How Did Yoga Come To America?

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How Did Yoga Come To America?

yoga teacher certificationBy Gopi Rao

The Indus-Sarasvati civilization, named for two mighty rivers that flowed through northern India, was a very sophisticated culture in early antiquity. It encompassed 300,000 square miles with several large urban areas. Now called the Indus Valley Civilization, circa 3300 to 1900 B.C., they enjoyed well planned cities with good sewage systems, brick roads and multistoried buildings. They were a maritime nation that exported goods around the Middle East and parts of Africa. In the ruins of two of these areas, Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, archeologists found soapstone seals that have figures in Yogic positions.

The Rig-Veda, a Sanskrit text from this time, celebrates the Sarasvati River and was transferred orally for generations. This is where Yogic methodology started to take shape. It came from that cultural tradition and spread to the east towards the Ganges and south to central India and Tamil Nadu when the Sarasvati River dried up in 1900 B.C., and the people had to migrate to more fertile land.

Vedic Yoga was practiced in the Indus-Sarasvasti civilization by the priests who did rigorous mental training for concentration and exactitude and emphasized discipline, sacrifice, virtue and beauty. In pre-classical yoga around 1500 – 1000 B.C. a scripture called the Upanishads includes explicit discussions of Yogic practices and explains the transcendental self and its relation to the ultimate reality. It encourages seekers of truth to control the mind and emotions in order to see true reality. Discussions of how to do this are presented including Yoga as posture, breathing exercises and mental training.

The Classical style of Yogic methodology 600 to 400 B.C., as expounded in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, encouraged the separation of the spirit and matter. This focused on meditation and neglected asanas. Post-Classical Yoga does not follow this, but encourages attention on the present. Many branches of Yogic methodology appeared at this time including Tantra, Siddha, and the beginnings of the Hatha style.

In the West, Yogic methods were considered a practice for Hindu priests and not something lay people should do, especially Christians. In 1893, when Swami Vivekananda, a wandering monk, spoke at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, the world’s understanding of Yoga suddenly changed. Here was an articulate and charming man with an Eastern and Western education sharing the overall benefits of Yoga to an international audience. He was able to shine a light on Yogic practices for health and freedom and separate it from the popular conception of an austere, religious practice only for Hindu priests. Swami Vivekananda also founded the Vedanta Society in New York.  This was the formal beginning of modern Yoga in America.

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