Yoga is a word derived from the ancient Aryan language of Sanskrit. Like English, Sanskrit is part of the Indo-European language family, and the two languages share many common roots. The Sanskrit word “yoga” itself is related to the English word “yoke,” and like its English cognate it can refer to both the yoke itself and the act of yoking an animal to something. In the oldest surviving Sanskrit text, the Rig Veda (ca.1,500 B.C.E), yoga primarily refers to the yoking of steers to plows or, more commonly, war horses to chariots. In fact, we find the word yoga being used to describe the entire rigging of war chariots and the concept of yoga being closely associated with warfare. However, the later Vedas provide us with our first glimpse of an expanded, metaphorical concept of yoga where in the prayers of the ancient Aryan priests yoke their minds to the realm of the gods. As Sanskrit literature blossoms, so do the myriad meanings of yoga: to blend, to mix, a recipe, a strategy, a charm, an incantation, etc. It isn’t until the 3rd century B.C.E that we see the word yoga first associated with meditation and spiritual self-discovery. The author of the Katha Upanishad draws an explicit analogy between the individual seeker and a war chariot, and here the notion of yoga as a spiritual discipline is born.
Although the Katha Upanishad presents self-knowledge as the noble goal of yoga, most early Hindu texts describe yogis (practitioners of yoga) in less noble terms. Ultimately, the yoking of one’s soul (atman) with Ultimate Reality (Brahman) makes one omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, releasing one from the bonds of karma and existence itself. Short of that final goal, yogic practices (as yet undefined) bestow considerable powers upon those who master them. These powers (siddhis) are the defining characteristics of yogis in early Sanskrit literature, where yogis themselves are almost always cast as villains.
The most common yogic power is the ability to enter and control other bodies—human or animal, dead or alive, and in some cases multiple bodies at the same time. The abilities to fly, read minds, become invisible and recall past lives are all stock traits of yogis in early Hindu literature, but rarely are these powers put to good use. Up until the 17th century C.E, yogis are portrayed almost exclusively as black magicians or sorcerers and their yoga, while left to the imagination, is assumed to involve less than savory practices.
While yogis play a prominent role in early Sanskrit literature, yoga itself remains ill-defined. It isn’t until the composition of the Bhagavad Gita, sometime around the 4th century B.C.E, that we first see the practice of yoga being described in any detail. The Bhagavad Gita is one short section of the much longer Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. In it Lord Krishna, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, teaches the warrior-prince Arjuna about three paths to salvation—three yogas:
1) karma yoga: the discipline of selflessly following one’s sacred duty in life, one’s dharma
2) bhakti yoga: the discipline of devoting one’s life entirely to God, in this case Krishna
3) jñāna yoga: the discipline of knowledge, wisdom, and renunciation.
A more detailed description of the yogic process, albeit quite different, is provided around 400 C.E when the Hindu sage Patañjali writes the famed Yoga Sutras. A collection of short, pithy statements, the Yoga Sutras describe a systematic approach to freeing one’s self from the bonds of existence and the false perceptions of the human mind. The book itself contains four chapters, one of which is entirely devoted to explaining the powers (siddhis) traditionally attributed to yogis, but it places them in a broader theoretical framework that simultaneously legitimates them and diminishes their importance. At the heart of the Yoga Sutras is this defining statement:
Yogaś citta-vritti-nirodhaḥ. “Yoga is the stopping of the fluctuations of the mind.”
Almost six hundred years after the Yoga Sutras were written, a new style of yoga emerges known as hatha yoga. This new yoga envisions the body as a sealed system of liquids and gasses, the manipulation of which can calm the mind and elevate the consciousness. Fixed postures (asanas) and breath control (pranayama) are used to draw the yogi’s vital fluids upwards through a series of energy points known as chakras, heating them along the way and transforming them into a nectar of immortality and supernatural powers (siddhis). Asanas eventually become the defining trait of yoga in the minds of many contemporary Western practitioners. Although the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras both mention asanas, we find no detailed explanation of these postures anywhere in Indian literature until the 10th century C.E. By the 15th century, a total of 84 asanas are codified in the hatha yoga tradition.
In 1893, the city of Chicago hosted the World’s Fair, which included the Parliament of the World’s Religions as one of its major events. This gathering of religious representatives from around the world was the first time an American Christian audience was exposed to Asian religions in an atmosphere of respect. Speaking on behalf the Hinduism was Swami Vivekananda, a major figure in the Hindu revivalist and nationalist movements in India, and the most celebrated speaker of the entire Parliament. Vivekananda would spend much of the next ten years lecturing throughout America about Hinduism and his own unique interpretation of the Yoga Sutras. While Vivekananda showed little interest in asanas or pranayama, by the time of his death in 1902, “yoga” had become part of the American lexicon. Between 1924 and 1965, tough new immigration laws largely blocked the arrival of new swamis, yogis, and gurus into the United States. During this period hatha yoga was introduced to American audiences by colorful Western yogis like Indra Devi and Theos Casimir Bernard, both who studied in India and began teaching in the U.S in 1947.
Relaxed immigration laws and an experimental youth culture combined to make the late ‘60s and early ‘70s a welcoming period for Indian spiritual teachers in the U.S, including the influential hatha yogis, B.K.S. Iyengar, Bikram Choudhury, and many others. The great blossoming of American yoga studios in the 1980s and their many new offshoots in the 21st century are just footnotes in the long story of yoga. In the final analysis, yoga is a word, and like all words, its meaning changes over time. Words are, after all, fluctuations of the mind.
Eric Denton is a Professor of Religion at Kapiolani Community College in Honolulu where he teaches courses on World Religions, Islam, and the Religions of India. His recent research has primarily focused on the rich encounters of diverse religions in American history.