The Origins of Yoga

Stretching back to the beginning

by Amanda Flores, guest writer; illustration by Callie Tappe, guest artist

“Man, she’s got a nice yoga ass,” I overheard in Rastall the other day, nearly causing me to choke on my tater tot. I never think of attaining a “nice yoga ass” as a major objective during my practice, so this frank statement caught me off guard. Yoga has recently become a prominent part of pop culture, largely commercialized as a means of achieving a toned stomach, butt, and thighs.  It is also labeled as weird and “new age”—a hobby for menopausal hippies. Somewhere along the way, yoga has lost its original meaning and principles. Outside of its physical practice, what does yoga, at its core, teach us? And where did it come from?

Five thousand years ago, the Yogi Patanjali compiled what are known as the Yoga Sutras, the scriptural source which presents the philosophy and practical systems of yoga. Patanjali did not, however, create yoga; its roots are considerably deeper. The term “yoga” first appeared in the Vedas, an ancient scripture from India, which is among the oldest sacred texts in the world.  New age menopausal nonsense? No way.

“Knowing the origins of yoga helps deepen my practice,” says Siri Undlin, sophomore. “It makes it more meaningful to me to know that people were doing this thousands of years ago and having the same experience that I am. The ideas can seem hokey when out of context, but when you investigate the history of yoga you realize that it’s so much bigger than you.”

The word “yoga” is Sanskrit, taken from the root “yuj,” which means “to yoke.”  Yoga is therefore interpreted to mean union, specifically union with God, the supreme self, the divine. Yogic philosophy presents God, or “the divine,” simply as unconditional love and happiness. Book One of the Yoga Sutras tells us that “When you stop identifying with your thoughts, fluctuations of the mind, then there is Yoga, identity with the [Supreme] Self, which is happiness, bliss, ecstasy.”

Many people misconstrue yoga as a part of Hinduism. Yoga is not a religion; rather, it is a philosophy laid out in the Yoga Sutras and divided into what are known as the eight limbs: Yama (restraint), Niyama (observance), Asana (posture), Pranayama (control of the breath), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the five senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (bliss or super consciousness). Nowhere in the Yoga Sutras eight limbs are any of the Hindu deities mentioned.

“Yoga is not so much learning as it is remembering,” says Zac Chapman, sophomore. “In deep states of meditation it’s like I’m seeing a part of myself that’s been there for thousands of years. It’s something that’s always been there, that always will be there.”

Collectively, the eight limbs of yoga constitute a method of receiving the grace of union with the divine by calming the mind and body so that we cease to identify with our fluctuating thoughts. Most modern teachings of yoga only touch upon two of the eight limbs: Asana, the physical postures we move through, and Pranayama, the breathing practices (sometimes referred to as Darth Vader breathing, but known as “victory breath” in Sanskrit). The Westernization of yoga has come to ignore the other six limbs, limiting the practice of yoga to physical activity. “I think of yoga in the same way I think of getting on the elliptical or swimming laps,” says Louisa Dick-Valdez, sophomore. “It’s something I do for me, but only in a physical way. I don’t see yoga as a spiritual practice.” For some, the practice of Asana is enough; there is no desire to delve into the philosophy.

“Yoga is really all about becoming a better person, that’s all,” says Mike Matsumara, co-founder of Pranava Yoga Center (PYC), beaming down at his students as they float into headstand.  Located on Weber Street, PYC began its mission to provide an all-inclusive practice in January of 2009. Mike and Charlotte Matsumara dedicate themselves to presenting all aspects of yoga to their students: “We believe each limb of yoga is equally important as the practice of Asana. PYC’s vision is to offer the different aspects of yoga to the community in a sacred space. There one can find growth not only in their physical practice, but in all elements of their practice, including mental and spiritual growth.”

At the beginning of each class at Pranava, students are asked to dedicate their practice to someone they love.  This act of selfless devotion is the core of all yoga teachings. Only through selfless devotion can one prepare for union with the divine. When we practice selflessness, we go beyond the ego (the identification with the body and the mind), which is often an obstacle in practicing yoga. The main goal of yoga is to help us remember that we are much bigger than our ego. Yoga reminds us that our true nature is limitless joy. “No one can ‘do’ yoga,” teach Sharon Gannon and David Life, who founded Jivamukti Yoga, a modern style of yoga that emerged out of New York City in the mid-1980s. “Yoga is who you are. It is your natural state.”

When we strip away the menopausal hippie stereotype and the workout mentality, we can see that yoga is a philosophy, a way of life, and a spiritual practice. We recognize that practicing yoga might indeed help sculpt the perfect ass, but we should also acknowledge its ancestry. Jessica Patterson, a teacher of Jivamukti Yoga at PYC, reminds us why the origins of yoga are invaluable: “Yoga practices give us a method of direct and intimate participation in our lives as they’re occurring. So, yoga makes us present to all the experiences . . . when you’re fully present then you have your full faculties to navigate the heartbreak, the joy, the sadness, the losses, the pleasure. Consciousness gives us the possibility of transformation.” The practice of yoga teaches us that we are already complete and perfect as we are—we’ve just forgotten.

The Origins of Yoga

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