The first coherent ideas from which the system of yoga evolved are found in Indian theology and philosophy dating from as early as the 8th Century BCE. There is academic uncertainty about any exact date as these thoughts and treatises were not written down, they are an oral tradition passed down through chanting. Because the ideas and thoughts are preserved orally trying to claim one comes before another is difficult. This is relevant because yoga, as it is practiced and taught today, has its roots in different systems of thought.
There are six orthodox schools of Indian philosophy, ṣaḍdarśanas. Yoga, as we practice it today, has its roots in two of these darśanas. All the ṣaḍdarśanas (six viewpoints) accept the Vedas as their origin.
Veda means knowledge. The four Vedas are ancient Indian texts which describe the understanding of the world that the sages, teachers, and yogis gained through meditation. They present a cosmology where time is not linear but cyclical, where death is an illusion, and where the universe is created out of cosmic vibration.
Contained within the Vedas are the Upanishads. Upanishad means, ‘to sit down near’ and these are the texts which evolved from the necessary discussions about the meaning of the Vedas. Discussion and questioning were the main ways that ideas were fleshed out in the Yogic schools. Ancient Indian thought can appear confusing and contradictory if we read it unguided, the role of the teacher is to help us come to an understanding of how the world works using these ideas as templates.
The thoughts contained in these texts came to be known as Vedanta. Vedanta is one of the six orthodox viewpoints.
Sāṃkhya is another of these viewpoints. Sāṃkhya means ‘to count,’ and this is a system of thought which explains the universe by breaking it down into its component parts. The ideas of sāṃkhya influenced the early yogis.
A fundamental difference between Vedanta and Sāṃkhya concerns the origin of the universe. Sāṃkhya does not discuss the origin of the universe as it is not considered to be relevant. Sāṃkhya is often presented as an atheistic philosophy and Vedanta a theistic one, although this is a little simplistic.
When we begin our journey into the philosophies that underpin yoga it can at first seem confusing, there are a lot of new words and concepts to grasp.
Sanskrit is the language of yoga, and as a language, it is very juicy, words have nebulous translations, so there are many different opinions about meaning. However, what is important about Sanskrit is that it is a vibrational language and one that can take us out of our thinking mind and into our body through feeling. Sometimes rather than searching for a specific meaning of a word it is more useful to feel the sound of the word simply. This is why these philosophies are oral in their tradition. Meaning came from within not from without.
So what is Yoga?
It is clear that yoga was a practice and philosophy embedded in ancient Indian thought and life.
As a separate philosophical system yoga suggests that the universe contains consciousness and matter. Everything we experience can be a way of moving deeper into our awareness of consciousness. Therefore the practices of yoga are designed to create an awareness that matter changes and consciousness essentially stays the same. In this context, thoughts are considered the matter (the system is different to the mind-body dualism we are used to from “I think therefore I am”).
The main exponent of the philosophy of yoga was Patanjali who composed a series of short teachings circa 400BCE. Patanjali outlined different methods for increasing a sense of calmness and quietude in our lives.
Yoga as a practice and a way of life are also found described in the Bhagavad Gita (The song of Bhagavan) a scripture which forms a part of the epic poem the Mahabharata. The Bhagavad Gita is similar to the Upanishads in that it takes the form of a discussion between a student and teacher. Here different types of yogic practices are described as ways to find peace of mind and develop a meaningful relationship with ourselves.
Both the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Bhagavad Gita are mainly concerned with yoga as a whole lifestyle practice. Texts like the 5th century CE Hatha Yoga Pradipika give detailed descriptions of yoga as a physical practice.
Why does learning about yoga philosophy help me?
In some of these tutorials you are given a chance to experience the chanting of Sanskrit; thus you are participating in a very ancient and traditional way of learning. An insight into the origin of these practices can deepen our passion and explain why they make us feel good. By presenting and considering other ways to think about the world we can learn techniques to become happier. As Patanjali himself says ‘future suffering is to be avoided,’ so anything that helps with that is worth looking into.