The history of yoga is a vast subject and one which I personally find I need to dip into every now and again… eventually the pieces start to fit together like a 1000-piece jigsaw, but while it is fun to attempt this puzzle it can also be overwhelming – and you really do need guidance along the way!
Which is why the IYTA is so fortunate to have yoga teacher and mentor, David Burgess heading up our Yoga Philosophy Department on our Diploma of Yoga Teaching AND running regular workshops for members.
David has spent more years than he’d care to admit digesting yoga history, theory and philosophy.
He is incredibly humble (and no doubt will likely wince when he reads this) and is one of the most knowledgeable minds on the history of yoga in Australia today.
Which is why if you have any interest in discovering yoga beyond asana you MUST register for our workshop on the History of Yoga.
This is a three-hour workshop – so a bite-sized insight into the depth of yoga from how it first came about to how it has evolved, changed and morphed into the hugely popular pastime we know today.
So what piqued David’s interest in yoga history?
David recalls a couple of decades ago he was sitting in a lecture entitled the History of Yoga, which was being given by a famous Swami.
He says: “She was an amazing storyteller, and I was enthralled. She came from that wonderful tradition of storytellers that didn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story and we were regaled with tall tales and true! Given my temperament, the challenge though was, for me to separate out the fact from the fiction: the wheat from the chaff, the facts from the myths.”
David explains he wasn’t at ease with the hypothesis that Yoga was brought to the Indian subcontinent from the island of Lemuria many millions of years ago by large birdlike creatures as propounded by some founding members of the Theosophical Society. Equally he struggled with the thesis that the ancient Gods of India (Vishnu and Krishna) are aliens as propounded by some.*
He adds that it isn’t that wisdom cannot be found in mythology, but he didn’t personally subscribe to what appeared to be “magical thinking.”
He says: “This is not made easy due to the antiquity of the Indian story and hence the lack of supporting primary evidence. Today much is still open to conjecture, much is still being discovered and much is being debunked so an open inquisitive mind remains important.”
A (very) short history of yoga!
Asked if he can pinpoint three main historic milestones, David says it depends on who is asking and what books he’s reading or podcasts he’s listening to!
Today, David says:
#1: Whenever the Vedic texts were first collated which is around the middle to end of the second millennium BCE, as this body of knowledge is the foundation of Sanatan Dharma.
#2: Next for me is the Sramana movement including the contributions of Buddha and Mahavira around the 5th BCE where ritual became more focussed on inner transformation rather than outer boons.
#3: The systemisation of Samkhya and Patanjala Yoga around the 4th to 2nd CE are shoo ins.
#4: Adi Shankaracharya 8th CE for so many things including his commentaries on Advaita Vedanta, his creation of the 4 Maths and particularly for establishing the Dasnami order of Sannyasa.
#5: The articulation of Hatha Yoga from the 13th CE onwards (Dattatreya, Gorakhnath, Matsyendra and Svatmarama.
#6: Introduction of Yoga to the west via Swami Vivekananda in the late 19th CE
#7: The teaching and prolific writings of Swami Sivananda and the subsequent spreading of his word by way of his disciples
#8: : The teaching of Krishnamacharya and the subsequent spreading of his word by way of his disciples!
The timely sprinkling of relevant historic yoga gems into your class will help enhance and deepen not just your, but your student’s yoga experience.
As David says: “One of the most influential teachers in my life would most stridently say: Understanding yoga without practising it is patently next to meaningless, but so too is practising without understanding.”
- If you feel like you need to fill in the gaps and put more pieces of the puzzle together then sign up to David’s Yoga History Workshop which will be running on Sunday, August 14 live and online via Zoom.
- And don’t forget our Yoga Studies course which covers yoga history, philosophy and more in easy-to-follow and accessible online lectures which you can do at your own pace.
David’s favourite history quotes
History is philosophy teaching by examples
History may not repeat itself, but it does have a rhythm
History repeats itself, firstly as tragedy and secondly as farce
Don’t make me repeat myself
When Alice is confronted by the Cheshire cat, of whom she asks, “Which path shall I take?”
“That depends where you want to go” the cat answers. “If you do not know where you want to go, it doesn’t matter which path you take”
We make our destinies through our choice of gods
The gate of history turns on small hinges, and so do people’s lives. The choices we make determine our destiny
President Thomas S Monson.
* David advises doing a quick search on Google for “Krishna and aliens” …and you’ll see what he means…!