A Bit of Yoga History

Having a bit of background and history can be valuable in shifting times, giving us a framework in our heads so that individually we can think around what’s happening on a greater level in our world and human evolution. Ages in our history last 2,160 years and everything changes with these Ages: culture, society, norms, beliefs, values etc. Which is why I’m fascinated by Yoga and Zen history over the ages and the changing times: time reveals so much.

So, let’s jump in and see where this takes us on our journey thro time.

I think this little bit of insight into Yoga History and our Gurus, Teachers and Buddhas sheds a bit of light on the difficulties we all have to work through in our lives, even if we choose to be a celibate student of a master as Swami Vivekananda did. He wrote a definitive piece of work on Yoga Meditation (I found a copy of his book dated 1913-ish in a second hand bookshop) and he’s also credited with introducing the western world to Yoga (as in the whole of Yoga) in 1893 at the Chicago Parliament of the World’s Religions. On this occasion he recited one of the sloka’s from the Baghavad Gita (Song of God). But at this particular time, there was a culture of a lot of “rules” in Yoga. Also, there was a lot of bickery back-biting in his circles in India, in Yoga publishing, and he came in for a lot of critiscism and caught a lot of flack for his approach – you can Google it, there’s loads of it: Raja Yoga Swami Vivekenanda.

Prior to his rise to prominence, and being credited with putting Yoga “on the right path”, he got himself into trouble with his Master, Ramakrishna, as a young student. Osho, the Zen Master, used to tell this story about Swami Vivekananda as a student.

Vivekananda was Ramakrishna’s senior student at his Ashram – the most dedicated, the most diligent etc etc. And, as it turned out, the most judgemental and bad tempered. He absolutely adhered to and followed his Guru’s teaching “Jiva is Shiva”: the individual soul is the divine.

There was another student in the Ashram. This man was quite simple, both in his approach to life and also in his mental capacities being quite simple-minded. In his cell in the Ashram he had many little icons, dolls and sacred statue-ettes which he worshipped regularly throughout the day, and to which his living space was a shrine.

For some reason, this scenario got Vivekananda’s back up, getting more and more angry with the man’s flagrant disregard for the master’s pre-eminant teaching “Jiva is Shiva” – the individual soul is the divine and to be worshipped, not little icons and copies of minor deities (of which India has multitudes!). So, one day, this finally got his goat so much that he stormed into the man’s cell in a rage and destroyed the little shrine, throwing out and breaking up all the dolls and icons.

Ramakrishna summoned Vivekananda on hearing of this. Certain of being congratulated and maybe being promoted to Swami for his strict adherence to his master’s teaching and for taking such decisive action, Vivekananda himself was crushed at the Guru’s pronouncement. In no uncertain terms, Ramakrishna pronounced that for his lack of compassion for and his judgementalism of a kind simple man and his harmless little life of devotion and prayer, Vivekanada would never reach enlightenment.

And, as Osho told the story, Vivekanada never did get Enlightenment. But he became an exceptional teacher and writer and his diligence in passing down to us what he learned from a Master still survives and thrives to this day: the essence of Vedanta (the philosophy of the Vedic people) – Each soul is potentially divine . . . .

So Swami Vivekananda brought the Ancient practices of Yoga to the modern, western world and sorted out the ancient, eastern world at the same time: a time of male dominance and structure.

But if we go back further in time, and in our development as human beings, things get really interesting in what we discover about the physicality of Yoga practice, movement and postures. Vicki Noble writes about this really well.

My research into Neolithic female figurines from around the Mediterranean and Old Europe suggests that women had invented yoga by the 7th millenium B.C.E. and that the varied poses shown in these early sculptures, as well as frescoes, murals, and rock art through the ages, are expressions of an ancient and widespread female-centered communal practice of yoga which was eventually codified into the formal schools that we recognize today.”

Over the last few years of teaching Yoga in a small community, personally I’ve been very conscious about this concept of communal Yoga practice, especially spontaneous practice of women and children: so many of the Yoga community here are women, many of whom are mothers (and they encourage the whole family to be involved in Yoga). And we all agree that this makes intuitive, emotional and spiritual “sense” – especially when the mothers have experienced their kids’ enthusiasm for Yoga in my classes and at home!

This insight of Vicki Noble’s gives us an opportunity to redate Yoga history, and our current understanding that the Vedic people developed it 4,000 to 6,000 years ago – which would have been during the Age of Taurus through into the Age of Aries.

Apparently, Vicki states, “Mayan funerary vases show a woman (believed to be the Goddess Ix Chel) in various explicit yoga postures such as the “twist,” in congress with a giant serpent (who appears to be her alter ego) and a tantric male figure identified as the Old Fire God.

From prehistoric Crete, a serpent woman from 6000 B.C.E. is portrayed in a yogic meditation posture; she is clearly crowned. Such a crowned figure similarly seated in meditation can be seen in a small museum in Central Turkey, dated to approximately the same time period . . . the Crowned Snake Goddess the “Queen of the Snakes” or the “Mother of the Snakes” links to contemporary folk customs in Lithuania where snakes were still revered in the latter half of the 20th century. Many early yogic women are shown in trance states or ecstatically altered consciousness. Even the ones from the Greek islands, treated as “death Goddesses” could equally well be described as being in samadhi. And although such figures predate the formal codification of yoga in India by many thousands of years, each of them could be said to graphically depict the eight steps of yoga that lead to “progressively deeper levels of awareness and functioning until, finally, ordinary consciousness is transcended in the bliss of ecstasy.” The steps include “moral observances, self-discipline, posture, breath control, sensory inhibition, concentration, meditation, and ecstasy.”

What a fabulous understanding this gives us today, and a great deal of reassurance that even as times shift and changes are thrust upon us, some practices have always been there for us and the best teachers always reach out to us because it is so important to them that we are supported.
Sources: Raja Yoga, Conquering the Internal Nature, Swami Vivekananda original publication 1896: Did Women Invent the Ancient Art of Yoga? Vicki Noble at motherpeace.com.

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Founder of suZenYoga, Susan Ni Rahilly is a published author, Meditation and Hatha Yoga Teacher.  Her teaching typically draws on breathwork in deep Hatha practice, as well as Raja Yoga (the Yoga of Meditation). She lives in West Cork, Ireland where she writes and teaches.


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