In 1893, for the first time, the many nations and cultures of the world decided it was time to hold a formal dialogue for interfaith awareness and understanding. This event came to be known as the Parliament of the World's Religions and took place in Chicago, Illinois. One of the representatives to speak at this event was a certain Swami Vivekananda, who had made it his mission to introduce Hinduism, India's ancient dharmic religion, to the wider, and much newer, Western world, where many of its practices and practitioners had been maligned as "naked, savage barbarians" by the machinations of the British Empire. To the Americans, who otherwise knew little of India or its people, Vivekananda represented an entirely fresh perspective, one that would end up enchanting the nation and influencing it profoundly.
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And although he introduced the vedanta philosophy of Hinduism, its pacifism and tradition of religious tolerance, and a doctrine of togetherness, their impact would pale in comparison to that of yoga. Estimated (before covid-19 of course) to be an $11.6 billion industry by the end of 2020, it has become almost ubiquitous in the Western world, and in the United States in particular, so much so, that today's Americans have indigenized it to a remarkable degree. But what is largely a popular form of exercise in the West has deep spiritual roots in the East. In fact, there are a dazzling array of philosophies and schools of thought that yoga can be used as a catch-all term to reference.
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The health benefits of yoga are varied and multifold. In addition to core strengthening and improvements to the cardio-vascular and skeletal systems as offered by conventional workouts, yoga has been shown to greatly improve flexibility, respiratory health, and even mental health. But its material form and effects are the superstructure built on an incredibly complex, old, and esoteric base.
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The origins of yoga, like so much else with India, are ancient and shrouded in mystery. It has been suggested that the famous Pashupati seal from the Indus valley civilization depicts a figure seated in mulabandhasana, an asana (posture) used for meditation. In any event, by the time the Rig Veda, the oldest of the foundational treatises of Hinduism came into existence, there was no doubt that yoga was already an established practice. Ancient India's heavily oral tradition, however, leaves us with little direct evidence yogic practices, although indirect references are found aplenty, especially in the sramana, or ascetic traditions of India. The body postures that are popular as asanas today often had a primarily spiritual purpose in ancient India, as opposed to exercise. The sramanic traditions of ancient India are difficult to define, largely because of the sheer diversity within them. Quite apart from the early Hindu practices, they soon came to encompass non-Brahmanical and non-Vedic, yet parallel systems of thought such as Buddhism and Jainism. It is likely that the ascetics who developed early yogic practices were in search of moksha, or liberation from earthly life, a central goal of Dharmic religions, which present life as a seemingly endless cycle of death and rebirth. These early yogis likely developed the tradition of yoga as part of their meditations to seek enlightenment and liberation. At any rate, we know that yoga was widespread in India by the time Alexander of Macedon was conquering his way through the known world.
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By the time of the Maurya and Gupta empires of India (between 200 BCE and 500 CE), a systemic development of yoga had taken place. The yoga sutras of Patanjali, developed in this period, are considered foundational texts for yogic philosophies. Kautilya's Arthashastra, a seminal work on political economy written between the third and second centuries BCE, identifies yoga as one of the three main schools of philosophy, closely related to the rationalistic and aastik, or atheistic, samkhya school which forms its material foundation. The two were very closely related, although the yoga school accepted a personal, but largely hands-off, divine power, being somewhat deistic. These early conceptions of yoga were heavily psychophysical, relying on physical activity as being essentially meditational, roots that are not entirely absent from popular yoga today.
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From these roots, yoga had a profound impact on the development of Indian philosophy. As it happens, not only did it impact developments within the subcontinent, finding its way into the Bhakti movement and later, Sikhism, but it also became a core part of many Buddhist traditions outside of the Indian subcontinent. It was, in fact, these Buddhist traditions that gave rise to hatha yoga, which emphasized the physical aspects of yoga and developed into the asanas that we associate with yoga as a whole today.
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Yoga's deep roots in Dharmic tradition have often had polarizing effects. To Indophiles and philomaths, its rich tradition offers a wealth of knowledge to be learnt from, whereas to certain orthodox practitioners of other religions, it appears subversive and potentially blasphemous. Even among practitioners of yoga, there has been some debate as to whether its Dharmic roots form an integral part of the discipline as a whole. The answer, once again, is complex and lies in the oft-quoted cliché that Hinduism is not a religion, it is a way of life. Owing to its very nature, openness, and tolerance, Dharmic thought has always represented a big tent school of philosophy, readily incorporating new and different ideas, with the result that even atheistic philosophies fall comfortably within the broader Dharmic framework, becoming, essentially a way of life alien to outside traditions. It is this incompatibility with a worldview based on strict monotheism that has and continues to create misconceptions about Dharmic philosophy when seen through the lens of western ideas of religion. Put simply, participation in yoga does not represent any inherent contradiction with, or repudiation of, any other religious tradition when one comes to appreciate the context of yoga as a philosophy, not as worship, which it is not. Like so much else that forms part of Indian philosophy, yoga is accommodating. To those that seek greater meaning from their everyday lives, it offers an intricate philosophy developed over thousands of years. To those that seek good health, it offers a great form of exercise. In the end, yoga, like life, is what you make of it!