Yoga is freedom of mind
Yoga is, above all, a practice of the mind. When I first started yoga, I thought it a physical practice, which is partly true, depending on how you look at it. Yoga did develop into a physical practice, with the sharpest increase in physical postures in the last century, but this is not how it once originated, and physical fitness still isn't the main goal.
When they originated, Yoga, and Buddhism, were non-religious practices designed with the purpose to find life's meaning through connecting mind and body. There are some suggestions that yoga started 5000 years ago, because small tiles with images have been found of people in seated positions that could be interpreted as meditative postures, but the first solid and abundant evidence of yoga as a movement, starts around 500 BC.
During this time, India was going through intense economic changes: cities erupted, societal hierarchies emerged, castes were formed. With it came social exclusion, pollution, and disease. The Sramana movement was a response to this: some people wanted to go back to their natural roots, into nature, disconnect themselves from norms of society, and (re)discover the true meaning of life.
Sramanas (people of great striving) were the first yogis, and they lived in communities in the woods, called Ashrams (places of great striving). Siddhartha Gautama lived in an Ashram for 6 years before he sat under the Bodhi tree, and supposedly became enlightened, and is since known as the Buddha. It is no coincidence that the root teachings of Buddhism and Yoga (before religion came into play) were very similar in content and structure. Buddha was a yogi. In many yoga classes today, you will still see a mixture of these two ancient philosophies. The purpose of the practice is to reunite body and mind, and in doing so, become free from mind-created illusion and suffering.
Because postures were not a part of yoga 2500 years ago, the main way to influence the mind was through contemplation, meditation, and breathwork. The Sramanas discovered that when they felt certain emotions, like anxiety, or anger, they breathed in a certain way (fast and shallow), and that when they were content and relaxed, they breathed differently (slow and deep). They developed the idea that through this mind-body link, mind and body can influence each other. This idea of codependency, or oneness, evolved into the hypothesis that through breathing, one could influence thoughts and emotions. A hypothesis that has been repeatedly tested in science of the last decades, and holds quite firmly. Similarly, through training attention focus (in meditation), we can practice not to be distracted by the constant thoughts, ideas, and emotions that pull our attention away from reality as it is, calming and relaxing our bodies and controlling our stress responses. Again, a hypothesis that seems to be supported by current day data.
Eight steps towards mind - mastery
Both yoga and Buddhism follow an eight-fold path towards reaching a mental state where we are no longer a slave to our ever-fluctuating thoughts, emotions, drives, needs, conditioning, and suffering. When we have practiced and mastered all the eight folds, we can rest in an open awareness with the world as it is, and be truly free. This, according to the teachings, is the meaning of life. The first practical toolbox of yoga was written down around 400 BC by the sage Patanjali, which is around the same time Buddha supposedly lived. The yoga sutras, containing all the 8 steps to yoga, start like this:
1.1 Atha Yoga Anushasanam
Now, we begin the teachings of yoga
1.2 Yogas Chitta Vrtti Nirodhah
Yoga is, to still the fluctuations of the mind
To still the fluctuations of the mind, is to become free of them, to suffer no more from them, and to become enlightened. There are eight folds, or 'parts', that need to be mastered in order to find this freedom of mind. Some of these folds pertain to ethical and social conduct, practicing things like compassion, kindness, mindfulness, honesty, not harming others, gratitude, discipline, commitment to learning, and non-greediness or non-attachment to things or people. All of these virtues have (in current day psychological science) shown to induce mental health and well-being. These early teachings may thus have been onto something with regards to finding 'the meaning of life'.
Some folds were reserved for breath practices, called Ānāpānasati or Pranayama. Pranayama, as written down in the first yogic texts, means lengthening (ayama) of the breath (prana ). The yogi's placed special value on preserving the force of life called breath through a variety of breathing exercises, some of which would enhance focus and alertness, some of which would induce relaxation and recovery. Ānāpānasati, as used in Buddhist texts, means mindfulness (sati ) of inhalation and exhalation (ānāpāna ). The general agreement between yogic and buddhist texts was (and is), that one should practice to be aware of the breath, and that one should breathe slowly, calmly, and steady in general. Chanting (praying through singing) was essentially a breath practice: there to lengthen exhales and control timing of breathing, collectively and in connection with others, calming our minds through the rhythm of collaboration, breathing, music, and words.
The rest of the folds concerned a large variety of different meditation practices in order to further train the mind. These practices were designed to either focus attention specifically or broadly, to be mindful and aware of thoughts and emotions, to become aware of all the pre-programmed patterns of thought we have, and to learn how to draw senses inwards and be able to shut out the external world at will. These practices ultimately would progress into deeper states of being aware of all the tricks of the mind, until the final meditative state: we see the world and ourselves as it is, and are free of our illusions and mind-created suffering.
The evolution of yoga as a physical practice
It took about 2000 years for yoga to evolve into something much more physical than it was originally intended to be. While the first yogis mainly sat down for contemplation, meditation and breathing, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, written in the 15th century by Swami Swatmarama, was the first Sanskrit text to describe 15 primary yoga postures with variations and combinations that combined them into a total of 84 asanas (postures). Their purpose: to train the mind through training the body, by force (Hatha meaning: by force).
From there on, slowly, more postures were added to the practice, until one day in 1926, the maharaja of Mysore in India, Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV, invited Tirumalai Krishnamacharya to his court to train the royal family in yoga. During the 1920s, Krishnamacharya opened a public yoga school that was the beginning of the Vinyasa Yoga Style. He linked a large variety of poses in sequences of movement and breath that was something in between a dance, meditation, breath exercise, and gymnastic endeavour. Several famous lines of yoga teachers eventually spread out from this lineage to the west, starting a more physical movement that we now know as 'yoga'.
The roots of all these physical styles though, are the same, and so is the goal. Yoga is primarily a practice of mastering and freeing the mind. Yoga started out as a philosophy of life, created by a minimalist movement that was looking for meaning beyond religion and economic growth, in connecting mind and body, and man and nature. Yogis wished to live in harmony with nature and rediscover the interconnectedness of everything, the whole picture, the feeling of being one within, and with everything. A feeling they felt was lost in their current society. I find this telling, because I see a parallels with the growing popularity of yoga in western societies in the past 100 years of industrialisation.
I think people are looking for meaning beyond economic growth and competition. I think people are lost in individualism, overstimulation, and separation, and they long for collaboration and belonging. I recently listened to a podcast interview with Tim Peake, former airforce pilot, astronaut, and author, and he said something that stuck with me:
"When you look down on earth from space, there are no borders"
We are all the same. All one. All united. This is an essential teaching of yoga and buddhism, and the reason (I think), that some people find meaning in yoga schools. We may come to yoga to relax or become fit and flexible, and there is nothing wrong with that. I came to yoga once for athletic purposes. But I stayed because it brings me something so much more profound: connection and freedom.