What is the relative importance of the written and oral traditions in the evolution of yoga?
Swami Satyananda: The origin of yoga lies hidden in the mists of prehistory. It was slowly evolved and developed by the ancient sages, not only in India but all over the world. It has, however, been modified to suit regional languages, social ideas and other cultural influences. The essence of yoga was wrapped up in or explained in different symbols, analogies and languages. Some traditions believe that yoga was a divine gift revealed to the ancient sages so that humanity could have the opportunity to realize its divine nature.
Generally the techniques of yoga were passed on from teacher or guru to their disciples by word of mouth. In this way there was a clear understanding of the meaning of the techniques and aims of yoga as the guru, through his personal experience, guided the students along the right path and away from any confusion and misunderstanding. It was only when the various systems of yoga were written down that people began to see contradictions in the teachings. These discrepancies were only superficial, however, and arose through misinterpretation.
The writers of the classical texts cannot be blamed, for they recorded their ideas on yoga as clearly as possible in order to avoid misinterpretation. They expounded their ideas with the minimum amount of words so that people would not lose themselves by trying to intellectualize about word meanings, or in other cases they clothed their writings in symbolism and analogies. This was done so that only a person prepared and ready for a teaching would be able to understand the symbolism, if necessary with the help of a guru.
Nevertheless, even though these precautions were taken, many misunderstandings arose, mainly among overly verbose and intellectual scholars who did not have the personal experience to support their commentaries. Unfortunately people have listened to the commentators without resorting to the original texts and the advice of people more in touch with the spirit of yoga. The result has been confusion, and as a consequence many well-intentioned people have performed the most bizarre acts in the name of yoga. Some often quoted examples are walking on fire, sitting in the midday sun and torturing the body in a variety of ways, such as standing on one leg in one place for months on end.
The yoga that we now know and which developed in India, was used, at least in its rudimentary form, more than five thousand years ago. In archaeological excavations made in the Indus Valley at Harappa and Mohanjodaro, in what is now Pakistan, various statues have been unearthed depicting people practising yoga. They show Lord Shiva and his wife Parvati sitting in asanas and practising meditation. These ruins were once the dwelling places of people who lived in the so-called pre-vedic age. These discoveries are a definite indicator that yoga was practised in India even before the Aryan civilization started to flourish on the Indus subcontinent.
The first books to mention yoga are the ancient Vedas. Though scholars are not positive, it is generally felt that these books were written at least four thousand five hundred years ago. They don’t give any specific yoga practices but generally allude to yoga in symbolic form. The seers of the Vedas clearly recognized that there existed a dynamic life principle which they called vayu, prana. They also clearly saw that this prana was closely related to breathing. The Vedas also briefly mention the existence of chakras, pranic centres, within but not of the physical body. The science of sound was clearly recognized for they mention various mantras that can be used for the attainment of both material goals as well as spiritual aims.
Therefore, it can be said that the concept of yoga was known in vedic times in one form or another, as it had been for many thousands of years before. In all probability, however, the system of yoga was not properly formulated before or during the time of the recording of the Vedas. The experiences of yoga were known but the science of yoga had yet to be systematized.
With the advent of the Brahmanas and the Upanishads we begin to see yoga take shape and assume the form that it has today, and it is the Upanishads which put yoga on a firmer foundation. The Sanskrit word upanishad can be interpreted to mean ‘to sit down near and receive teachings from a master’, and also as ‘secret teaching’. There are believed to have been about two hundred different Upanishads. The oldest was written somewhere around 600 BC and the most recent as late as the fifteenth century AD.
Many of the Upanishads devote much space to describing prana and its implications. They describe the psychic pathways which exist within and through which prana flows, including the major nadis, ida, pingala and sushumna. The concept of kundalini in the form of a serpent power within the body is also indicated. One of the so-called minor Upanishads, the Yoga Chudamani Upanishad, covers a wide range of practical aspects of yoga ranging from asanas and pranayamas to psychic centres and self-realization. The other Upanishads are also a source of many practical and theoretical principles of yoga.
The Upanishads, however, lack a systematic treatment and summary of the paths of yoga. They are a conglomeration of profound ideas mixed with various other kinds of information. It can be said that the Upanishads are intended more to inspire than to instruct. During the era of the writing of the Upanishads, right up until quite recently, instructions were always imparted personally by a guru. The writers knew this, so detailed techniques were not recorded. This was left to the discretion of the guru and to later yogic texts.
At the same time as the spiritual and yogic literature was unfolding, yoga was being refined and developed by its practitioners and gurus, who then passed on their teachings by word of mouth. In fact, it is certainly these people who evolved and improvised yoga practices by their personal experience in an endeavour to achieve the best results. All the texts can do is reflect current and prevalent ideas.
Since the teachings of yoga were generally passed on orally, its development was haphazard. Different teachers taught different methods so that before it was systematized, yoga was a collection of varied and unrelated techniques, riddled with all types of personal beliefs and superstitions. It is here that the writers of the classical texts served their greatest purpose by bringing all these different ideas together and integrating them. One of the most successful of these writers was Sage Patanjali who wrote the text called the Yoga Sutras some time before the birth of Christ. This is still regarded as the classical and authoritative book on raja yoga.
Large numbers of hatha yoga texts were written throughout the ages. The most well-known of these are the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Shiva Samhita and the Gheranda Samhita. These texts give details on asanas, pranayamas and other hatha yoga practices, together with techniques for performing mudras and bandhas. All the books, however, emphasize that the hatha yoga practices are not specifically aimed at making the body healthy. They are a means to higher ideals which first demand a healthy body.
There are many sages and yogis who have contributed to the growth of yoga, both in ancient and in modern times. The list is endless. The number of books on yoga runs into the thousands and the list grows with every year that passes. For personal growth through yoga, however, it is not necessary to read any of these books, as yoga is one hundred percent practice. The techniques are widely available in modern books on yoga, in ashrams and yoga schools and can be learnt from a competent guru which is the best way.