For devoted practitioners, yoga provides a source of strength and equilibrium as well as a refuge where they can seek insight when facing challenges in their lives. Modern yogis have come to understand why this ancient practice has stood the test of time and how relevant it can be for their daily life. But for those who haven’t yet discovered the benefits of practicing yoga on a regular basis – and know little about it aside from the stereotypes – it may be more difficult to comprehend its lasting appeal.
A brief history of yoga
Yoga’s roots can be traced back at least 3,000 years, although there are those who believe several of its practices are far older – with evidence that early aspects could be as ancient as 5,000 to 10,000 years old. The foundational principles and the early philosophy of yoga are outlined in the Rig Veda, a text that was transmitted orally over many generations before first being transcribed around 300 BCE. In this early text, the emphasis is on the spiritual and ritualistic aspects of yoga with less attention focused on the physical aspects that have become more prominent in contemporary culture.
The word ‘yoga’ has many meanings and interpretations. At it’s most basic, the Sanskrit root of the word means “to yoke”, “to harness”, or “to unite”. This helps to convey the principle aim of the methods and techniques of yoga – to reveal to the dedicated practitioner the fundamental connection between the body, mind, and spirit.
For centuries, yoga was a tradition practiced mainly in India and neighboring regions. Its focus was primarily spiritual with the emphasis on meditation, philosophical study, and devotional ritual. Beginning in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, yoga masters such as Swami Vivekenada and Paramahansa Yogananda started traveling to the western world, drawing immense crowds and intriguing many curious spiritual seekers who resonated with their message.
A more accessible branch of yoga called ‘Hatha’ yoga – which concentrates on the physical practices and techniques – began to grow in popularity in the 1920’s and 1930’s in Europe and the United States. In 1947, a Russian named Indra Devi, who had studied yoga extensively in India, settled in California and opened a yoga studio in Hollywood, attracting celebrities and further propelling yoga into the mainstream.
Yoga’s growing acceptance in western culture exposed more students to its teachings and devoted practitioners began undertaking pilgrimages to India to broaden and deepen their understanding at the source. Magazines and television glamorized yoga and early research confirmed its efficacy for personal health and wellbeing, further expanding its popularity.
What exactly is yoga, and why has its popularity grown so much recently?
In short, yoga is a physical, mental, and spiritual discipline that utilizes postures, breathing techniques, and meditation to relax the body and still the mind. While not necessarily religious or confined to a single spiritual tradition, yoga originally grew out of Hinduism. Different traditions are related to varying philosophical schools such as ‘Samkhya’ and ‘Tantra’. Varying schools concentrate on different aspects and techniques of the yoga tradition with Hatha yoga – a style that focuses on physical poses – being the most common approach in contemporary Western yoga.
One of the principal reasons for the continued appeal of yoga is its ability to deliver tangible results to practitioners. Rather than relying on belief or faith the way that many spiritual traditions do, yoga is about direct experience. Using tried and tested techniques, yoga practitioners can learn to gain better control of their bodies, regulate their emotional levels, reduce anxiety and stress, and lead more fulfilling lives based on values that are important to them rather than those dictated by external pressures.
With the ever-increasing stress levels in modern society – and more people looking towards holistic solutions to regain physical and mental equilibrium – yoga has proven to be a very powerful tool for healing. While stress has always been a part of life since its inception, only in the past few decades have people had the option to turn to medical treatments to help combat its effect. Unfortunately, medication usually treats just the symptoms and not the underlying cause, frequently with unpleasant side effects. The beauty of yoga is that it can help to root out the fundamental anxieties that affect us and point us toward more holistic approaches to solving the problems that we face. This is not to say that yoga is a panacea, as there is certainly an important place for allopathic medicine and pharmaceutical intervention, but much of stress that we face can be effectively mitigated with dedicated yoga practice.
There is a growing body of scientific evidence confirming the efficacy of yoga to treat a variety of conditions. It seems that every week a new study reveals some important new finding regarding the health and wellbeing improvements – from increasing strength and flexibility to alleviating anxiety to boosting immunity to regulating blood pressure and beyond – that regular yoga practice offers. There are even recent reports that yoga can help to ward off Alzheimer’s and Type II diabetes. Ongoing research will likely discover even more positive health benefits as additional studies are undertaken.
Yoga is also a practice that almost anyone can participate in and reap benefits from. Practiced properly, it is gentle on the muscles and joints, though some forms can also be quite strenuous if one is seeking a more taxing workout. It’s a practice that doesn’t discriminate – all shapes, sizes, and ages can enjoy yoga as long as they choose a style that is appropriate for their goals and level of experience. And it’s also affordable – no fancy equipment beyond a simple mat is required and options for classes abound at dedicated studios, fitness clubs, community centers, online, and even at home through self-study.
With its time-honored tradition, proven health and medical benefits, and easy accessibility, yoga’s popularity continues to expand. For the uninitiated, it may seem exotic or intimidating, but the truth is that yoga is a welcoming practice that can be enjoyed by everyone and that can offer a wide array of benefits on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level. Ultimately, it’s a practice that must be experienced to be fully understood – and the good news is that anyone can try it as soon as they are ready.