• Clare Camfferman

Yoga Philosophy 101 - Origins of Yoga

I should say now that I am definitely no expert in yoga philosophy. I could spend this lifetime & the next studying just yogic philosophy & probably not make a dent in the vast teachings. 

To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld I know there are known knowns; there are things I know I know. I also know there are known unknowns; that is to say I know there are things I do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the things I don't know I don't know.

Apologies upfront for any errors in the writing below. If you find some then please do let me know. This is intended as an absolute beginner’s guide for some of my students who wish to have some more background on the origins of the practice of yoga.

So... the Origins of Yoga.

What we call yoga in the Western Developed world; primarily the yoga poses & breathing (asana & pranayama) represents one miniscule sliver of the great, diverse & immense teachings of the philosophical system of Yoga which has developed over the last 5000 years.

The word yoga was first mentioned in Pre-Classical Yoga Text the Rig Veda 1500-1200BC but it is thought that it’s origins stretch back to 5,000BC in the primitive Indus Valley animalistic civilisations. Over centuries yogic philosophy was slowly developed & refined by the rishis & brahmins (priests) in to the Upanishads, sacred texts which included the Bhagavad Gita written in 500BC. The Upanishads taught that man could subjugate the ego by practices of action (karma), knowledge (jana) & self-knowledge.

Around 200BC Patanjali codified the many diverse & disparate teachings & practices of yoga into 196 aphorisms or sutras which later became the main text of Classical Yoga.

A few hundred years after Patanjali, a number of yoga masters broke with the tradition & developed Tantra; a system of practices & techniques to train the body & use it as a tool for enlightenment. These teachings explored the links between the body & the mind and led to the development of Hatha Yoga as a physical form of yoga designed to allow us to reach samadhi. This in turn sowed the seeds for the development of Hatha Yoga which in turn seeded what we now practice as Modern Yoga.

In Patanjali’s Sutras he states:

Yogas chitta vritti nirodha

the translation of which is “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind”. Or in simpler terms Yoga is single-pointed focus. That's it. Simple. Hmmm, or maybe not...

Yoga is the practice of stilling the mind in order to attain samadhi, enlightenment (for Buddhists) or a state of bliss where we realise that we are part of a great whole; with no separation between us as individual beings/souls & the greater power of the Universe/ Brahma/God/Infinity or whatever word you would like to use. This is the connection of our individual consciousness with that place of wholeness & peace within us where we are able to then see that the idea that we are our bodies, thoughts & emotions & are separate from everyone & everything else in the known Universe is maya or illusion.

There are 4 spiritual paths of Hinduism: Jnana (Knowledge), Bhakti (Devotion), Karma (Action) & Raja (Royal) Yoga. 

The idea being that through the study of the scriptures & self-study, devotional practices, the work of service to others or by following the Royal Path we are able to achieve enlightenment or self-realisation.

In Patanjali’s sutras Raja Yoga is outlined as being an 8 stranded path of Yamas, Niyamas, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana & Samadhi that one must follow to attain the state of Kinghood over the Self.

It should be noted that before we even get to the practices on the mat which we often associate with yoga in the Western Developed world (asana & pranayama), there is a lot of work to be done in our daily lives with how we choose to live & interact with the world.

So it’s no good being able to do omkarasana if you regularly lose your shit at the kids, kick your dog or steal your neighbour’s boy/girlfriend.

The 8 strands of Raja Yoga are:

1) Yamas – ethical imperatives to enable the individual to coexist with others. They are often described as the list of Yogic Don’ts.

2) Niyamas – habits, observances, a framework of how to live your life – a list of Yogic “Do’s”

3) Asana – yoga postures designed to enable the body to sit comfortably. Of the 196 of Pantanjali’s yoga sutras only 3 mention yoga poses (asana) & none specify discrete poses, only a comfortable seated position for the body. The main instruction from Patanjali is that poses should be comfortable & steady (“sthira sukha asanam” Patanjali 2:46-2:48)

4) Pranayama – simply means regulation of the breath. This involves breathing practices designed to activate & move energy or “prana” around the body.

The first 4 steps develop a “perfect” physical state to then enable you to the create a quiet, centred, self-actualised internal state. 

5) Pratyahara – sense withdrawal. Often thought to involve closing the eyes & ignoring the world but this is not actually the case. This practice is based on empowerment of the self to not be distracted by the external world. To be able to observe the external world without engaging with it & disturbing our internal world.

6) Dharana – Single pointed focus or concentration on a state of being, thought, sensation or act. A number of techniques can be used. Focus can be on the breath, a flower, a candle, a sensation in the body without wavering, jumping around or changing subject/topic.

7) Dhyana – Contemplation. Often arises naturally from Dharana where the mind becomes focused on a single quality of the object & does not move but engages & absorbs the reality of that quality without wavering or moving attention to another quality.

8) Samadhi – Wholeness. The sense that the mind is so focused on the object of contemplation it loses it’s ability to differentiate between the object & the mind that is observing it. The observed & observer become one. This can also be accomplished spontaneously without the use of an object. This is a sense of deep calmness, stillness & peace. When the mind no longer identifies between the observer & the observed & when you experience a sense of bliss & connectedness with all of life & the Universe.

The yamas & niyamas are often equated to the 10 commandments in the Bible. However, they are actually more of a roadmap for a good & wholesome life than a set of edicts handed down from on high. There is no fear of retribution from a God above, no hell or suffering if you don’t do the right thing but at the same time you are not free from the consequences of your actions or karma. 

There is no good or bad karma. There is just karma. Consequences. It totally depends on your vantage point as to whether that action has a net positive or negative effect on your life or on those around you so try to let go of that idea of judgment.

Those of us from a Judeo-Christian background have grown up in a culture that equates our worthiness as people with our level of goodness & judges us when we do the “wrong” thing. To the point where in our yoga practices we are always seeking to do it “right” rather than just experiencing the practice itself & the sensations & experiences in the body & mind as the practice. Yoga as a practice should hopefully liberate us from self-judgment. Here’s hoping, so on with the practice then...

As the Bhagavad Gita states

“Yoga is the practice of tolerating the consequences of being yourself”.

Image Credit The Wardette Studio

What I have seen often (& experienced myself in my own practice) is that people come to yoga classes for the practices of asana & pranayama to manage injuries, pain or stress. But they stay for the deeper practices; for that sense of stillness & peace that comes from the internal practices of pratyahara, dharana, dhyana & the odd little glimpse of samadhi that we sometimes get at the end of a practice. And as we begin to practice in a deeper way, our bodies & minds begin to crave a different way of being & living which often results in changes in the way we live through the yamas & niyamas. If you practice enough then these things naturally arise in the body with very little effort. You stop feeling the need to eat junk food, you don’t want to smoke or drink. You crave spending time with good people who fill your heart with love. You stop being interested in reading & watching shows about violence & death. You fill your life with good things & people that help you to feel content & happy with life. That is what keeps people living this life of yoga. These are the tiny little jewels of the practice. A deeper sense of meaning & love in our lives.

What has been your experience of yoga? What brought you to the practice? What made you stay? Please let me know in the comments section below!


The Yoga Tradition: It’s History Literature Philosophy & Practice by Georg Feuerstein

Sthira Sukha Asanam http://www.swamij.com/yoga-sutras-24648.htm

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