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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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Balance

Are You Traveling to India for the Right Reasons?

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A scholar of critical race theory and a yoga teacher explore the problematic ways Westerners describe their travels to India.

Last year, Yoga Journal ran a travel essay by a US-based yoga teacher who had visited India with his family. His account was not unlike many Western accounts of India and in the vein of what we call “poverty-porn.” In these stories, India is consistently described as a place where those from North America or Europe can “find themselves,” “surrender,” “find grace in poverty,” “learn tolerance,” “experience culture,” or “withstand an assault on the senses.”

In other words, for all too many white yoga practitioners, India is the other. It is the “dirty” escapist fantasy that leads to a “life-changing, transformational” experience for travelers.

Most tourists, even educated yoga practitioners, may not realize that this attitude perpetuates colonial and structural forms of racism. Structural racism, also known as white supremacy in the US context today, is not about individual acts. Instead, it is about the institutional, taken-for-granted privilege that makes it possible for a US citizen to easily acquire a tourist visa to India, when the inverse is next to impossible for the average Indian. In other words, structural racism determines who gets to go where and how. So, before you plan a trip, reflect on why you want to travel to India and consider the broader history and implications.

See also What’s the Difference Between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation?

Many people see travel as the antidote to racism. Travel can allow us to see cultural differences—this is true—but when “difference” becomes a source of self-affirmation, travel is reduced to a form of virtue-signaling, or self-congratulation, which only leads to more re-centering of the white experience. Many travel to places black and brown folks come from to experience personal “transformation” in the face of devastating inequity and call this gratitude. We have all seen this type of social media post: the “simple happiness of the locals, despite the fact that most live in poverty, made me realize how fortunate I am, and how easy it is to be happy.” This is a normalized form of racism, like referring to African-American music as “ghetto” or the everyday racist question brown folks know all too well: “But where are you FROM?”

The challenging aspect of this, for most of the white people who teach and practice yoga (about 85 percent of yoga participants in the US are white, according to the National Institutes of Health), is that you must confront and deprogram the attitude that prioritizes intentions over impact. Ask yourself honestly, “Am I going to India to make myself feel better about my place in the world?” Or worse, “Am I posting about it on social media so I can pat myself on the back for it?”

See also What It’s Like Being an Indian-American Yoga Teacher

Put another way, traveling to a place—where locals cannot easily travel to where you are from—to “bring back” something you can then market or sell isn’t dharmic or yogic. It’s not even appropriative. The word for that kind of transaction is imperialism. If you are a white yoga teacher, you may go to India to better understand and learn something, and when you come back you feel that it adds value to your teaching, which you essentially sell. Is this wrong? Well, yes. Someone who lives in North America is taking intellectual property from India and turning around to teach it and sell it at a profit while nothing is going back to the country of origin. This leads to the erasure of indigenous knowledge, and more importantly, this is exactly how white supremacy endures in 2019.

It’s hard for many to hear this, but commercial yoga does not have a pretty story, and, as with many aspects of our culture in 2019, we are long overdue for an honest conversation about how race, capitalism, and colonialism have played and continue to play a role in shaping what we think belongs to us. The question then becomes, what do we do with this knowledge, not only as individuals but on a structural level? How do we proceed in a manner that leads to justice and equity? Ultimately, the question more yoga practitioners need to ask themselves before they travel to previously colonized areas is not “How can I do what I want” but “Why do I think I have a right to what I want?” This isn’t just about you or your intentions, however “good” they may be.

And finally, if you still want to travel to previously colonized areas for yoga tourism, we encourage you to consider these questions before you go:
 Would you still go if you weren’t taking pictures or couldn’t post about your trip on social media?

  1. Would you still go if you weren’t taking pictures or couldn’t post about your trip on social media?
  2. Would you still go if you couldn’t buy anything to bring back (souvenirs for yourself or to sell) or leverage your time in India for financial gain?

Books to Read on Colonialism

For more information about structural racism and how colonialism shaped global racism and injustice, check out these resources:

  • A Theory of Imperialism by Utsa & Prabhat Patnaik
  • Orientalism by Edward W. Said
  • Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor
  • White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

About our authors

Rumya S. Putcha, PhD, is a scholar of postcolonial, critical race, and gender studies. She’s the author of the forthcoming book Mythical Courtesan / Modern Wife: Performance and Feminist Praxis in South Asia, and her next project is titled Namaste Nation: Commercial Yoga Industries and American Imperialism.

Sangeeta Vallabhan has been studying movement for more than 30 years, first through dance and then yoga. She has been teaching yoga in New York City for over 15 years. As the creator of solemarch, Sangeeta encourages students to use the practices of yoga to continually seek out their own voice and their true sense of self. Learn more at sangeetavallabhan.com.



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History of Yoga

Why Yoga is More Than the Poses You Practice In Class

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A yoga movement and dance teacher examines her experiences with kirtan—from Sikh temple on Sundays with her family to concerts and festivals with hundreds of people in the crowd.

When I moved to Los Angeles 17 years ago, a friend invited me to a Krishna Das concert. I didn’t know anything about him, so I was expecting perhaps an Indian classical singer with a sitar. Instead, I walked into a room of about 200 Western yogis—mostly Caucasian—sitting on the floor in front of a low-rise stage that held Krishna Das and about nine other musicians and singers. I took a seat in a sea of Caucasians singing and chanting Sanskrit mantras—with more than a few mispronunciations of the language. I remember feeling really confused and thinking, “What is happening? Where am I?” It felt very strange to be in this environment, as the only time I had experienced musicians sitting on the ground with a harmonium (an Indian keyboard instrument) and a tabla (an Indian drum) was at Gurdwara (Sikh temple) on Sundays.

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

Although I was born in Toronto, Canada, my parents are both from Punjab, India, and they kept our traditions alive and strong. Back then I thought we were weird because of the way we dressed, did our hair, wore bindis, and sang our prayers. Growing up, I wanted to fit in so badly that I even wished to be white, blond, and blue-eyed during a teenage moment in which I refused to answer unless my family called me “Jenny.” Today, I feel sad for that girl who yearned to be someone other than her beautiful, unique self.

I never would have believed it back then if you told me that Western culture would want to be . . . well, us.

Here I was being led in kirtan (devotional chant) by a Jewish man (by birth) who was teaching and sharing the names of the Vedic deities. At first all I could focus on was the way people around me were mispronouncing the words. Then I closed my eyes and let go into the vibe of the music. My heart opened wide and tears rolled down my face, dripping off my jawline to my kurta (long shirt). The judgmental thoughts of “this is right” or “this is wrong” dropped. I allowed myself to receive what was here for me, for us all: the high vibrations of the music. I realized that bhakti (devotion) comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and lineages. I felt there was truth to what Krishna Das was sharing with his heart that can benefit us all.

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

Now the Western world has drunk the delicious mango lassi Kool-Aid and thousands, if not millions, of people want to pursue the path of being a yoga instructor, guru, and kirtan walla (a devoted singer who travels temple to temple—or, in the modern Western equivalent now, from festival to yoga studio to retreat).

But this rise in popularity of yoga in the West isn’t always something to celebrate. I didn’t even know what cultural appropriation meant until a couple of years ago, when a few of the more traditional yogis (those steeped in the Raja Yoga path) brought me into a conversation about the Western “conscious event” organizers choosing to exclude Indians who have a lineage of teachers or singers in their families. Instead, they were inviting Westerners with big Instagram followings who had just learned yogasana a few years ago. It’s become a business, and as with any business, the goal is to bring in more income and serve more people, so if those people happen to be teaching “yoga”—in a form that mostly focuses on postures—should we accept that it isn’t fully representing the lifestyle of being a yogi?

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

My teacher of yoga philosophy is Jeffrey Armstrong, a Vedic scholar who happens to be white-skinned and is deeply immersed in the traditions of yoga. I don’t have a problem with Westerners teaching yoga, but what I do find daunting is when teachers lead you through poses for an hour and call it yoga. Call this asana, call this exercise, but don’t call it yoga—that’s not what it is. Yoga is a whole system that includes breathwork, sound vibration, devotion, and meditation.

I believe there needs to be a balance of honoring tradition and allowing for modernization. We can greatly benefit from celebrating and learning from Indian singers and Vedic teachers who are beautifully steeped in tradition. We also benefit by making room for modern approaches to the yogic and devotional path. Let’s chant, share, and grow together to raise the vibration of the planet.

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

Yoga movement and dance teacher Hemalayaa Behl

About our author

Hemalayaa Behl is a leader, mentor, and author of the Embody Oracle Card Deck. She empowers women through movement with her Bollywood Dance Fitness videos and live-streaming of dance parties. Learn more at Hemalayaa.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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