Yoga is a spiritual discipline that developed in India more than 5,000 years ago. It has influenced, and been influenced by, the religious traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, but is not a religion itself. Indeed it is practiced by millions of people throughout the world of various religious faiths and backgrounds, and in the United States and other Western countries, it is often regarded, despite its antiquity, as a form of "new age" spiritual expression.
There are more than 100 forms of yoga, but almost all derive from one of several main branches, each of which is characterized by distinct philosophical underpinnings and techniques. All forms of yoga, however, share the same ultimate goal: the integration of mind and body, self-transcendence, and enlightenment. The word "yoga," in fact, derives from the Sanskrit for "unity," suggesting the convergence of various facets of the self.
Of the principal branches of yoga, the most familiar to Westerners is Hatha yoga, which seeks to create a sense of well-being and transcendence through physical routines that include body poses, or asanas, and particular breathing techniques. Other branches include Guru yoga, Bhakti yoga, Jnana yoga, and Raja, or Classical, yoga. Practitioners of Raja yoga dedicate themselves to following the well-known "eightfold path," which lays out discrete steps (such as restraint from negative acts, withdrawal of the mind from the senses, and mental concentration) meant to lead to enlightenment. Other branches of yoga stress chanting, dedication to a guru, and acts of devotion to one's own conception of a supreme being.
Hatha yoga, translatable as the "yoga of force," is a particularly diversified branch, and has given rise to the forms of yoga most popular in the United States. These include Viniyoga, Ashtanga, Kripalu, Bikram, Ananda, Sivananda, and, perhaps best known, Iyengar yoga. Although they vary in physical intensity, all work in some way to integrate body poses, breathing, relaxation, meditation, and visualization.
Yoga is an ancient discipline that predates the cultural traditions with which it is usually associated.
Archaeologists working in the Indus Valley have discovered soapstone carvings dating from 3,000 B.C.E. depicting people in yoga poses. Yoga evolved as part of a complex system of early Indian, or Vedic, thought that sought to solve the metaphysical riddles of existence through the unification of mind and body. As the discipline spread, it became interwoven with spiritual traditions such as Hinduism that were beginning to emerge on the Indian subcontinent. The Yoga-Sutra, compiled by Patanjali sometime in the 2nd century B.C.E., is one of the earliest writings describing yoga as a philosophical system, and to this day it remains a foundational text for yoga students and scholars.
Yoga was introduced to the West by Swami Vivekananda, a spiritual leader from India who represented Hinduism at Chicago's Parliament of Religions in 1893 and went on to teach for several years in the United States. His lectures, which among other things explained the philosophy and practice of yoga, ignited a genuine interest in Eastern philosophy among audiences who had previously considered Indian cultural traditions to be primitive. Despite the blossoming of interest in Eastern thought, however, yoga became widely popular in the United States only in the 1960s, when Americans once more became fascinated by Indian spiritual traditions. Great Indian popularizers of yoga in mid-century America were Sri Krishnamacharya, who developed Viniyoga; Shrila Prabhupada, who founded the worldwide Krishna movement based on Bhakti yoga; and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who drew on yoga techniques to develop transcendental meditation.
Yoga in Western countries has become associated with health and fitness, and it has indeed been shown by researchers to have positive impacts on arthritis, anxiety, back pain, premenstrual syndrome, and a variety of other chronic medical conditions. Ironically, however, yoga is not meant to focus practitioners on the physical or the emotional self, but to help them transcend the self entirely. This fact has led many yoga masters to criticize the American tendency to view yoga as just another form of exercise. Others take the opposite view, claiming that it is perfectly appropriate for Westerners to modify yoga to suit contemporary tastes. The debate between traditionalists and modernizers will no doubt continue.
What is certain is that for a variety of reasons-be it an abundance of readily accessible yoga classes, the relatively low cost of instruction, or the plethora of books and videos on the topic-yoga was enjoying unprecedented levels of popularity in the United States and other Western countries by the 1990s. Given the enthusiasm of its devotees, who in recent years have included older baby-boomers seeking to counter the effects of aging, and teenagers encountering the discipline for the first time, the trend seems likely to continue.