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History of Yoga

What is Yoga? Understand The History Behind the Practice

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A myriad of historical information exists, so let’s start with building a foundation.

Learn how to pronounce yoga, what it is, and how to practice it. 

How to Pronounce “Yoga” Correctly

The correct pronunciation of yoga is “yogh”. 

What is yoga? 

Yoga originated in India thousands of years ago. Sri Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali around the second century BCE and is said to have called himself simply a “compiler of yoga principles” from ancient Vedic texts. Sutras means threads, or philosophical guidelines. Patanjali describes yoga as chitta vritti nirodha, which roughly translates to “you are in a state of yoga when you can still the mind into presence.”

See also 7 Forgotten Early Yoga Teachers in America with Stories You’ll Want to Hear

Learn about the most ancient language on Earth, Sanskrit. 

How to Pronounce Sanskrit

The correct pronunciation is “sunskruth”.

What is Sanskrit, and how does it relate to yoga? 

Sanskrit is one of the most ancient languages on Earth. It is a deeply meaningful, spiritual language that is often described as poetry in words and sounds. But like any language, just because something is written in Sanskrit does not make it a religion or immediately valuable. Opting to use Sanskrit should be an informed choice.

See also Sanskrit 101: 4 Reasons Why Studying This Ancient Language Is Worth Your Time

Yoga is more than the physical practice. 

Yoga in India versus Western Yoga

Yoga in Western society often misrepresents the physical practice, known as yogasana, as yoga itself. Jnana Yoga (studying spiritual texts as yoga), Bhakti Yoga (devotion as yoga), and Karma Yoga (community action as yoga) are more ancient forms of yoga with little or no physical posturing. Classical yoga, however, is a holistic practice comprising eight limbs—the physical postures being just one element of finding peace in oneself. My Aunt Vrinda in Mumbai has been practicing yoga throughout her life and describes it as the following:

“Yoga has been such an essential part of my life. My grandparents were so yogic in the way they lived their lives. I remember their simple, non-materialistic lives based on deep human values: love and compassion, helping others who were in need. So when I was ready, the Universe cooperated to send me a teacher who taught me to look at life from a very different perspective—beyond just a set of asanas (poses). The entire gamut of Patanjali’s teachings were slowly introduced to me and my fellow students so subtly and imperceptibly that we found ourselves living by the yogic precepts without any major effort on our part. I am truly grateful.”

See also Yoga Philosophy 101: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra Wisdom for Everyday Life

It’s important to be aware of India’s residual suffering and reconstruction after colonization.

History of Yoga: British Colonization of India

In Western society, we benefit from yoga and its adaptations. There’s been a surge in studios with trainings, clothing, equipment, and retreats. Practices evolve naturally over time, but as we freely participate in yoga, it’s important to be aware of India’s residual suffering and reconstruction after colonization.

Recounted in the National Archives, the British formally took control of India in 1858 after hundreds of years of takeover of Indian lands and companies.

Shashi Tharoor, PhD, an Indian politician and former international diplomat serving as a Member of Parliament, underscores that “violence and racism were the reality of the colonial experience” in India. He notes that under British rule, India’s share of the world economy plummeted by 20 percent. Millions of Indians died of starvation. They were required to export their rice supply and the cloth they wove themselves, which they had no choice but to buy back at higher prices. Though India fought for and won back its independence on August 15, 1947, Tharoor reminds us that “racial and religious tensions were the direct result of the colonial experience.” We see this in the disdain for and prohibition of spiritual practices such as yoga, which India is slowly working to restore as a holistic way of living for all.

There is no exact amount that can make up for loss of loved ones and for the undermining of social traditions under colonialism, Tharoor says. “The principle is what counts. Not the fine points of what and how much. The question is, ‘Is there a debt?’”

As we engage in a practice that’s designed to connect us, let’s continue to ask ourselves and one another questions. The path to individual and collective healing is yoga itself.

Rina Deshande

About our author

Rina Deshpande is a teacher, writer, and researcher of yoga and mindfulness practices. Having grown up with Indian yoga philosophy, she rediscovered its profound value as a New York City public school teacher. For the past 15 years, she has practiced and shared the benefits of yoga across the globe. After studying yoga and mindfulness as self-regulation at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, she designs curriculum for science research and K–12 education. She is the author of Jars of Space, a new book of handwritten and illustrated yogic poetry. Learn more at @rinathepoet or rinadeshpande.com.



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Ashtanga Yoga

The Importance of Mysore and Pune, India for Yoga Lineage

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Learn more about the birthplace of Ashtanga Yoga and Iyengar Yoga.

Mysore, India

Located in the southwestern state of Karnataka, this former capital of the Kingdom of Mysore is home to the opulent Mysore Palace and centuries-old Devaraja Market. Mysore was also home to Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, an Indian yoga teacher, Ayurvedic healer, and scholar who’s often referred to as the father of modern yoga. Yoga students may know it as the birthplace of Ashtanga Yoga, where the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute was established in 1948 and where Ashtanga practitioners from all over the world travel to practice and train.

See also I Took My Baby to Mysore, India, for a Month: Here’s What It Was Really Like

Pune, India

B.K.S. Iyengar was born in 1918 in Bellur, a city that was in the grip of the influenza pandemic at the time. An attack left Iyengar sick throughout his childhood, and when he was 16-years-old, his brother-in-law—Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya—asked him to come to Mysore to help with the family. There, Iyengar started to learn asana, which steadily helped his health improve. In 1936, Krishnamacharya sent Iyengar to Pune to spread the teaching of yoga. Now, Pune is home to the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute—which Iyengar opened in 1975, and is considered the heart and soul of Iyengar Yoga. Iyengar students from all over the world come here to practice and train with the institute’s esteemed teachers.

See also The Strap Trick You Need to Try to Release Your Neck Tension

Where Mysore and Pune, India Are On a Map

Pune, India is in Maharashtra and Mysore, India is in Karnataka.



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History of Yoga

What's the Difference Between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation?

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A first-generation Indian-American yoga and mindfulness researcher and teacher reflects on what feels misrepresented and appropriative to her in modern yoga.

Unsure of the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation? Read on to find out. 

When I began contributing to yoga research five years ago, I was invited to a meeting to discuss how to bring yoga and mindfulness practices to university campuses as wellness initiatives. Thirteen out of 15 American administrators and researchers at the conference table happened to be white, the only exceptions being me and another Indian-American woman. The person in charge had thoughtfully invited both of us; though newer to research, we were experienced in yoga teachings because of our South Asian culture and decade-long practices. Entering the room was both moving and intimidating. On one hand, I was honored to share my cultural and personal understandings of yoga. On the other hand, I was one of only two nonwhite people in a group gathering to talk about a practice that originated in India.

Conscious of my identity, I used yogic principles to set aside my conditioned fears and preconceptions and opened my mind to discussing yoga—the practice of self-realization that has transformed my life.

See also The First Book of Yoga: The Enduring Influence of the Bhagavad Gita

I soon found myself in respectful conversation with everyone at the table: Yoga and mindfulness-based practices can provide what we call “healing” in Eastern tradition, and what we call psychological and physiological “benefits” in Western research. Although we used different words, we were saying similar things.

Until the middle of the meeting.

One of the administrators said, “We’ll need to create a set of guidelines to ensure absolutely no Eastern symbols, bells, or words are used in yoga classes. We can’t make anyone uncomfortable or offend them by suggesting spirituality.”

I don’t believe that Indian words or symbols are required for people to benefit from yoga, but this leader, who was in favor of creating an inclusive yoga experience “for all,” wanted to remove any sign of the land where the practice originated. She overlooked the fact that two yoga teachers with Indian heritage sitting right across from her were the ones left to nurse our exclusion and offense.

See also The Debate: Teach With English or Sanskrit Pose Names?

Invisible oppression is something many Indians have been forced to endure in quiet pain for centuries. Like when you learn about a popular yoga movement and book jarringly titled No Om Zone: A No-Chanting, No-Granola, No-Sanskrit Practical Guide to Yoga. The title itself normalizes ethnocentric views of yoga, India, and people who chant. The irony of a movement like this is that it renders fear of foreign words while allowing itself to brand and use the Indian practice of yoga, a Sanskrit word signifying “unity” or “yoke.”

Those without access to an in-depth history education might lighten this to a question of political correctness or cries by minorities for cultural recognition. But it goes so much deeper.

Yoga is an ancient spiritual practice of self-realization that originated in India, but, in addition to Indian devotional practices such as sacred dance, it was perceived as threatening, ridiculed, and banned among its own people in its own land under British colonization, beginning in the 1700s and lasting until the mid-1900s. Today, yoga is often marketed by affluent Westerners to affluent Westerners—and Indians, ironically, are marginally represented, if at all. While this multibillion-dollar industry is offering much-needed well-being to Western practitioners, it’s re-inflicting the same violation on India and Indians: invisibility and misrepresentation.

See also A Beginner’s Guide to the History of Yoga

Cultural appropriation is the taking, marketing, and exotification of cultural practices from historically oppressed populations.

What is Cultural Appropriation?

In recent years, conversation has begun around the “cultural appropriation” of yoga. Cultural appropriation is the taking, marketing, and exotification of cultural practices from historically oppressed populations. The problem is incredibly complex and involves two extremes: The first is the sterilization of yoga by removing evidence of its Eastern roots so that it doesn’t “offend” Westerner practitioners. The opposite extreme is the glamorization of yoga and India through commercialism, such as Om tattoos, T-shirts sporting Hindu deities or Sanskrit scriptures that are often conflated with yoga, or the choosing of Indian names.

Yoga teachers and students are starting to ask the questions, “What is the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation?” and “How can I still practice yoga without being offensive?”

See also Do You Really Know the True Meaning of Yoga?

According to Rumya S. Putcha, PhD, a scholar of postcolonial, critical race, and gender studies, we’re still asking the wrong questions. “The terminology ‘cultural appropriation,’ in and of itself, is a way of diluting the fact that we’re talking about racism and European colonialism,” she says. “It undermines what is happening as only ‘culturally inappropriate’ so as not to disrupt mass yoga marketing, leading us to ask surface-level questions like ‘I don’t want to be culturally inappropriate, so how can I show cultural appreciation appropriately?’ It’s not about appreciation versus appropriation. It’s about understanding the role of power and the legacies of imperialism.”

Shreena Gandhi, PhD, a religious studies professor at Michigan State University, and Lillie Wolff, an advocate with Crossroads Antiracism, emphasized in their 2017 article “Yoga and the Roots of Cultural Appropriation” that the goal of these conversations should not be for white practitioners to stop practicing yoga, but rather for them “to please take a moment to look outside of yourself and understand how the history of yoga practice in the United States is intimately linked to larger forces”—such as colonization, oppression, and the fact that a devotional practice that was free of cost for thousands of years is now being marketed and sold.

See also The Timeline and History of Yoga in America

As an Indian-American teacher, practitioner, and writer, I often ponder why this means so much to me and why I can’t offer simple bullet points for what makes something “appreciative” versus “appropriative” of yoga. I just know when I start to feel sick or hurt—like at a conference table when an administrator suggests that Eastern elements, such as bells used to train the mind to focus on the present (dhyana), will threaten the comfort of white American practitioners. Or when the young CEO of a new yoga organization asks me where she can get her 300-hour yoga certification done the fastest, missing that yoga is a lifelong process of balanced living. Or when I see social media celebrities and yoga advertisements promoting athletic, model-like bodies in sexy apparel, potentially encouraging more attachment to items and creating insecurities rather than relieving people of suffering. Or when I’m walking by a shop with my parents, only to see their confusion over why holy Hindu scriptures—which my father can read, being literate in Sanskrit—were printed on a hoodie and tossed into a sale pile.

“I think they don’t realize that these are not just designs. They are words that carry deep meaning for people,” my father says.

See also Sanskrit 101: 4 Reasons Why Studying This Ancient Language Is Worth Your Time

Ask these questions to deeper your understanding around cultural appropriation.

Questions to Ask about Cultural Appropriation 

His sentiments make me realize that many Western yoga companies and consumers are unaware of what they are branding and buying. And that’s what we need to change together, by asking deeper questions such as:

  • “Do I really understand the history of the yoga practice I’m so freely allowed to practice today that was once ridiculed and prohibited by colonists in India?”
  • “As I continue to learn, am I comfortable with the practices and purchases I’m choosing to make, or should I make some changes?”
  • “Does the practice I live promote peace and integrity for all?”

Educating ourselves, like the practice of yoga, can be seen as an evolutionary process. Start where you are. You may have already developed a lot of awareness that is becoming more finely tuned. And for some—Indian or not Indian, experienced yoga practitioners or not—this article is a first-time exposure to something you never realized.

See also The Wake-Up Call Yogis Need to Bring ‘Real Yoga’ Back Into Their Practice

Rina Deshpande is a teacher, writer, and researcher of yoga and mindfulness practices. 

About our author

Rina Deshpande is a teacher, writer, and researcher of yoga and mindfulness practices. Having grown up with Indian yoga philosophy, she rediscovered its profound value as a New York City public school teacher. For the past 15 years, she has practiced and shared the benefits of yoga across the globe. After studying yoga and mindfulness as self-regulation at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, she designs curriculum for science research and K–12 education. She is the author of Jars of Space, a new book of handwritten and illustrated yogic poetry. Learn more at @rinathepoet or rinadeshpande.com.



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Balance

Yoga Journal's Response to the January 2019 Covers

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Tasha Eichenseher, Yoga Journal’s Brand Director, responds to the comments about the two covers.

I know this statement is not enough. It’s not possible to have a complete conversation about complicated topics via social media, or through a single article or magazine issue.

But we hear you.

Thank you for letting us know how the January/February issue made you feel. We are sharing the following response and reflection in order to acknowledge that we caused harm. With a dual cover, my team and I hoped to spark a conversation about leadership in yoga—to examine, to the degree we are able, the evolution of the practice over the past several decades and explore the roles of lineage, social media, and power dynamics. To us, both cover models—Jessamyn Stanley and Maty Ezraty—offer important perspectives in the context of that conversation. But I can see now how communities that have been disproportionately excluded from yoga, and Yoga Journal, may not have experienced it that way. Our intention didn’t align with the impact.

I am working to make Yoga Journal more representative—regarding age, race, ability, body type, yoga style, gender, and experience. We are committed to doing better and more, and to reaching out and understanding the ways in which systemic oppression plays out at Yoga Journal and every institution in this country. As we listen, absorb, and figure out how, we are bound to make mistakes, such as the unclear way in which we rolled out our recent issue.

Thank you again for speaking up, sharing your feedback, and engaging with us. Constructive engagement is how we will learn and grow. We will do the work to find clear, mindful ways to move forward. This may take time, but we are fully committed.

Please read below for the editor’s letter that accompanied the issue, introducing and explaining our choice to release dual covers.…

And here’s more about the dual cover strategy: Equal numbers of the issues are printed and they are delivered randomly; every other subscriber got every other issue. And you should see both on every newsstand that carries Yoga Journal.

In the spirit of peace, unity, and love that this practice inspires,

Tasha

The January 2019 Editor Letter

According to the United Nations, there are an estimated 2 billion people worldwide who practice yoga. That means there are 2 billion different ways yoga expresses itself and 2 billion different ways a yogi can look. At Yoga Journal, we want to honor everyone’s yogic path. Whether your practice is rooted in movement, breathwork, service, mantra, devotion, meditation, or study, you are moving toward awareness—and we want to support you along the way.

That’s why we’re making a few changes this year. We want to bridge old and new, the past and the future, in an effort to find common ground, to celebrate the benefits of the practice, and to help lead the community toward solutions to some of modern yoga’s biggest challenges including, but not limited to, accessibility, safety, abuse of power, and the best way forward. When you turn the pages of this redesigned magazine, scroll through our social feeds, visit our refreshed website, or listen to our new podcast, you’ll start to see (and hear) a more representative Yoga Journal—one where master teachers such as Maty Ezraty, who started YogaWorks, are paired with new yogapreneurs such as Jessamyn Stanley; one where you can find inspiration regardless of where you are on your yoga journey.

In 2019, you’ll find two different covers on most issues. We’re going to take more opportunities to share what yoga looks and feels like. To us, both Maty and Jessamyn represent important perspectives on leadership—our theme for this issue. Maty helped to popularize yoga, but she avoids social media and is worried about its ripple effects. Jessamyn is a relatively new teacher and rising social-media star. Her message of deep body acceptance is pioneering a new way of reaching people with the practice.

By bringing their voices together, along with the voices of other popular teachers and thought leaders, we aim to spark conversation about leadership in yoga: What form does it take? What form should it take? What roles do lineage and tradition play? How can the community chart a course forward that fosters respect, integrity, and inclusivity?

In the January 2019 issue, we also work with beloved Yoga Journal contributors Annie Carpenter, Sally Kempton, and Judith Hanson Lasater to offer up rock-solid asana, philosophy, and anatomy lessons. Plus, you’ll find yoga retreats that dovetail with leadership training to help you step into your own power. There’s also a chance to learn from the work of Exhale to Inhale, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing trauma-informed yoga to survivors of domestic and sexual assault. Finally, find freedom in ecstatic dance and parting words of wisdom on moving your practice off the mat and into the world—for the benefit of all.

About the Author
Tasha Eichenseher is the brand director of Yoga Journal.



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