Yoga is an ancient practice focusing on breathing, flexibility and strength to boost physical and mental well-being. It consists of a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines.
Yoga's origins can be traced to northern India over 5,000 years ago. The word yoga was first mentioned in ancient sacred texts called the Rig Veda. The Vedas are a set of four ancient sacred texts written in Sanskrit. The Rig Veda is the earliest amongst the vedas and is a collection of over a thousand hymns and mantras in ten chapters known as mandalas, which were used by Vedic age priests. Yoga was refined and developed by Rishis (sages) who documented their practices and beliefs in the Upanishads, a huge work containing over 200 scriptures.
Why is there specific terminology?
If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you may have heard some words that you couldn't recognize. The language of yoga is actually Sanskrit, the root of many Indian languages and one of the oldest of in the world.
Here are a handful of words often used in a session of yoga and what they mean
Āsana Literally translated as seat, the term āsana these days is used to refer to the practice of physical yoga postures or poses
Prānāyāma Prāna in Sanskrit refers to the life force within every being. In relation to modern-day yoga classes, the term prānāyāma is used to describe breathing exercises, which clear the physical and emotional obstacles in our body to free the breath.
For example, Ujjayi Commonly translated as “victorious breath”, ujjayi breath is performed by restricting the air flow at the back of the throat, while breathing in and out of the nose. This creates a note on exhalation, often compared to the sound of the oceans
What about the postures?
When starting with yoga, there will be certain postures which become the foundation of your yoga practice. Anchoring your practice with these postures allows you to reap the benefits of yoga - flexibility, improved muscle strength, protection of the spine, increased blood flow, and even improved happiness.
In bringing yoga to diverse and global audiences, Swami Vishnudevananda kept in mind the lifestyle needs in current times, so he adapted the ancient wisdom of yoga into five basic principles: Proper Exercise (Āsana), Proper Breathing (Prāṇāyāma), Proper Relaxation (Śavāsana), Proper Diet and Positive Thinking & Meditation (Vedānta & Dhyāna). You can read more about them in detail here.
When did yoga arrive in the West?
Yoga, as it is known in the West, took off in the late 1890s, when Indian monks began spreading their knowledge to the Western world for the first time. People who traveled to India were also able to rub shoulders with the yogis and observe their practice firsthand.
The introduction of yoga to the West is often credited to Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902). He first came to the United States of America in 1883 and was soon organizing world conferences on the subject, by describing yoga as a “science of the mind”, and he translated Yogic texts from Sanskrit into English. In 1893, during a visit to the US, he sparked the country's interest by demonstrating Yoga at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. As a result, many other Indian Yogis and Swamis were welcomed with open arms in the West.
Traditional yoga and contemporary yoga practices are no longer quite the same, and today yoga has been adapted for people of all ages and physical abilities. Its popularity around the world has been cemented as part of everyday life for many people, and with the aid of social media, it has allowed yogis and teachers to share their expertise wider than ever before.