Yoga is an Indian physical, mental, and spiritual practice or discipline. There is a broad variety of schools, practices and goals in Hinduism, Buddhism (including Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism) and Jainism. The best-known are Hatha yoga and Raja yoga.
The origins of Yoga have been speculated to date back to pre-Vedic Indian traditions, but most likely developed around the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, in ancient India’s ascetic circles, which are also credited with the early sramana movements. The chronology of earliest texts describing yoga-practices is unclear, varyingly credited to Hindu Upanishads and Buddhist Pāli Canon, probably of third century BCE or later. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali from first half of 1st millennium CE is one of a key surviving major texts on Yoga. Hatha yoga texts emerged around 11th century CE, and in its origins was related to Tantrism.
Yoga gurus from India later introduced yoga to the west, following the success of Swami Vivekananda in the late 19th and early 20th century. In the 1980s, yoga became popular as a system of physical exercise across the Western world. Yoga in Indian traditions, however, is more than physical exercise, it has a meditative and spiritual core. One of the six major orthodox schools of Hinduism is also called Yoga, which has its own epistemology and metaphysics, and is closely related to Hindu Samkhya philosophy.
Many studies have tried to determine the effectiveness of yoga as a complementary intervention for cancer, schizophrenia, asthma, and heart disease. The results of these studies have been mixed and inconclusive, with cancer studies suggesting none to unclear effectiveness, and others suggesting yoga may reduce risk factors and aid in a patient’s psychological healing process.
Schools of Yoga
The term “yoga” has been applied to a variety of practices and methods. The well-known Hindu schools of Yoga being Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, Laya Yoga and Hatha Yoga, but also including Jain and Buddhist practices. Yoga Sutras of Pantajali, constitute classical Ashtanga Yoga (the eight limbs), also called Raja Yoga.
Buddhist meditation encompasses a variety of meditation techniques that aim to develop mindfulness, concentration, supramundane powers, tranquility, and insight.
Core techniques have been preserved in ancient Buddhist texts and have proliferated and diversified through teacher-student transmissions. Buddhists pursue meditation as part of the path toward Enlightenment and Nirvana. The closest words for meditation in the classical languages of Buddhism are bhāvanā and jhāna/dhyāna. Buddhist meditation techniques have become increasingly popular in the wider world, with many non-Buddhists taking them up for a variety of reasons.
Apart from the spiritual goals, the physical postures of yoga are used to alleviate health problems, reduce stress and make the spine supple in contemporary times. Yoga is also used as a complete exercise program and physical therapy routine.
While the practice of yoga continues to rise in contemporary American culture, sufficient and adequate knowledge of the practice’s origins does not. According to Andrea R. Jain, Yoga is undoubtedly a Hindu movement for spiritual meditation, yet is now being marketed as a supplement to a cardio routine. This scope “dilutes its Hindu identity.” Contemporaries of the Hindu faith argue that the more popular yoga gets, the less concerned people become about its origins in history. These same contemporaries do state that while anyone can practice yoga, only those who give Hinduism due credit for the practice will achieve the full benefit of the custom.
Yoga compared with other systems of meditation
Zen, the name of which derives from the Sanskrit “dhyaana” via the Chinese “ch’an” is a form of Mahayana Buddhism. The Mahayana school of Buddhism is noted for its proximity with yoga. In the west, Zen is often set alongside yoga; the two schools of meditation display obvious family resemblances. This phenomenon merits special attention since yogic practices have some of their roots manifested in the Zen Buddhist school. Certain essential elements of yoga are important both for Buddhism in general and for Zen in particular.
In the Nyingma tradition, the path of meditation practice is divided into nine yanas, or vehicles, which are said to be increasingly profound. The last six are described as “yoga yanas”: “Kriya yoga”, “Upa yoga,” “Yoga yana,” “Mahā yoga,” “Anu yoga” and the ultimate practice, “Ati yoga.” The Sarma traditions also include Kriya, Upa (called “Charya”), and Yoga, with the Anuttara yoga class substituting for Mahayoga and Atiyoga.
Other tantra yoga practices include a system of 108 bodily postures practiced with breath and heart rhythm. The Nyingma tradition also practices Yantra yoga (Tib. “Trul khor”), a discipline that includes breath work (or pranayama), meditative contemplation and precise dynamic movements to centre the practitioner. The body postures of Tibetan ancient yogis are depicted on the walls of the Dalai Lama’s summer temple of Lukhang. A semi-popular account of Tibetan yoga by Chang (1993) refers to caṇḍalī (Tib. “tummo”), the generation of heat in one’s own body, as being “the very foundation of the whole of Tibetan yoga.” Chang also claims that Tibetan yoga involves reconciliation of apparent polarities, such as prana and mind, relating this to theoretical implications of tantrism.
The origins of yoga are a matter of debate. There is no consensus on its chronology or specific origin other than that yoga developed in ancient India. Suggested origins are the Indus Valley Civilisation (3300-1900 BCE) and pre-Vedic north-eastern India (Bihar region), the Vedic civilisation (1500-500 BCE), and the sramana-movement (starting ca. 500 BCE).
Pre-philosophical speculations of yoga begin to emerge in the texts of c. 500–200 BCE. Between 200 BCE–500 CE philosophical schools of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism were taking form and a coherent philosophical system of yoga began to emerge. The Middle Ages saw the development of many satellite traditions of yoga. Yoga came to the attention of an educated western public in the mid 19th century along with other topics of Indian philosophy.