The Origins of Vinyasa Yoga
“Yoga is an ancient practice from India that has been around for thousands of years,” is what people typically say when you ask about the history of yoga. It’s pretty vague and as yoga is not an exact science, a lot of information is being pulled out of context and being thrown around.
Most researchers agree that there are a couple of essential elements that have influenced modern yoga practice and philosophy. In this blogpost we’ll cover the most important texts and teachers who developed the popular vinyasa yoga style that can be found all over the world.
1500 BC: Vedas: Only For The Brahmin Club
The Vedas are one of the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, written in Sanskrit. Veda means ‘knowledge’. They form the foundations of Hindu philosophy and introduce important concepts such as, yoga (union), brahman (ultimate reality) and atman (Soul, higher self). However, these chants and hymns were written by and for the Brahmin class of priests.
Meaning that the practices in the vedas were only reserved or an elite part of society. If you weren’t in the Brahmin class, you couldn’t perform or have access to the first forms of yoga described in the texts.
You had to wait until you were reborn in the priest class before you could learn and practice the rituals in the text to find release from suffering in this life.
700 BC: Upanishads: Let’s Sit Down Together and Learn
You can imagine that it’s a quite frustrating idea that you had to go through go to the cycles of life and death over and over, until you were lucky enough to be born in the Brahmin class to be able to practice yoga. Unfortunately this didn’t change during the publication of the Upanishads, but it invited a new important concept for the practice of yoga.
The Upanishads opened up the conversation about spiritual practices and evolved the teachings into the guru-shishya or teacher-student relationship (ref. parampara – lineage). An idea that is still important in yoga today.
The word Upanishads translates as ‘sitting down near’ a spiritual teacher to learn about the methods. Up until today, if you meet a fellow yogi, typically the first thing the yogi asks is ‘Who’s your teacher or what’s your lineage?’
But the teachings were still only exclusive to the Brahmin class of priests, and it would stay that way until someone in the eastern part of India was shocked to discover that all life is suffering and became determined to find release from this suffering…
500 BC: The awakening of the Siddhārtha Gautama and the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path
The story goes that Gautama was born into a royal family and was shielded from suffering his whole life, until he left his palace and saw a diseased man, a decaying corpse and old people. He was depressed by what he has seen and rejected his royal life to learn to overcome aging, sickness and death.
Siddhartha followed a spiritual path, achieved enlightenment and drafted an 8 – folded path that everyone could follow to find release from suffering in this lifetime. This 8-folded path inspired Patanjali to compose the 8 limbs of yoga.
Gautama is more well-known as the Buddha and his insights are still studied and practice today in Buddhism.
Up until this point the yogis have realised that the individual is responsible for moksha, liberation. They know a person doesn’t have to go through endless cycles of life and death to achieve enlightenment and doesn’t have to suffer.
But how do we do that? Insert the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
400 BC: Bhagavad Gita: The oldest self-help book
The Bhagavad Gita is small part from the Hindu epic Mahabharata. It’s a dialogue between Prince Arjuna and his charioteer Lord Krishna that takes place during a great battle. Arjuna is a warrior but doesn’t really want to go to war and fight. He’s questioning his life purpose as a warrior. He turns to Krishna and expresses his despair. Krishna answers Arjuna with almost 700 (!!) verses on the nature of the soul, connection to God, levels of consciousness and reality, the make-up of the world, eventually revealing himself as a god.
Yea, it’s a crazy story, I know. It’s written in Q&A style so it’s nice read. I recommend the version of Eknath Easwaran.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: a manual to enlightenment for Patanjali’s hardcore students
It is believed to be written around 200 BC. It consists out of 4 chapters explaining the nature of Samadhi (Chapter 1), how to achieve it via the 8 limbs of yoga (Chapter 2), the side-effects and pitfalls of practice i.e. mystical powers (Chapter 3) and the ultimate liberation the follows (chapter 4).
I recommend to start studying the second chapter and work your way through the other chapters from there. I made an Instagram video on how to read the yoga sutras, you can find it on @isabelleyoga.be.
Krishnamachariya, the father of modern yoga
Krishnamachariya (1888) was a Sanskrit scholar and had degrees in all six of the Indian philosophies. He knew all the texts like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras by heart. With the help of the King of Mysore, he travelled around India, giving lectures and doing impressive yoga demos. He shared the practice with whoever he could.
In October 1927 in Hassan, South-India there was a lecture-demonstration by Krishnamachariya about yoga. In the audience there was a 12-year old boy from the Brahmin caste, looking at Krishnamachariya twisting and turning his body into amazing asanas. He was impressed by the strong yogi, gracefully jumping from pose to pose. He didn’t completely understand the philosophy but he liked the asanas and decided to rose early and go to the house where Krishnamacharya was staying.
Krishnamacharya was a bit surprised by the young boy showing interest in the practice, but he decided to accept him as his student for the next 25 years. The young boy would wake up early every day, practice with Krishnamacharya and then go to school. The name of the boy was Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois, the founder of the popular ashtanga yoga system.
Among his others students were his son, T.K.V. Desikachar, B.K.S Iyengar and Indra Devi.
Desikachar developed the Viniyoga system. Typical for this style is the focus on adjusting pose to fit the needs of the student. It’s a highly personalised practice.
Iyengar became famous because of his focus on alignment and the use of props in yoga asana practice.
Patthabi Jois developed the dynamic ashtanga yoga system which consists out of different series of postures.
A very dedicated ashtangi, who was named Shiva Rae by her father (so it was pretty much her destiny to become a yoga teacher), had been practicing ashtanga yoga for 10 years , but then the practice didn’t resonate anymore. After deepening her knowledge in tantra, Ayurveda and Kalarippayatu, an Indian martial art, Shiva Rae developed the prana vinyasa system, a teaching that is deeply connected to the elements and the seasons.
Please note that there were many more yoga gurus who played a big role in the evolution and spreading of the teachings across the world. For instance Paramahansa Yogananda was reincarnated for the purpose of spreading yoga to the west. I can’t mention everyone. But I do hope this gives you a good overview of the history of yoga.
By Isabelle Gheldolf.
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