On the Origins of Yoga
Recently an interesting discussion about the origins of yoga and whether or not a “non-spiritual” form of yoga can be practiced sprung up in the comments section of the article, “The Emperor’s New Yoga Pants” I wrote about my experiences with pulling my young son from a course being taught at his public school. One of our researchers, Pamela Frost, wrote a short response to some questions about the origins and history of yoga, and we felt that it was important enough that we didn’t want to let it get lost in the comments section of the site. So, we are re-posting it for you here. Pamela has written a more in-depth article on the subject which we hope to share soon, but we want you to have this excellent information now.
“I have read widely varying accounts from American yoga teachers on the origins and meanings of yoga. One popular “Christian” yoga teacher claims that the practice of yoga predates Hinduism by 1000 years and that it was later adopted by Hindus for its physical and mental benefits, and that the practice of yoga has always been spiritually neutral. There are many variations of this story that abound so I would like to give some historical clarification here.
The word yoga is a derivative form of the root word yuj, meaning “yoked” or “union,” and was first recorded around 1500 B.C. in the ancient Rig Veda, the oldest of the Hindu sacred texts. The oral Vedic tradition dates back somewhere between 3000 and 2500 B.C. so the concept of yoga is deeply rooted in the ancient spirituality of India. The “yoking” or “union” recorded in the Vedas refers to being yoked in devotion to the deities of India to attain the goal of yoga (its salvation experience), which is self-realization of the soul’s eternal union with the impersonal, universal divinity of Brahman. This is the altered state of consciousness known as Samadhi.
The ancient sage Patanjali, considered the father of yoga, organized the Vedic path to Samadhi into Ashtanga Yoga, the eight-limbed (ashtanga means eight-limbed) path to attain the Royal Yoga (Raja Yoga), the state of Samadhi. Among the eight limbs recorded in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, are the ascetic practices of yama (severe abstentions of asceticism) and Niyama (mandatory observances such as devotion, bhakti, to the gods and goddesses, asanas (ritual postures of worship to varying deities, which subdue the material body and mind facilitating awakening of meditative states of consciousness), pranayama (breath control to suppress breathing and heart rate to awaken spiritual enlightenment), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses during the postures, breath-control, and meditation), dharana (the yoga of sound stilling the mind through meditation on the mantra “Om” to harmonize consciousness with the universal vibration of divinity), and dhyana, sustained meditation leading to the experience of Samadhi where the subject/object distinction disappears (nonduality) as the created merges into universal divinity. This is classic One-ism.
In the fifteenth century, Swami Swatmarama wrote extensively on the cosmology, theology, and practices of Hatha Yoga, the yoga of asana (posture). In his work the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the swami claims all the postures of Hatha Yoga were revealed by Shiva, the Destroyer, to his consort Parvati (an incarnation of Shakti who is the Divine Feminine serpent goddess Kundalini) as ritual acts of worship to Shiva and other deities as the means of attaining Royal Yoga, the nondual state of Samadhi. In order to attain this end, the swami claims the postures of Hatha Yoga (the asanas) alone will awaken the serpent Kundalini within the body and lead one to the experience of Samadhi. The meaning of the word “Hatha” helps us understand his conclusion. According to the swami, the word “Hatha” is comprised of two parts: “Ha” means sun, representing the male principle on the left side of the body and “Tha” means moon, representing the female principle on the right side of the body. By means of the ritual worship of the postures (asanas) for Shiva and other deities, the male and female principles are merged into spiritual androgyny as the serpent Kundalini arises to open Shiva’s Third Eye of Destruction on all subject/object distinctions such as those of Creator and creation, good and evil, male and female.
When Mary observed the children in the kindergarten yoga class being instructed in the asanas, chanting, meditation, and the Namaste salutation to the universal Light, she recognized the children were receiving religious/spiritual instruction in the ancient Vedic One-ism of yoga. In order to understand the spiritual times in which we live, we must have a solid grounding in our understanding of the cosmology of universal One-ism, which ultimately denies the value of the individual and leads to a kind of annihilation beyond the mind, and biblical Two-ism, which affirms the distinction between God and creation and affirms the infinite worth and value of individuals created in the image of God and of their minds, which are gloriously renewed and transformed through the growing knowledge of His Word.
Let’s be spiritually alert and discerning so we can graciously and effectively engage the culture with the beauty of biblical Two-ism’s salvation message of Christ’s blood atonement for sinners and let us pray in genuine concern and love for those caught in the web of One-ism.” — Pamela Frost