Yoga originated in ancient India as a philosophical discipline that integrated physical, mental and spiritual well-being into a cohesive whole. It was widely practiced and taught in ancient schools and universities and was seen as a way to achieve enlightenment. Various ancient books such as the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Mahabharata talked of the ancient form of health and wellness.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra was the first book written over two millennia ago that canonised the ancient philosophy into a series of physical, mental and spiritual exercises. Other books such as Svatmarama’s Hatha Yoga Pradipika written in the 15th century further focused on these exercises and, along with the Yoga Sutra, formed the basis for the various forms of yoga that are practiced today.
Most people nowadays understand yoga as a series of exercises or asanas that help them keep their bodies free from ailments, and also calms their mind. However, yoga is much more than that.
It has been practiced by followers of various religions that originated in India including Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism to attain a higher state of consciousness or enlightenment. In addition, it formed one of the six astika schools of Hindu philosophy and integrated the Samkhya philosophy with the teachings of Patanjali. The philosophy was based on two main concepts: Purusha and Prakriti. Purusha referred to the consciousness or reality and was devoid of thoughts while Prakriti dealt with the empirical reality that comprised of matter and mind.
The Yoga school believed in three main forms of knowledge or awareness:
- Pratyaksa or perception – both direct and indirect,
- Anumana or inference, and
- Sabda, the belief in words of sages or texts
Each form of perception was further categorised to include forms of knowledge that were permissible and those that were not, with each having detailed dissertations on why they were acceptable or not.
The Upanishads also discussed Yoga at length. The Maitrayaniya Upanishad, which was written before Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, mentioned six methods of yoga including Pranayama or breath control, Dhyana or meditation, Dharana or concentration and Tarka or philosophical debates, among others.
The rich culture of ancient India provides detailed insights into the basis of the yoga forms that are prevalent today. Most yoga centres in India introduce these philosophies to their students during their training to help them better understand and appreciate what they are learning.