By Michael E. Miller
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Though the exact date remains a mystery, yoga is believed to have originated more than 5000 years ago in India. The earliest yogis performed rituals intended to merge the material world with the spirit world, isolating themselves in forests, taking vows of silence, and meditating. Key to this were hymns known as Vedas, India's four central spiritual texts.
One of the best-known and best-loved of these scriptures is the Bhagavad-Gita ("Lord's Song"), a sacred text for millions of Hindus. Composed about 5000 B.C., the Gita teaches the importance of actions that promote good.
About three centuries before the birth of Christ, a man named Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutra, a classical text threaded with roughly 200 cryptic aphorisms. Unlike his philosophical forebears, Patanjali believed the deliberate separation of matter and spirit through a yogic form of purification provides a more perfect union of the two, the true path to enlightenment. Known as Raja (royal) yoga, Patanjali's eight-limbed model was vastly influential.
Later, a mysticism called tantra influenced both Hinduism and Buddhism. Like its predecessors, tantric yoga proclaimed the oneness of all things and the union of the earthly with the divine. But whereas ancestral yogis sought to transcend the body altogether, tantric mystics embraced the physical realm as a conduit to enlightenment, an emphasis especially tangible in contemporary Western incarnations of hatha yoga.
Baby boomers may remember yoga's 1960s incarnation, when members of liberation movements, seeking ways to transform and transcend the status quo, turned to Eastern religion and mysticism. The beat poets went to India, the Beatles consorted with transcendental meditation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, buttoned-up accountants donned Nehru jackets. It was bohemian, baby, and yoga was embraced with a wave of countercultural approbation.
Although hippies and beatniks seemed to bring yoga to the mainstream, they were really only reinvigorating a tradition that arrived in America decades earlier. Beginning in the early 1800s, transcendental philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau began studying and publishing translations of Hindu scriptures; in 1843 Emerson received the first American copy of the Bhagavad-Gita in translation. Both men were profoundly influenced by such writings; Thoreau, whose Walden Pond reflections include asceticism, meditation, and isolation, once observed he was "at rare intervals, a yogi."
From the late 1800s to early 1900s, several swamis came to the United States from India, bringing with them their various philosophical teachings. The introduction of yoga in America is most often attributed to Swami Vivekananda, who attended the Parliament of Religions held in 1893. He was celebrated by conference participants and later attracted many students to yoga.
Another well-known luminary, Swami Parmahansa Yogananda, arrived in Boston in 1920 and started the Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles in 1925. Though he died (or as yogis put it, left the body) in 1952, Yogananda's teachings continue to inspire millions through his best-selling book, Autobiography of a Yogi, and through the Los Angeles center he founded, which remains to this day. Yogananda also provided the basis for the Bikram yoga practiced by Fort Lauderdale yoga teacher Jimmy Barkan.
By the 1950s yogic breathing and transcendental meditation had entered the mainstream, laying the groundwork for contemporary forms of yoga, including ashtanga, or "power" yoga, and Iyengar yoga. American fitness enthusiasts have championed both; each is rigorous in its own way. Considered the most "aerobic" form of yoga, ashtanga is often touted for its cardiovascular benefits.
Though it is markedly different from ashtanga, Iyengar yoga shares the same lineage. B.K.S. Iyengar developed a practice that is distinguished by an exacting emphasis on proper alignment in and perfection of the postures and the innovative, if controversial, use of props. The method is outlined in Iyengar's seminal book, Light on Yoga, which was first published in English in 1965 and has since been translated into at least 17 languages.
Another swami who profoundly influenced modern-day yoga is Sivananda Saraswati. A descendant of Swami Vishvananda of Sringeri Math, an Indian monastic lineage, Swami Sivananda is the namesake for an international organization, Sivananda Yoga Vedanta centers, which was founded by Sivananda's disciple, Swami Vishnudevananda. Dubbed the "flying yogi" for his international efforts to promote peace, Vishnudevananda traveled the world in a brightly colored airplane painted by his friend, artist Peter Max. Like many of India's great swamis, Vishnudevananda's influence continues to be felt around the world and right here in South Florida, from Jesse Rogers' storefront chiropractic office in Fort Lauderdale to Yogi Hari's ashram in a quiet residential neighborhood in Wilton Manors.
asana:physical postures or poses; a "comfortable position"
ashram: a retreat for spiritual practice and the study of yoga, the word literally means "place that removes the fatigue of worldliness"
ashtanga: one of the "eight limbs" of Raja yoga; a form of yoga poses which emphasizes fluid movement from one asana to the next
ayurveda: the science of life, a system for promoting health and well-being by adhering to the laws of nature
Iyengar: a form of yoga named for its founder, B.K.S. Iyengar
japa:repetition; also used as a synonym for mantra
kriya: literally, action; also refers to a method of yoga