Yoga is not just a series of postures or movements (asanas); it’s a unique system for discovering good health and connecting with our inner selves. Yoga doesn’t happen just on a yoga mat, it’s also a way of living and being in the world. Everyone can practice yoga and everyone can choose the parts and pieces of yoga that resonate with their inner and outer selves.
How old is yoga? Eight to ten thousand years ago, yoga is mentioned in the Rigveda, an ancient Indian text. In this text, yoga is referred to as “yuj” or to yoke. Think of a chariot in battle with a yoke over the animal pulling it. Yoga is often defined as a way of creating self-discipline or control over oneself – yoking. We bring this idea of self-discipline into our practice. Yoga is a practice.
Of course, at that time, yoga didn’t look like it looks now. Yoga was more of a philosophy or a way of life. There were four yogic paths:
- Bhakti Yoga – the yoga of devotion
- Jnana Yoga – the yoga of knowledge
- Raja Yoga – the yoga of meditation
- Karma Yoga – the yoga of service
There was much debate about which was the right path. Some of the practices were effective for people devoted solely to yoga (known as renunciates), but weren’t realistic for the average person, like you and me (what we call householders). So these paths of yoga were merged, changed, and recreated to make practice (or living) easier for householders.
If yoga at first was about devotion, knowledge, meditation, and service, how did it become so physical or “fitness” oriented? The Sage Patanjali, who may have been one person or a number of people, gave us many yogic ideas and the first written text on yoga (The Yoga Sutras). That was in the 2nd Century. He described the 8 Limbs of Yoga:
- Yamas (abstinences)
- Niyamas (observations)
- Asana (postures)
- Pranayama (breathwork)
- Pratyahara (withdrawal)
- Dharana (focus)
- Dhyana (meditation)
- Samadhi (absorption)
In the 8th Century, the Buddhist tradition mentions yoga and we start to see a split in the types of yoga, as well as the introduction of yoga postures into the practice. The postures and breathing practices were introduced to help practitioners sit for meditation.
The development of modern Indian gurus introduced even more of an emphasis on postural yoga (which of course the Western world found most appealing). In India, young boys were often sent to temples for their education. Because they had short attention spans and couldn’t sit for long periods of time, the monks would give them posture flows to work on to develop discipline, strong bodies, and focused minds. The Ashtanga and Bikram sequences of postures came from this origin.
Many styles of yoga can trace their roots back 2,000-6,000 years in India and usually have a single person or group that you can pinpoint as the creator or originator of the practice.
Today, there are so many types of yoga – Pranakriya, Kripalu, Bikram, Iyengar, Ashtanga to name a few. Think of these as “brands” of yoga, like brands of jeans (Levis, Guess, Lucky Brand, etc.). They’re all yoga or all jeans. You might have heard of Hatha Yoga. Hatha (meaning sun and moon) is an umbrella term for yoga; also yoga that includes physical postures.
The difference between styles of yoga is their lineage or origin story. There are types of yoga that originated in India and were initially brought to the US and often taught here by Indians. There are other types of yoga that were created by Westerners, like YogaFit, YogaWorks, CorePower etc.. So if someone says they teach hatha yoga, they’re saying they’re not affiliated with a particular brand or school and in that sense, they are teaching a “generic” form of yoga.
In my tradition of yoga (Pranakriya & Kripalu), there’s evidence that a sage named Kapila, who lived in the 6th or 7th Century BC, started our lineage. It’s thought that he created the origins of Samkhya and Yogic Philosophy. According to Kapila, the goal of yoga was to better oneself physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Pranakriya and Kripalu Yoga, the style I teach, hail from this centuries-old tradition. Swami Kripalu (1913-1981), the founder of this tradition, grew up in the Gujarat province in Northwest India. He suffered great loss as a young boy, tried to kill himself a number of times because of his life circumstances, found a teacher and support system who helped him turn his life around, started a music school, wrote numerous texts on yoga and music as well as plays and became a renunciate monk. (For more on Swami Kripalu, please read, Pilgrim of Love by Atma Jo Ann Levitt.)
“What Swami Kripalu offered, …,” Vandita Kate Marchesiello says, “is a nondogmatic, nonsectarian approach to the Perennial Wisdom through the practice of yoga.” It is a practice and an approach that can serve us well in times of trouble and challenge, as well as in navigating the ups and downs of daily life. By tapping into the wisdom of yoga, both on and off the mat, we access resilience, flexibility, a stronger sense of self, and a more deeply felt connection to others and the world.”
Kripalu yoga was brought to the United States in 1970 by Yogi Amrit Desai who created the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health located in Lenox, MA. Today, the Kripalu Center is one of the largest wellness centers to train yoga teachers in the United States. Pranakriya Yoga was created by Yoganand Michael Carroll a renunciate yogi trained by Swami Kripalu and Amrit Desai.
Both Kripalu and Pranakriya Yoga aim to help us cultivate an inner awareness and sensitivity to ourselves and the world around us;.using the techniques of asana (postures), pranayama (breathwork) and meditation to feel more fully alive in our minds, body’s and spirits.