhaps (and this “here” could easily be hundreds of years of change) that we start to see things that resemble the yoga tradition a little more. Everything may have happened simultaneously or may have been separated by eras but we have a few different groups and all of these groups have something to say about Vedic rituals and offer systems for deeper spiritual attainment: the Upanishadic tradition, the Buddhist tradition, and the Jain tradition (certainly there were other groups but let’s keep this light).
All three groups accept reincarnation, which was seen as something to escape from. The heaven (svarga of the Vedas) was apparently impermanent if true at all, these are clearly religious distinctions but it could be that the Dravidians contributed this to Vedic belief systems or a metaphysical revelation by some unrecorded individual/s shook the Indian peninsula with this matrix-level revelation but the bottom line is this was an accepted fact that governs the goals of most of these groups.
The Upanishadic tradition presents itself as an interpretation of the deeper mysteries of the Vedas and is considered to traditionally be Vedanta or the end of the Vedas. The Upanishadic tradition posits that Brahman, the hidden power in the Vedic ritual is the core of existence and the core of our very selves and that our world is an ephemeral dream of sorts within the non-dual reality of Brahman. So we have meditative passages within these texts guiding people towards deeper experiences of consciousness but they are declaring an interpretation for these experiences.
The Buddhist tradition rejects the rituals of the Vedas and the Upanishadic interpretations of deeper states of consciousness. In essence they prescribe a very similar approach (contemplation, meditation, good behavior) but they interpret the results as being the realization of the no self or the no-thing, Nirvana, a kind of anti-Brahman: pure nothing instead of pure everything.
The Jains have their own metaphysical explanations for experiences of deeper states of consciousness but they’re more notable contribution in my mind is diet. It’s is clearly from the Jains that we get modern vegetarianism and this likely predates Buddhism. In time, associating purity with vegetarianism will spread through Buddhism and through much of Hinduism but one shouldn’t be misled to think that vegetarianism permeated every Indian spiritual tradition to an extent to claim authenticity from a doctrinal standpoint. Being vegetarian is not an absolute for yogis and yoga historically speaking, or even presently speaking, though it is very common.
It’s within or after (unfortunately possibly before too but not way before) this crowded field of meditative interpretation that we throw Samkya Yoga into the mix. Finally something with the name Yoga clearly denoted as a system. Samkya Yoga is a dualistic philosophy which believes in the absolute separation between matter and pure consciousness. Matter (Prakriti) and pure consciousness (purusha) interact like fields, they never touch but a kind of contact is created and in that Matter mistakenly believes itself to be Consciousness which forms the mind, which forms senses, which forms sense objects i.e. the world. Yoga as described by Patanjali (possibly a snake man) is the process by which “I am” or the ego determines itself to be false and Matter frees itself from the mistake of believing itself to be consciousness which is the cause of its suffering. Whew!
So what we have here is a fair number of folks meditating and disagreeing about how to interpret the power of that experience. Personally I’m not much interested in the interpretation, I’m interested in experiences that shake the foundations of self knowledge and engagement with reality. I might even just suggest here that the disagreements might stem from the difficulty of interpreting experiences for which conventional explanations start to break down. Here’s my hardcore take though: these interpretations are just for the lazy. Those who dive the depths cannot relay to others their experiences; it’s the allegory of the cave obviously. The experienced simply pay lip service to the lazy in hopes that they will engage in practice. The yoga sutra promises a ton of super normal powers that I’ve never seen in action but I think it’s very possible that they are just the lies you tell children. If you felt certain that something would upend someone’s understanding of their self and life for the better but you knew they could never understand it until they tried it, might you offer them a lie that you know they couldn’t resist? Maybe it’s immoral to do so but when you’re taking about folks who deny the existence of the world as anything other than a dream I’m not sure it mattered to them if they lie in a dream to dream people. All of this is speculation based on my lack of experiences regarding super normal powers and absolute metaphysical distinctions about the nature of self-hood and reality.
Let’s get back on track, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra gives the reader a bit of direction in terms of practice but it isn’t really an in-depth text. It describes no postures in particular but tells you to be steady when seated. Describes no pranayamas, no mantras, no details essentially.
We don’t start to get a more technical approach to meditative states until we see the birth of tantra in the common era. Tantra better resembles the yoga many people know today than anything before the common era. In tantra we see specific techniques including mantras, yantras, pranayamas etc. Hindus develop tantra groups and so do the Buddhists. They clearly borrow from each other. Maybe around one thousand years ago we see Hatha Yoga as a name emerge as a derivation of a tantra. Does it have a lot of postures like the stuff we see today? No, not really. Does that mean nobody stretched? No systems existed? We don’t know. I think it’s altogether likely that individual groups stretched but either no one wrote it down or thought it was very significant. You see most of these groups rejected the body as something tied to a cycle of reincarnation. Health was never their goal. Their goal was to escape bodies not to perfect them. That’s arguably a twentieth century obsession and we’ll return to that later.
When the British come to India there are yogis about. This term seems to describe men who are not householders but not much else. They aren’t Gandhi’s yogis. They acted as mercenaries fighting against the Dutch East India Company. So much for the nonviolent yogi. They’re described often as sorcerer-fakirs working curses on those who don’t put money in their begging bowls.
We know that the colonial powers hated them and clamped down on their disruptive activities. It’s after that when descriptions of bendy, twisty contortions performed by beggar yogis start coming into the record.
To be continued…