A Short History of Yoga, or How The Hell Did We Get Here?

When you look at the cover of Yoga Journal and see a skinny white lady in $100 yoga pants doing acrobatics, you are looking at a very modern, very American version of yoga. Which is not to say that asana (postures) aren’t yoga.

Instagram yoga is yoga. Ashtanga yoga is yoga. Iyengar yoga is yoga. Chanting is yoga. Reading and studying sacred texts is yoga. Writing poetry is yoga. Meditation is yoga.

Sometimes I think that my definition of yoga looks a little like the congressional definition of pornography: I can’t exactly define it, but I know it when I see it.

I do think it’s useful to know a little about the very beginning, because sometimes that helps us understand where we are now.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive, exact, academic history of the timeline of yoga. I will get things wrong, but this gives us a through-line of the practice right until today on your mat.

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So, let’s do it this way:

Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a land far, far away… there were a group of people who were looking for a place to settle. They had been traveling so long, looking for a safe place to call home. They traveled across continents. They carried their lives in carts and on their backs and in carts over mountains, through deserts, in snowstorms and sandstorms, blazing sun and blistering cold. The landscape was vast, varied, and unforgiving.

As they traveled across miles of desert sands and snowy mountains, they yoked their carts to their mules, and kept moving in the direction of hope. Over generations in transit, they passed down their traditions — how to build a settlement, how to make it sacred, how to worship, how to keep going — and their understanding of how the world worked — how the sun rose, why the seasons passed, and what day was best to die. They passed these stories down from elders to youth over generations, just as they passed through the landscape of the Levant.

Somehow, in this journey across the landscape of my human mind, the word Yoga emerged as more than just the yoking of the carts to their mules. It began to grow its own meaning: the  way the day yokes to the sun as it crosses the sky, the way the mind latches onto an idea, the way we always keep moving in the direction of unseen possibility.

And thus begins our modern evolution of yoga.

Because like all myths — all the bhakti stories — this story is your story. You are the travelers — hopeful — just as you are the pack mules — weary — and the desert dunes — fierce and unforgiving. You are the yoke and the yoking, the sun in the sky and the snow falling on mountains.

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Imagine all your worldly possessions packed into a wagon. What do you take? How do you arrange them? And now that you’re packed, what now? If yoga is both the thing that connects to the wagon and the act of connecting it… How are you bound to the belongings of your life? How do you bind yourself?

This connection is not just like holding hands, it’s not so simple as a link between ideas or family ties. It’s a conscious, active, necessary thing. Your life, your livelihood, your understanding of your own experience depends on it — and IS it.

Yoga is the connection you make to your idea of how the world should be. It’s your binding to your hopes for the future – your own future, the future of your children, and your children’s children. It the rope you use to tie your heart to your hopes. It’s a spider’s web – that comes entirely from the spider, is made of the spider, it’s where the spider lives, kills, eats, and dies.

So the deepest question of yoga is this: What is your life? If you can put all your belongings, ideas, beliefs, identities, and fears in the back of a cart: what do you choose? And when you do, what to you leash it up to? What do you trust to carry you through? What direction do you go? What do you believe will get you there?

And then, what does it look like to build the connection between these things? Does your practice connect your daily life to your vision of the future?

That is your yoga.