The Sanskrit term yoga is first encountered in the Vedas, where it refers to the act of yoking, the animal so yoked, and the conveyance pulled by the yoked animal. The Vedic poets also applied the term to the yoking of their minds to poetic inspiration, by which their thoughts could journey outward to the distant worlds of the gods. This led to the techniques of meditative ascent found in the classical Upaniṣads (600 BCE–200 CE). Because they linked the mind to the breath, the Upaniṣads also introduced breath control as a component of meditative practice. The Vaiśeṣika Sūtra and Nyāya Sūtra (200 BCE–200 CE) classified the level of perception proper to the Vedic poets and seers as the most powerful and valid source of knowledge, because it entailed the perception of imperceptibles. This came to be known as “yogi perception.” These traditions coalesced in the time of the Bhagavad Gītā (200 CE), an early teaching on “yoga” by the god Krishna. The most important philosophical synthesis of all of these earlier traditions was the Yoga Sūtras (350–450 CE) of Patañjali. It and its rich commentarial tradition, which continues down to the present day, are the core of Yoga philosophy. About 450–600 CE, yogic postures (āsanas) first appear in texts and iconography. These became the principal focus of works on haṭha yoga that appeared between 1100 and 1700 CE. From the same period, the Yoga Upaniṣads wove together the philosophical and meditative traditions of the Yoga Sūtras with āsana practice. Prior to both haṭha yoga and the Yoga Upaniṣads, the Hindu Tantras innovated yoga systems of their own, combining meditative ascent, visualization techniques, the manipulation of mantras, and breath control. Both tantric and the hathayogic works contain accounts of the centers (cakras) and channels (nāḍīs) of the yogic body, portraying it as a replica of the universe. Dating from the same period as the earliest Yoga Upaniṣads and the middle Tantras, the Kashmirian Yogavasiṣṭha (800–1000 CE) combined yoga philosophy, “yogi perception,” tantric yoga, and haṭha yoga into a unique synthesis. Since the late 19th century, “modern yoga” has retrieved and reinvented many of the elements of these earlier systems, relying heavily on the Yoga Sūtras in formulating its theoretical principals, but also appropriating elements from tantric and hathayogic traditions into constantly evolving novel forms.
Given the heterogeneous nature of the yoga traditions, very few satisfactory books have been written that provide a comprehensive overview of the field. Larson and Bhattacharya 2008, which is in fact a volume in the Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, is by far the most comprehensive source; however, much of its analysis is highly technical. Feuerstein 2001 casts a still wider net and is far more accessible to nonspecialists; however, the book’s overall approach is anecdotal. Connolly 2007 is written more for present-day yoga practitioners than for scholars. Eliade 2009 is the earliest historical overview of India’s traditions of yoga and meditation. Sarbacker 2005 is a compact useful update. White 2009 approaches the history of yoga through the lens of its practitioners. Whicher and Carpenter 2003 and Jacobsen 2005 are multiauthor works containing chapters by many of the world’s leading yoga scholars on a wide range of historical and philosophical themes.
Connolly, Peter. A Student’s Guide to the History and Philosophy of Yoga. London and Oakville, CT: Equinox, 2007.
A balanced presentation of the history, theories and practices of yoga, with chapters on yoga in the Vedas, renouncer traditions, yoga in the Hindu Epics, yoga philosophy, modern yoga, and yoga and psychology. Geared more toward the yoga practitioner than to scholars.
Eliade, Mircea. Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. 2d ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.
A reprint of the 1973 edition, with a new introduction by David Gordon White. (First English edition was published in 1958.) A pioneering work, the first comprehensive survey of yoga to expand the parameters of Western scholarship beyond yoga philosophy. Highly readable and still relevant, in spite of a number of outdated theories.
Feuerstein, Georg. The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice. Unabridged, new format edition. Prescott, AZ: Hohm, 2001.
A well-illustrated encyclopedic survey of yoga traditions, this popularizing work casts a very wide net in what it treats as “yoga.” The author’s chronology of Indian religions is seriously flawed.
Jacobsen, Knut A., ed. Theory and Practice of Yoga: Essays in Honour of Gerald James Larson. Numen Book Series, Studies in the History of Religions 110. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2005.
A collection of twenty erudite studies of the yoga traditions of India, mainly written by Larson’s former students. Also contains chapters on yogic practices of Indian Sufis, Jungian psychology and yoga, “yoga” in the Platonic dialogues, and yoga in the United States.
Larson, Gerald James, and Ram Shankar Bhattacharya, eds. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies. Vol. 12, Yoga: India’s Philosophy of Meditation. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2008.
Authoritative reference work on the entire sweep of the yoga tradition, from the Yoga Sūtras to modern yoga. Highly readable presentation of very technical aspects of yoga philosophy, with well-balanced presentations of haṭha yoga, Yoga Upaniṣads, modern yoga, and other aspects of yoga, as well as summaries of seventy-five yoga texts.
Sarbacker, Stuart Ray. Samādhi, The Numinous and the Cessative in Indo-Tibetan Yoga. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.
An engaging and highly readable analysis of two major trajectories in the history of Hindu and Buddhist yoga theory: yoga as a means to supernatural powers, and yoga as an intellective meditative practice. May be used for undergraduate teaching.
Whicher, Ian, and David Carpenter, eds. Yoga, The Indian Tradition. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.
Contains nine well-written chapters by a variety of specialists on patañjalian yoga philosophy and later Indian yoga traditions.
White, David Gordon. Sinister Yogis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Argues that yoga and the yoga philosophy of the Yoga Sūtras must be contextualized within broader currents of Indian philosophy (Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika, Kashmir Saivism, etc.), narrative accounts of the practice of yoga, and descriptions of persons called yogis. May be used in undergraduate teaching.
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