The History of Yoga, References in the Upanishads

Shiva Blessing Devotees

by Jayaram V

This essay is about the history of Yoga based upon the references found in the Upanishads and how Yoga became integral to Vedic beliefs and practices.


The Upanishads contain many direct and indirect references to yoga. In the Rigveda you will find references to rudimentary forms of yoga and to ascetic groups such as Kesins, the long haired ones, who might have practiced its earliest versions. In the early Vedic religion the emphasis was largely upon performing rituals and sacrificial ceremonies to establish rapport with gods and obtain their support and protection. However, we discern in them a gradual shift in emphasis from outward rituals to internal spiritual practices as the idea of liberation (Moksha) took a firm root in the minds of ancient Indians.

Influence of ascetic traditions

Ancient India had many ascetic and renunciant sects, such as Sramanas, Parivrajakas, Ajivkas, Lokayatas, Vratyas, Samkhyas, Bhaktas, Bhagavatas, and Pasupatas. They renounced worldly life in search of liberation. Some of them were as ancient as the Vedic religion, or even older. The Sramanas (striving ones) and Parivrajakas were low caste mendicants, who subjected themselves to the hardships of life as part of their vows, renouncing worldly life, moving from village to village, seeking alms and practicing austerities. In the earlier days they were despised by the Vedic people for their ways and methods of worship. However, it did not deter the Sramanas from continuing their ways and persisting in their methods. It seems at some point their methods found acceptance even among Vedic people.

Many ascetic and renunciant traditions of India declined and disappeared after the rise of Buddhism and Jainism which were essentially renunciant religions. Some of them became an integral part of Vedic religion or early Hinduism. Many of their ideas, beliefs, and practices found their way into it and contributed greatly to the development of Upanishadic philosophy and spiritual basis of Hinduism. They also played an important role in the development of Jainism, Buddhism, and Tantrism, and through them influenced the growth and development of Hindu sects, renunciant practices, and schools of philosophy.

Most likely the infusion of ascetic practices into the Vedic religion also contributed to the emergence of Yoga as a special branch of knowledge and important spiritual discipline in Hinduism. Before this development, Vedic religion had the tradition of hermits (munis) and forest dwellers (vanaprasthas) who lived in seclusion in hermitages and contemplated upon the esoteric aspects of Vedas and advance ritual knowledge. They were probably responsible for the early development of Upanishadic thought that was centered mostly around rituals and ritual based philosophy of the Brahmanas, such as the kind found in the Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads.

Yoga and Vedic beliefs

The infusion of Yoga into Vedic religion was gradual and fragmentary. It began vaguely with the notion that the rituals (karmakanda) constituted inferior knowledge or even ignorance (vidya) compared to the true knowledge (vidya) of Self or Brahman, which led to liberation. Rituals were necessary for the order and regularity of the world, peace and happiness, but they would only lead to karma and rebirth. Since rituals are performed mostly for worldly ends, they would not liberate the beings from the cycle of births and deaths. Liberation is possible only by knowing the Self or Brahman. This argument strongly favored a major shift in emphasis from the ritual knowledge to spiritual knowledge.

In the Mundaka Upanishad, we can clearly see the shift as it presents the argument that sacrifices are inferior, and unsteady are the boats of those who perform them. If liberation is the aim, one should avoid rituals. The deluded ones may rejoice in them, but they would only incur negative consequences and return repeatedly from the ancestral world to take another birth. In contrast, those who live austere lives in the forests and practice tapas with faith and tranquil minds, renouncing the world and casting off their passions, go to the world of Brahman through the door of the sun, and never return.

Another important development was the realization that breath was superior to all the organs in the body, including the mind, and by controlling breath it was possible to control both the mind and the body. Both pranayama and pratyahara techniques of yoga work on the same principle. The Upanishads clearly recognize the superiority of breath. Breath is the lord of the body. It is the purifier who keeps evil at bay. In essence and function it is similar to the Self. The body is alive as long it is sustained by breath. Because of breath only all the organs are able to carry out their functions and stay in their respective spheres. Hence by regulating breath in the body, it is possible to control the mind, the body and the senses. Ideas such as these might be responsible for the strong emphasis in yoga on the practice of pranayama before beginning meditation and concentration.

The early Upanishads also recognize the distinction between the Self and the body. The body is perishable, while the Self is indestructible. The Self is the transcendental reality, which is beyond the mind and the senses. Hence, it cannot be known by perception, conception, or cognition, but only by suppressing both the mind and the senses and removing the impurities that block its direct view. When the mind becomes totally still and the senses are fully asleep as if they are nonexistent, the Self will reveal itself like a mirror whose surface is cleaned. Since one cannot ordinarily attain this state, the Upanishads clearly recognize the need for a spiritual discipline to prepare the mind and body for attaining the transcendental reality.

Tapas and Yoga

The earliest form of Yoga known to the Vedic people was the practice of tapas, which was probably a renouncer practice of lost ascetic sects that thrived in the freezing temperatures of the Himalayas. Tapas was an intense form of meditative discipline in which the seers silenced their minds and bodies through rigorous austerities and contemplated upon their chosen deities to propitiate them and obtain spiritual powers, blessings, or boons. The seers of ancient India practiced tapas because it generated intense bodily heat (tapam) by transforming the physical and psychosexual energies in the body into spiritual (tejas), which gave them the ability to manifest things, control Nature, and alter the reality. The Puranas suggest that gods did not like those who practiced it since the power of tapas undermined their authority, upset the balance of the worlds, and made their position vulnerable. Therefore, they did everything possible to disturb those who practiced it and tried to discourage them.

The discipline of tapah or tapas was indeed an internalized form of Vedic ritual only. It was essentially meant for those who renounced the use of fire and fire sacrifices and led the life of sanyasa as part of their Varnashrama dharma. We do not know what led to it, but the ritual model is clearly the basis of the tapasic practice in which the body acts as the sacrificial pit, thoughts and words as the offerings, breath as the sacrificial fire, organs including the mind and the senses as the divinities, and vigor and spiritual energy as the fruit. Tapas is a substitute for fire sacrifice for the people who have taken the vow to renounce fire sacrifices and not use fire for cooking purposes. It is possible that practices such as tapas contributed to the emergence of several yoga techniques for the purification of the mind and body and generate body vigor.

There are many concepts that are common to both Upanishads and Yoga which leads to the conclusion that they should have thrived in the same environment. The idea of liberation, modes of Nature, mystic utterances, contemplation upon Brahman, restraint of the mind, body, and speech, practice of detachment, renunciation, purification of the mind and the body, stabilizing the mind, devotion to Self, bondage to the cycle of births and deaths, modifications of the mind, mental afflictions, self-realization, self-control, transcendental states of self-absorption, mystic powers, importance of ethical conduct and selfless service are some of the important, spiritual and philosophical concepts that are common to both Yoga and the Upanishads. Since, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali was composed much later than most of the major Upanishads, we can assume that Yoga was an integral part of Hindu mysticism and spiritual philosophy long before the composition of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and the emergence of Yoga as a special branch of study and spiritual discipline in the Gurukulas.

Yoga in the Upanishads

References to yoga and techniques of Yoga are found in several Upanishads. Some Shaiva and Vaishnava Upanishads which are exclusively devoted to the theory and practice of yoga are known as yoga Upanishads. However, since they are later day works, compiled probably from preexisting works, from a historical perspective they are not of much value, except for comparative study and technical details. Among the earliest Upanishads references to yoga are found in the Katha, Svetasvatara, and Maitri Upanishads. In them we can discern a gradual unfolding of the techniques and practices of yoga.

The Katha Upanishad (2.3.11) declares Yoga as the state of mental stability made possible by the restraint of the senses. It is the state in which the mind is stable and the senses are firmly restrained. The Self should be understood both as an existential reality and an eternal reality. One comes to that realization and becomes immortal only when all the desires in the heart are cast away, and all the bonds are cut off. Then the Self reveals itself as seated in the heart, having the size of a thumb.

The Svetasvatara Upanishad (2.8-`7) contains more specific information about the techniques of yoga, and the results one may achieve by their practice. It suggests how one should practice meditation by holding the three parts of the upper body erect and withdrawing the mind and the senses into the heart to cross the ocean of births and deaths and fear of death itself by the boat of Brahman. Holding the breath in his body, controlling his movements to the barest minimum, he should breathe through his nostrils, with diminishing breath, restraining his mind with utmost vigilance, the way wild horses are yoked to a chariot.

The Upanishad also suggests in which conditions one may practice yoga and what perfections (siddhis) may arise from its regular practice. To practice yoga one should choose an ideal place, which is plain and clear, free from pebbles, fire and gravel, in a secret cave, protected from the disturbances of the wind, with soothing sounds of flowing water coming from nearby, and with features that are pleasing to the mind and the eyes. With that practice when the modification of the mind and body are suppressed, one becomes free from sickness, aging, and death. He experiences lightness, good health, steadiness, improvement in skin color, smoothness in voice, pleasant body odor and slight excretions. Just as the mirror that has been covered by dust shines brightly after it has been cleaned, so does the person whose mind and body are cleansed of impurities and who sees the Self within himself.

In the Maitri Upanishad we find further elaboration of the techniques of yoga, which are identical with those of the classical yoga. It mentions (6.18) the six-fold (sadanga) yoga, consisting of breath control (pranayama), withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), meditation (dhyanam), concentration, contemplative inquiry (tarkah) and self-absorption (samadhi). By these techniques a sage shakes off both good and evil and sees within himself the golden colored inner Sun, the lord, the person, whose source is Brahman.

The next verse in the Upanishad suggests how to enter the fourth state of turiya (deep sleep or the state of samadhi) and let the breathing spirit merge into the Self by restraining the mind from the external world, withdrawing the senses from the objects, controlling the breath, and making the mind devoid of conceptions. When thoughts enter the unmanifested state of Nature (asambhuti), then the living being becomes free from attachments. The Upanishad also suggests how to practice a higher form of concentration (parasya dharana) to see Brahman through contemplative thought (tarkah), by pressing the tip of the tongue down the palate, and by restraining speech, mind, and breath. Other techniques mentioned in the Upanishads are stated below.

1. Contemplation upon Aum by allowing the mind to follow the breath that travels upward along the Susumna Nadi (nerve strand) into the head region (6.21) where the top most chakra is located.

2. Meditation upon sabda (sound) Brahman chanting Aum, and meditation upon asabda (non-sound) Brahman with complete silence (6.22). Both are useful to stabilize the mind.

3. Concentration and meditation upon the space in the heart (6.27) which is the physical location of the Self in the body. When the space disperses, it is replaced by light. When one sees it, one becomes the light itself.

4. Although self-purification and the practice of yamas and niyamas are not clearly mentioned, the Upanishad alludes to them (6.28) by stating the importance of spiritual purity and freedom from lust, anger, greed, envy, and selfishness. It also suggests that the infinite, supreme, secret, samyak Yoga, or the highest Union, is achieved only when a person who practices yoga becomes free from worldliness. He will not achieve it at all, however educated and knowledgeable he may be, if he is afflicted with passions and darkness and is attached to his wife, son, and family.

Thus, we can see that the Upanishads were familiar with the principles and practice of yoga and shared many common beliefs and ideas with the Yoga philosophy. In them we can discern a gradual enfoldment of the techniques of yoga and its more classical form, as the tradition recognized the importance of spiritual and ascetic practices, and internal rituals to achieve liberation from death and rebirth. For the Upanishads, liberation by knowing Atman and Brahman is the highest priority for which yoga is one of the means to purify the mind and the body and suppress the modifications of Nature. The Upanishads also recognize other forms of Yoga such as Karmayoga, Jnanayoga, Bhakti yoga and Sanyasa yoga. They also acknowledge both Brahman and Atman, in contrast to Yoga which recognizes only the individual selves. Thus, although the Upanishads share many common beliefs with Yoga, they maintain their distinction and broader philosophical and spiritual vision.

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