5 Things We Can Learn from the History and Philosophy of Yoga for Today Featured Image

5 things we can learn from the History and Philosophy of Yoga for today

Exploring the Essence- By Floss Harry

Reading time: 4 minutes

The philosophy and history of yoga can feel daunting. We know its important and has a lot to teach us, but we don’t really know… well, how! While yoga’s ancient roots can feel very distant from our modern lives, looking at the history and philosophy of yoga is in fact essential for helping us understand yoga more deeply today.

Growing our awareness of different yogas of the past helps us situate our practice in the context of an ever-evolving tradition. Here are five reflections on the history and philosophy of yoga that will inspire you to think about yoga in your life today.

1. The importance of the teacher

Yoga in its ancient roots was transmitted orally from guru (teacher) to disciple within the context of the lineage. Gurus have sometimes got a bad name in the modern yoga world, mainly due to scandals and the abuse of power. But at the other end of the spectrum is the modern phenomenon where we might practice yoga without any teacher at all. This can lead to yoga overwhelm where we find it hard to practice consistently or are unsure what to include in our practice.

While we certainly don’t need a ‘guru’ for a thriving yoga practice, knowing we don’t have to do it all ourselves by having a teacher to guide us – yes, even if we are a teacher ourselves – helps keep our practice fresh and inspired. Having a regular teacher will help enforce tapas (discipline) too and take some pressure of yourself. If you teach yoga, it will probably make you a better teacher too!

2. Against lonely individualism

Modern yoga can feel like quite an individualistic endeavour; especially if we tend to practice alone. It doesn’t help that the image of the yogi-renunciate meditating on a mountain away from mainstream society might make us think that ‘real yoga’ is all about the individual’s journey. But this image is not really accurate at all! Research has shown that these ‘traditional’ yogis are still part of a broader community.

They form geographically dispersed ‘alternative societies’ through which they participate in a lifetime of initiation, ritual, relationship with a guru or teacher, and pilgrimages to annual religious festivals. In other words, they still interact with people: both househoulders and other yogis! Are you part of a broader community of yogis?

What happens when you think about yoga in more communal terms, looking at the broader aspects of ‘yoga society’ that help it function? Can you have gratitude for this bigger system that extends beyond your individual practice?

3. Yoga isn’t just āsana

You may already know that āsana (physical yoga posture) is only one of Patañjali’s 8-limbs of yoga. But did you know that there are other types of yoga too? Bhakti, the yoga of devotion; karma, the yoga of action; jñāna, the yoga of knowledge; and raja, the royal path (associated with Patanjali). These mārgas or ‘yogic paths’ or are all mentioned in the Bhagavad-gītā, which emphasises that any action can be ‘yoga’ when done with nonattachment, renouncing its fruits.

In other words, yoga is not always about posture or seated meditation! So, next time you are washing the dishes, walking the dog, or queuing in line at the shops, ask yourself: can this be yoga?

4. Yoga isn’t for everyone all the time

There aren’t just different types of yoga, but there is also an understanding that people may prioritise yoga at certain points of their life. The Laws of Manu – the moral treatise from the Hindu and yogic tradition – describes four different āśramas or lifestages: that of the student, householder, forest dweller, and renouncer.

Each lifestage prioritises a different kind of goal. Only the final stage – that of the renouncer – seeks ‘yoga’ in the sense of renouncing mainstream society to pursue liberation.

That is not to say people did not chose this yogic path earlier, but it was not the societal norm, and there is an understanding that people will have different dharmas (duty/law/destiny) at different stages of their life. We might then ask, what are we seeking through yoga in our life currently? Does our yoga practice reflect our current lifestage and circumstance?

5. Yoga evolves

The history of yoga shows that yoga has changed and continues to change. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the first orthodox yogic text, was composed about 2300 years ago and mentions āsana (yoga posture) in only three sutras, but today āsana is almost synonymous with yoga! The truth is, however, that yoga today isn’t just different to yoga then; yoga 500 years ago and 1500 years ago looks different too!

In fact, there are multiple yogas – spanning traditions, lineages, teachers, and schools of thought – that have emerged and continue to emerge over time, such as Advaita Vedanta (non-dual), Tantra, and Hatha Yogas , all having slightly different aims and emphasises.

In addition, over time yoga went from being an activity strictly reserved for ascetics – those who renounced mainstream householder society – to being something householders could do in the world with the emergence of Hatha and Tantra yoga.

What happens when we realise there is no one single ‘authentic yoga’ existing out there, and instead explore what an ‘authentic yoga’ might mean to us… noting there is may change at different stages of our lives?

We hope you enjoyed this food for food on the philosophy and history of yoga! Why not take a moment and use these points to prompt some journalling on what yoga means for you today? This is a great activity to do with a group of fellow yogis too! You can share thoughts and discuss after journalling.*

*commission earned from this link.

Florence Harry

Floss is a philosophy and yoga teacher based in Cambridge and London.