The History of Yoga and its Journey to the West Christopher Purnell
Yoga is considered by many to be an ancient practice over 5,000 years old. Originating in India, its popularity in the West largely took hold during the Twentieth Century thanks to some notable yogis who travelled across the world.
As early as the end of the Nineteenth Century, the great Swami Vivekenanda, a student of Sri Ramakrishna, was invited to address the first World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Vivekenanda's inspirational message of Yoga was extremely well received and he is now considered the first yogi to make a major impact on the West.
In 1920, Parahansa Yogananda, another great Yoga Master from India arrived in Boston, USA on what he called a 'spiritual campaign'. Many described Yogananda's sharing of Yoga in the United States as inspiring a spiritual revolution. In 1946, Swami Yogananda wrote what is now considered a classic text, 'Autobiography of a Yogi' detailing his life and teachings.
To its followers, yoga is a systematic and ancient science designed to ultimately reconnect us to the source of who we are. Classical yoga encompasses many varied practices, including cleansing practices (shatkarma), yoga postures (asana), breath work (pranayama), as well as sense withdrawal (pratyahara), concentration (dharana) and meditation practices (dhyana).
It is interesting that yoga postures (asana practice) now tend to dominate yoga classes in the West, as classically speaking this practice is a small part of a much wider yogic technology, and was historically seen more as a preparatory purification stage for higher practices, often for example to prepare the body to sit for meditation. Indeed, in one of the key yogic texts, 'The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali', yoga postures are barely mentioned.
Even asana practice itself has morphed over time, and particularly since the Twentieth Century, it has come to include thousands of different poses with many different variations and names, presented in many different styles; Ashtanga to Vinyasa Flow, Bikram to Kundalini Yoga to name but a few. As a result, very little of what we think of as modern day yoga practice would have been recognisable to the classical yogi. One notable yogi, Krishnamacharya, is described by some as the 'Father of Modern day Yoga' as a result of his work in Mysore, India during the 1930s. Krishnamacharya is generally credited with developing the format of a series of asanas joined together by a repetitive linking sequence or vinyasa – the basis upon which many western yoga classes now run. Krishnamacharya's legacy is largely a result of his students (many of whom are well known themselves) taking forth his teachings. His students included the highly regarded B.K.S Iyengar (famous in his own right for his influential teaching in the West), K. Pattabhi Jois and Indra Devi.
Although asana practice is not the be all and end of yoga it remains an essential and crucial part. Indeed, for Hatha Yogis it is considered the foremost practice required to purify and prepare the body and nervous system for what will follow. Ultimately, even in the West, Yoga still offers us a technology to reconnect more authentically with ourselves. It is not a religion and no beliefs are necessary, but it is likely to make You a better You!
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