Yoga practice as we know it in the modern world tends to be heavily focused on the physical aspect of yoga. Western practitioners are first intrigued by the asana (postures) and pranayama (breath control) that are taught in yoga studios far and wide, but when we view yoga in the larger context of its history, we find that yoga philosophy plays an essential role.
When it comes to philosophy, most teachers reference the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a systematized compilation of yoga knowledge compiled around 400 CE. The Yoga Sutras describe what yoga is, why it is important, how to attain it, and what might come as a result of regular practice. And by “practice,” it refers more to a state of mind than to physical movement. Only three of the 108 sutras even refer to asana.
The concept of yoga did not first appear in the Yoga Sutras, however. The Bhagavad Gita, an earlier text said to be compiled by the sage VedaVyasa between the fifth and second century BC, discusses the philosophy of yoga in depth. It describes the yoga of devotion and knowledge as well as the yoga of action and transcendence of action within the story of prince Arjuna who faces doubt just before the Kurushetra War. Although the story plays out on a battle field, scholars interpret Arjuna’s dilemma symbolically as an internal struggle within the psyche.
Even before The Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads describe yoga as a means of attaining Self-realization through the practice of meditation, mental discrimination, and mantra recitation. And yet before the Upanishads, the Rig Veda describes a dedication to the rising sun in the morning as a practice of “union,” or yoga.
Delving into ancient Indian texts is a wonderful way to add meaning and understanding to the practice you do on the mat. Incorporating this study, which is ultimately a form of self-study, will help you to deepen your experience of yoga.