Roots of Yoga

By Melina Meza

Once upon a time on the subcontinent of India, there existed wise, immortal beings called rishis (seers). It is said they lived for thousands of years in various states of meditation, observing the dynamic interplay between nature, time, cosmos, and spirit (God). These divine beings, living near the Himalayan Mountains and communicating in the sacred language of Sanskrit, are said to have released the jewels of yoga into the world. The solitary aim of yoga then was to experience self-realization, or moksha (liberation) of the individual soul. (Attaining the state of moksha is like reaching the pinnacle of one’s physically manifested life: moksha is that stage when a human being is able to cut the shackles of the mind and gain liberation from the cycles of birth and death forever.)

The secret, esoteric lessons of yoga were transmitted by the rishis to the revered teachers known as gurus (literally translated as “destroyer of darkness”). The gurus then passed along this divine insight to a few fortunate disciples through lifelong relationships. This traditional relationship between guru and student lives on today in India, where the wisdom of yoga is passed on and, in turn, becomes integrated into the student’s sadhana (personal practice) or family for life.

The yogic story of creation is described in a series of four sacred, timeless books called the Vedas (knowledge), believed to have originated from nonhuman origin, which were “heard” or “seen” by the rishis. It is said that the rishis heard the subtle sounds and vibrations that described the creation of the universe. Eventually the essence and story of creation was condensed into poetic verses called sutras. The sutras strung Sanskrit words together  into mnemonic phrases so others could tune in to the vibrations of sounds and discover for themselves the meaning locked deep in these verses, allowing the devotees to enhance their own perception and understanding of the Divine, God, or connection to Nature within themselves.

There are four Vedas: Rig Veda (book of mantras), Sama Veda (book of song), Yajur Veda (book of ritual), and Atharva Veda (book of spells). Together these texts help maintain cosmic order and protect dharma (universal truth), as well as lay the foundation for medicine, mathematics, jyotish (vedic astrology), music, language, and the Hindu arts that continue to hold cultural influence and inspiration in the East and West.

It is believed that the Vedas were transmitted to the supreme Gods at the beginning of each new yuga (cosmic cycle of time) to benefit the world. The disciples of yoga (often referred to as yogis) believe the universe is without a beginning or an end; rather, it is composed of four yugas, each lasting over 1 million years and each categorized by our collective relationship to the cosmic source. The proximity of the collective to the light of the cosmic source during each yuga defines the spirituality, human condition, health, and environmental situations that will be evidenced during that time.

Although it’s not clear exactly when these texts originated, most yogic scholars believe it was around 5000-4000 BCE. The lessons within each of the Vedas were preserved for centuries through a strict system. Disciples would learn the Vedas by studying with their guru, memorizing the scriptures by heart, and then reciting them with perfect pronunciation. Many of the devoted yogis went on to codify or organize these teachings into what are now the classic Vedic texts—such as the Upanishads, Mahabharata, Yoga Sutras, Shiva Samhita, Charaka Samhita, Spanda Karikas, and Hatha Yoga Pradipika—to ensure that the revered scriptures would not be forgotten. To this day in India, you will find yogis reciting various sacred verses from the Vedas, or more modern texts, with each breath they take, just as their gurus did before them. In this way, tradition continues and the prana of yoga lives on.

Yoga originated and retains an integral role within Hinduism. The term Hindu, derived from the Persian word for the Indus River, denotes followers of a particular faith and culture, and in ancient times was used to describe those living in a particular region. Practitioners refer to Hinduism as Santana Dharma (eternal law or religion of the Vedas). Today, Hinduism is considered the world’s oldest and most complex living religion, encompassing a broad spectrum of philosophies ranging from pluralistic theism to absolute monism.


Traditions and Deities

From the rich soil of India, numerous other valuable spiritual traditions matured. In addition to Hinduism (practiced by roughly 80 percent of India’s population), Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism also originated here. Although each of these four world religions holds divergent beliefs that are comprehensive, independent, and embrace different traditions and pujas (daily rituals), they do share common values: they all uphold the cultivation of love and respect, the honoring of others, and the subjugation of personal ego so that the pure inner nature can shine forth.

Similarly, in Hinduism there is a belief that all spiritual or religious paths will lead to the same truth and understanding of the Divine or absolute God (Brahman). It is understood that there is not one specific teacher, mantra, dogma, or deity (Hindu gods and goddesses) that each person must follow to become enlightened. In the eyes of the modern Hindus, all paths are equal and will lead the seeker to God-realization. Followers are encouraged to explore teachers, deities, mantras, and techniques until they find the path that motivates them to discover their own svadharma (personal truth).

Observant Hindus perform daily devotional actions that may include: bathing in holy rivers; lighting lamps; offering food, flowers, or incense before the images of deities; reciting prayers; reading religious scriptures; meditating; and doing yoga asanas or prostrations at least once every day. These various practices are each meant to help link the practitioner to the divinity hidden in the “ordinariness” of everyday life.

The more esoteric practitioners of yoga are called sadhus (ascetics or renunciates), who leave behind all material possessions, take vows of celibacy, and wander in search of moksha. There are an estimated nearly  four million sadhus living in India today. These yogis are taken care of by numerous people or communities to pursue their work, while burning off some of their community’s collective karma. Some renunciates are revered for their holiness, while others are feared for their power to curse or harm individuals.

The Hindu culture is rich with colorful stories of beautifully decorated deities. Some have saguna (human qualities) and others are nirguna (without human qualities). These deities teach moral lessons, alleviate human suffering, and inspire transformation from ordinary to extraordinary consciousness. For example, one mythical story describes a powerful trinity of deities and their female consorts—Shiva (the destroyer) and Shakti (the symbol of divine feminine energy), Vishnu (the preserver) and Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth), and Brahma (the creator) and Sarasvati (the goddess of the arts, speech, and learning)—to represent the source from which all creation springs.

Depending upon your temperament, intention, or purpose, you can meditate on any deity that resonates with you. Worship may last a day, week, or year; it is individual and will vary for each person. What is important is that the deity you serve must raise your consciousness and help you remember your true nature as a spiritual being. Yet even when devotion is given to only one deity, the existence of others is acknowledged. Despite these polytheistic elements, many Hindus believe that all of these gods are actually various forms of Brahman, the eternal, unchanging, transcendent reality.


Core Beliefs and Social Structure
There are a few concepts central to the shaping and understanding of Hinduism. These include reincarnation (the eternal birth-death-birth cycle), karma (action or act), and the four stages of life. Reincarnation and karma are linked, since karma is the mechanism that binds us to reincarnation. These precepts suggest that a person’s mental and physical actions affect every action and have an equal and opposite reaction, and that our actions or inactions keep us yoked to the wheel of suffering (an inherent aspect of which is reincarnation).

Hinduism says that liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth is possible to all beings. The path to freedom is through purification of the ego in karma yoga, letting go of bodily attachments (such as in savasana, the corpse pose of Hatha yoga) and by knowing the distinction between what is real and what is not. According to Hinduism, it is every person’s birthright to reach liberation in this lifetime and become one with Brahman. Only Brahman is thought to be real; the rest of the physical world is considered illusionary. Until one becomes unified with Brahman, the soul will reincarnate, lifetime after lifetime, until all the karmic lessons have been learned.

Another core concept is the caste system, within which are the brahmins (priests), kshatriyas (nobility), vaishyas (merchants/farmers), and shudras (servants). From our contemporary Western perspective, this system is riddled with social inequality and oppression, but it was initially established for the sake of order and efficiency. Created during a time when civilizations had begun to form around mighty rivers to sustain life and agriculture, each caste or role was considered sacred, equal, and necessary for survival under the grueling conditions of ancient India. Families and friends with similarly inherited trades or gifts joined together within their caste to form new subcultures within society. The organic nature in which these new societies formed allowed each person to master their own dominion rather than strive for equality or mediocrity in everything. While the caste system has historically met the needs of society and enabled Hindu civilization to survive, today its structure is undergoing changes to meet the needs of modernization and reduce discrimination.


Today in India there are copious rituals that permeate the entire society. For example, within Hinduism, ahimsa (nonviolence) is a practice that is woven into a Hindu diet. “You are what you eat” is a celebrated belief behind a spiritual person’s food habits, as diet is thought to greatly impact mental and physical health. For example, eating food from slain animals is said to block mental and spiritual growth. This is the reason why Hinduism emphasizes vegetarianism. The killing of innocent and helpless animals for the purpose of consumption is considered bad karma that brings harmful consequences, not only to the individual but to the entire planet. Additionally, the cow is considered sacred in India, where her products—like milk, butter, and yogurt—are an integral part of the diet. Other rituals include daily asana and meditation practices, fasting for festivals or sanctified days, touching the feet of holy men and women, preparing flowers for the altar or ceremony, and removing your shoes at temples.


Yoga Today

What ancient Hindu practices have captured our imaginations? For some it’s the idea of obtaining moksha and freedom from suffering, or deepening a relationship with a particular deity that resonates with our humanness, while others connect to the physical body or purification practices that transform the body into a temple. No matter where your interest lies, it turns out the rishis, the Indian mystics who sat in deep, intoxicating states of meditation five thousand years ago, were on to something.

Yoga has now spread well beyond the motherland of India into our modern world where Westerners can connect with it as a healing art. Since yoga has crossed the Indian border, its original form has changed dramatically. Today yoga practitioners are blending the ancient wisdom of the East with Western influences that stem from a variety of disciplines including medicine, physiology, alternative bodywork, fitness training, and even dance to create a new, sophisticated movement practice. While yoga weaves a rich tapestry of mind, body, and spiritual practices, if you say “yoga” to most Westerners, they immediately think of asana poses, which place emphasis on the physical body as a vehicle for personal or spiritual transformation.

Never before in the history of yoga has the practice of physical postures assumed the importance that it has at this moment. Rather than envisioning it as a code of spiritual practices, Westerners have taken this ancient wisdom from the East and used it as the foundation for a sophisticated movement and exercise practice.
Many of yoga’s early traditions have vanished as a result of its widespread popularity, or been have been co-opted by Western ways. For example, students of yoga today are not required to live in caves (although some do), adhere to the yamas (social ethics) or niyamas (personal ethics), study mantras or chants, or learn the Sanskrit language to receive teachings from instructors. Today students rarely have a guru, and the transitory physical rewards of Hatha yoga often motivate students more than the promise of moksha.

As you can see by this brief overview of yoga’s history, a lot has changed since the time of the rishis. I look to the earliest teachings of yoga to appreciate the relationship the original yogis had with Nature, as well as their considerate use of language, metaphors, storytelling, ceremony, and devotion to the universal mystery—much of which is missing in our culture today. These reasons—and others—inspire me to teach, write, and offer this book as a way to reconnect students of yoga with a broader perspective. My hope is that yoga becomes a way of being for many, rather than simply another activity on our endless to-do lists. If you are a practitioner of yoga right now, you are participating in this auspicious time, making history at a crossroads, where the ancient Eastern practices are being informed by the Western sciences and culture. This cross-pollination is birthing something I like to think of as Modern Yoga. Instructors who discovered their teachers and gurus, found the enthusiasm to do their personal practice with ardor, and authentically voice the results of their experience, are the leaders of Modern Yoga. Yoga’s evolution is part of a natural cycle where essential principles from the Vedic-inspired texts are carried forward to help preserve and restore spirituality and wellness in the present day.