The first historical records of Yoga appear around 7th century BCE India. Sages transmitted teachings orally so no one knows really when Yoga began. Suffice it to say several millennia ago, people (mainly men) with few distractions like television and nuclear families, lots of time on their hands and a deep connection to Nature started opening their doors of perception.
Yogis explore consciousness, through practices that affect powerful metabolic and perceptual changes, to experience a more expanded, unified reality. Yoga uses many different means – action, devotion, knowledge, meditation - to access and honour this reality. At the core of all Yoga approaches lies a belief in one Supreme Consciousness, a deep yearning for a personal experience of this Consciousness, and liberation from everyday suffering.
Yoga has always manifested in two streams: main and marginal. Like any social trend, the marginal informed the main; the main civilised the marginal. The marginal sought transformation through extreme efforts, like standing naked on one leg under a tree. Later, the Bhagavad Gita democratized Yoga; Patanjali catalogued it; Vedanta rationalized it; Tantra materialised it. All forms say the same thing: your essential Self and Supreme Consciousness are cut from the same cosmic cloth; look deep inside and find out for yourself.
The Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita ranks as one of the most definitive texts in Yoga philosophy. It belongs to an epic work, the Mahabharata, about a war between cousins. The Gita presents a conversation between Krishna and Arjuna, a warrior who comes to terms with a moral dilemma: his duty to fight his family in battle.
Understandably, Arjuna isn’t keen on the idea. He accepts his duty by trusting Krishna, who, being a god, sees the bigger picture: that the wheels of war are already in motion, that bodies must die but spirit lives on, that by offering all his actions to Krishna, Arjuna sanctifies them.
The Gita additionally explains how to use devotion (bhakti) and knowledge (jnana) to know God: start at the top and trust; offer your action, devotion or study to God and know that God will take it from there for the highest good of all.
Before the Gita (around 300-200 BCE), only rulers, warriors and priests could practice Yoga. Householders had to defect to the forests to find God. The Gita guided anyone to improve their life (and rebirths) through Yoga regardless of class, occupation, inclination or gender. The Gita showed how to work, pray, or think your way to a better life and peace of mind, in the comfort of your own home.
Patanjali lived in a binary spiritual world where Supreme Consciousness was sought at the expense of any other experience. Around 200CE, he developed a detailed guide to Enlightenment (Samadhi). Samadhi literally means ‘placing together’. With respect to consciousness, Samadhi gathers all one’s energies together in a deep calmness as we rest in our unchanging Self. The everyday flakiness of our thoughts stops driving us crazy.
Because Samadhi is our underlying reality, we experience it through stopping the mental and emotional gymnastics we normally put ourselves through. Patanjali steers us toward our true nature in different ways depending on how steady our minds are. A select few people experience Samadhi inherently; others need a little coaching in meditation; but most of us don’t know how special we are and so need a multi-pronged approach to get the point. The 8-limbs (Ashtanga) system lays this out. Two limbs explain how to behave, two strengthen the body and mind, three progress to meditation and the last one concerns Samadhi itself. Yoga postures (asana) get a measly two lines because Patanjali is really into sitting in meditation. He also advocates austere practices (tapas) that restore one’s focus away from the trifles of life
Whatever changes, obscures Truth. Don’t worry, be happy!
Vedanta expands upon the ancient teachings of the Upanishads. The Upanishads teach that Supreme consciousness (Brahman) and our consciousness (Jiva) are identical, just as a bottle dropped in the ocean fills with the same ocean.
The Upanishads are a pretty unruly body of information, full of stories, advice, conflicting perspectives and apparently random verses. It took a lot of critical thinking to make sense of them. Around 800 Shankaracharya, a superior mind and the major defender of Vedanta, did just that. He organized the teachings of the Upanishads into a map of Consciousness that was more user-friendly and established Vedanta as a major player in Yoga philosophy.
Basically, we/Jiva are Brahman, but we’ve forgotten because a veil of illusion (Maya) deludes us. We identify with this illusion until we either strip it away or see life from a higher perspective and remember.
Vedanta goes to Hollywood with the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy rejected life in Kansas. Through her ignorance, just to get back to where she started, her adventures almost kill her. From a higher perspective – over the rainbow - she realizes where she started is where she belongs. She had the power to return home - her red shoes - all along; nobody could take it from her. Once home again she wakes up from the dream.
800CE. Kashmir: breath-takingly beautiful, like California without Hollywood. Food is plentiful, life is good. In a place where Nature shakes her booty so fabulously it’s easy to believe that God lives in everything. This setting fosters Kashmir Shaivism, a main branch of Tantra that synthesizes several Yoga traditions into an inclusive and graceful world view. You know God by embracing life. Tantra worships the Goddess (Shakti) and regards Her energy as the dynamic force that creates life out of unmanifested existence (Shiva). In this way Tantric practices – some of which push the boundaries of social norms - integrate male/female, good/bad as two essential sides of the same coin.
In Tantra, everything – even ignorance and illusion– belongs to Supreme Consciousness, therefore everything is sacred and can lead to enlightenment. By expanding our own consciousness we discover this. The teacher initiates the student into the practices. Ritual, sound, movement, the body can all contribute to the experience of one-ness. Hatha Yoga, a system of postures and breathing exercises to purify and transform the body (and by extension, our consciousness), evolved under the influence of Tantra. Tantra is the last main school of Yoga; after the 14th Century Islam began to impose its perspective on Indian thought.