Origins of Yoga
Within these ancient texts, we find not only the seeds of yoga but also the wisdom that has shaped human consciousness for millennia.
OVERVIEW : VEDAS 1500–1000 BCE AGE : Approximately 1500 BCE or earlier. NATURE : Collection of ancient hymns, chants, prayers, and rituals. CONTENT : Hymns and verses dedicated to various deities, rituals, cosmology, and divine forces. Composed by various ancient sages and seers. They are organised into four main texts: Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda. PURPOSE : To provide guidance for rituals, ceremonies, and worship, as well as insights into the relationships between humans and gods. FOCUS : Rituals, ceremonies, and offerings to deities for maintaining order in the universe. YOGA : Contains references to spiritual practices but primarily focuses on rituals and worship rather than systematic yoga practices. TEACHINGS : Emphasises the importance of maintaining cosmic order through proper rituals and sacrifices. LANGUAGE : The Vedas are written in a complex and ancient form of Sanskrit. The language and style of the Vedas are often highly symbolic and poetic. OVERVIEW : UPANISHADS EARLIEST BETWEEN 700-500 BCE AGE : Approximately 700 to 500 BCE NATURE : Philosophical texts exploring metaphysical and spiritual questions. CONTENT : They are considered the culmination of Vedic thought. They are often conversations between teachers and students, discussing profound truths. PURPOSE : The Upanishads aim to uncover the hidden meanings of the Vedas and explore the nature of existence, consciousness, and the Self. They are sometimes referred to as Vedanta, meaning "the end of the Vedas." FOCUS : The Upanishads shift the emphasis from external rituals to internal spiritual practice and Self-realisation. Understanding the true nature of reality beyond the physical world. YOGA : The Upanishads introduce the concept of yoga as a means to realise the unity of the individual soul (Atman) with the universal consciousness (Brahman). While they do not provide a detailed system of yoga practice, they lay the philosophical foundation for various paths of yoga, especially Jnana Yoga (the yoga of knowledge) and meditation. TEACHINGS : Emphasises the unity of all existence, the illusion of individual separateness, and the pursuit of spiritual liberation through Self-knowledge. LANGUAGE : The Upanishads are written in a more straightforward and philosophical style of Sanskrit. They use logical reasoning and introspection to delve into profound questions.
In the ancient yogi's quest to understand 'Who am I? What is the ultimate reality?', they realised that despite having physical aspects, they were more than just their bodies. They found five koshas—‘sheaths’ layers of their being. (Double click images below for details on each kosha)
Cycle of Cause & Effect (karma samsara)
Initially the yogis were tossed by positive and negative. They would observe things they like and feel good, but then they’d observe things they didn’t like and feel bad. It’s the way most of us live today - conditionally, by default. But as the yogis reflected more deeply on the mind, they noticed when they held their attention for a period of time on the positive, momentum picks up, and more positive things would occur, they’d see more positive things and life seemed to flow with ease. On the flip side, they also noticed that when they sustained negative thoughts, things would all seem negative, the flow of life would feel harsh or stagnate, and their bodies would feel the build up of tension. The concept of karma, derived from the Sanskrit word for "action," underpins these observations. KARMA : refers to the law of cause and effect that governs actions and their outcomes. Every action—whether physical, mental, or emotional—gives rise to corresponding consequences that shape an individual's future experiences. This concept mirrors the idea "like attracts like." SAMSARA : Translating to "continuous flow" or "cyclic existence," samsara primarily revolves around the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth across different lifetimes. Yet, it can also symbolically extend to cycles and patterns occurring within a single lifetime, encompassing thought patterns, behaviours, and experiences. The law of karma is a central mechanism that perpetuates the cycle of samsara, shaping life’s circumstances and determining future rebirths. For instance, recurrent thought patterns or mental habits drive specific emotional responses and actions, resulting in cyclical thought processes and emotional states. Similarly, repetitive behaviours, fuelled by habits or conditioned responses, have influence over relationships, actions, and overall well-being. These patterns can take root in emotional reactions to varying situations, gradually influencing perceptions and responses to the external world. Beneath the surface, the ancient yogis recognised that the constant mental chatter was the root of confusion and challenges. They learnt they could not just stop their mind but learnt to make peace with their mental chatter and direct it. As the Maitri Upanishad states, "Mind is indeed the source of bondage and also the source of liberation." The Gayatri Mantra (video below) from the Rigveda served as an invocation for clarity and enlightenment, a call to illuminate the mind.
Ultimate Reality & Individual Soul (Brahman Atman)
Within each of us resides the inner being, in the subtlest sheath (anandamaya kosha). Alignment with our essence brings joy. The Upanishads teach us that we have ‘god’ like potential, but we are clouded by the lower dimensions; our intellect, our ego, our senses, our physical reality. ATMAN : The individual Self, the true essence, often described as unchanging and eternal. Each individual's Atman is not separate from the universal Brahman; rather, it's a reflection or microcosm of Brahman. BRAHMAN : Brahman is the ultimate, unchanging, and all-encompassing reality. It's often described as the source from which everything arises, the underlying unity that connects all things. Brahman is beyond attributes, form, and limitations. Atman is said to be identical to Brahman in its true nature, meaning the individual Self's essence is inseparable from the universal reality. How can we better know the Self? One of the messages in the Upanishads is that the Atman can only be known through union with it, and not from mere learning. “Not through much learning is the Atman reached, not through the intellect and sacred teaching.” - Katha Upanishad. So in the Upanishads we have the beginnings of a yoga practice, though still more inspiration than definite teaching: “When the five senses are stilled, and so is the mind, and even intellect does not stir, they call it the highest state. This state, the steady control of the senses, is considered to be yoga” - Katha Upanishad The practice would include going into the silence, stilling the senses, so not to be mentally distracted, finding quietness in the mind, in the present moment disconnected from limitations, and in this state, connecting to universal wisdom. The contemplative practices aim to yoke the universal spirit; Brahman, with the individual spirit; Atman, bringing the yogi to a place of pure wisdom. Although Yoga was primarily practiced via mediation, we begin to see evidence of experimentation in practices utilising breath. “There is something beyond our mind which abides in silence within our mind. It is the supreme mystery beyond thought, Let one's mind and one's subtle body rest upon that and not rest on anything else." Maitri Upanishad 6.19
Creation (purusha prakriti)
The yogis discovered the hidden workings of themselves and the world. They came to recognise that their very identity is a creation of their consciousness. The foundation for comprehending creation and the universe's manifestation is rooted in the concept of Purusha and Prakriti, discovered within the ancient Rigveda, Purusa Sukta : PURUSHA : represents the consciousness, awareness, and pure potentiality that lies at the core of existence. It's often described as the unchanging observer, the eternal essence that transcends the fluctuations of the material world. PRAKRITI : embodies dynamic energy, matter, and the forces of nature. It encompasses all forms of manifest existence, including the physical, mental, and emotional realms. Prakriti is the field upon which creation unfolds. Purusha's awareness gives direction and purpose to the energies of Prakriti. Without Purusha's consciousness, Prakriti's energies would remain chaotic and unguided. Prakriti, driven by its dynamic forces, takes on various forms and manifestations. It's through Prakriti's interactions and transformations that the diverse elements and entities of the universe emerge. Together, Purusha and Prakriti weave the fabric of existence. Purusha's awareness provides meaning to Prakriti's expressions, while Prakriti's manifestations offer a medium for Purusha's potential to become tangible. The Vedas teach us that a spark of Purusha, pure potentiality, resides within each of us, signifying our connection to the universe. With intention and conscious direction, we can engage with Prakriti's forces and guide them to realise our higher potential. “Always dwelling within all beings is the Atman, the Purusha, the Self, a little flame in the heart. Let one with steadiness withdraw him from the body even as an inner stem is withdrawn from its sheath. Know this pure immortal light; know in truth this pure immortal light.” Upanishad Imagine the universe as a vast garden, with Purusha as the gardener and Prakriti as the fertile soil. Purusha envisions a beautiful garden filled with diverse colours, shapes, and fragrances. Prakriti, the soil, holds the potential to bring this vision to life. Purusha's vision is like intention seeds, containing the essence of what's to be manifested. With care, the gardener plants these seeds into Prakriti's soil, symbolising the partnership between consciousness and creative energy. Over time, the seeds sprout and grow. Prakriti nurtures them, aided by cosmic forces like sun, rain, and nutrients. This collaboration transforms the seeds into flourishing plants that resonate with the gardener's intentions. Similarly, by tending to our thoughts and intentions, we co-create with the universe's creative forces. Just as the gardener collaborates with fertile soil, we align our consciousness with creative energy, becoming co-creators that shape our reality. Whatever we’re thinking about, spending time, energy, attention, or words on that subject, that is what we are creating more of in our life. In this way, all things, wanted and unwanted, are brought to us. The law works the same way giving the command “don’t sit" to a dog. The dog hears “sit” and does just that. It doesn't matter whether we’re saying "don't" or "not" or "no" “He who has right understanding and who’s mind is ever steady is the ruler of his life, like a good driver with well trained horses.” Katha Upanishad The direction of our thought is our choice, which means we can create on purpose if we are careful where we are putting our attention on. We can think what we want into being, see it, visualise it and expect it, and it will be. We will be guided or inspired or led to the perfect action that will bring about the process that will lead us to that which we seek. All the practices of yoga aim to bring the mind to a balanced state, so it is not thinking by default based on what it is coming through the senses. With more clarity we can have space to deliberately intend and allow. We can notice when our mind is moving towards hindering thoughts so we can re center towards helpful. With space we can aim our minds to the utmost highest, the source within, the same source as in everything in the Universe. Picture your thoughts and feelings as ripples in a pond. These ripples send out vibrations that resonate with Prakriti's creative energy. These vibrations, like an echo, attract similar energies in the universe. Your conscious intentions align with the creative forces of Prakriti, and together they bring about manifestations in your life.