Today, yoga is a globally recognized system, but what is understood of the purpose, aim, principles and focus of yoga in the classical and traditional sense? From the beginning, the focus of the yogic tradition has actually been on overcoming suffering and imbalance in life, in order to become established in the experience of peace, creativity and harmony. This has been seen in the yogic tradition and teachings throughout the ages.
Yoga can be divided into three distinct periods: an early period, Shiva’s time; a middle period, the time of Patanjali and others; and the present period of yoga’s re-emergence during the last hundred years. The Adiguru or first teacher and exponent of yoga was Shiva. The Pashupat yoga which he expounded focused on the means to overcome or transcend the three types of suffering in life, adhyatmika, adhibautika and adhidaivika. Following Shiva, the early propagators of various forms of yoga were Dattatreya, Vasishtha, Vishwamitra, Matsyendranath and Gorakhnath.
The middle period is the period of Sage Patanjali, Gheranda, Swatmarama and others, who are the reference points for today’s yoga practices. The original yogas from the early period were reclassified and renamed as raja yoga, karma yoga, bhakti yoga, jnana yoga, hatha yoga, kriya yoga, and kundalini yoga by this second group of masters. These rishis and sages also wrote the classical texts and books which are referred to today. Patanjali wrote his Yoga Sutras, a thesis on raja yoga and mind management; Swatmarama developed and propagated the practices of hatha yoga for balancing the lunar and solar forces to promote health and well-being in the text Hatha Yoga Pradipika; Narada and Shandiliya developed the practice and principles of bhakti yoga for emotional management. The Yoga Chudamani Upanishad describes the yogic process related to kundalini and the chakras. The Hamsa Upanishad speaks of ajapa and dharana practice, and the benefits of meditation. A total of twenty-two Yoga Upanishads were written in this period by twenty-two different authors, thinkers and seers. They blended the vedic and upanishadic philosophy and the structures of tantra with the yogic system and philosophy.
The late period is the present age, beginning from the nineteenth century, when yoga re-emerged. One of the first to integrate and talk about the tradition in a language that society could understand was Swami Vivekananda. Another tradition that emerged was associated with a remote Himalayan yogi called Babaji, whose followers included Sri Yukteshwar, Lahiri Mahashaya and Paramahamsa Yogananda. Their contemporaries included Ramana Maharshi and Anandamayi Ma, who followed the paths of jnana yoga and bhakti yoga respectively. Around the 1920s and 1930s, a hatha yoga tradition evolved from Mysore in the South of India, as revived by Krishnamacharya and carried forward by Desikachar and Iyengar.
At the same time, in the late 1920s, Swami Sivananda went to Rishikesh and started to explore other forms of classical yogas and to develop a system of yoga to integrate the faculties of head, heart and hands and awaken the self. In the course of time he established the Divine Life Society which taught integral yoga, and in the 1950s and 60s those he had trained started traveling out of the country, into the world, to disseminate yoga. His disciples founded yoga centers and schools from Sri Lanka to Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Mauritius, South Africa and the United States. Among them was Swami Satyananda, whose mandate was to spread yoga “from door to door and shore to shore.” In 1963, after traveling for nine years to assess the needs of society, he established the Bihar School of Yoga. Here he began to teach yoga as a system to discover the creative self and enhance the beauty and harmony of life.
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