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The origin of yoga*

*as I see it

When you read this title what do you think? If you are anything like me your mind will start casting around ideas of timelines, historical evidence, first mentions in texts, dates, CE, BCE…etc etc.

But what I actually want to dig into here is not what evidence there is that yoga was practised in the ancient world…but what inspired people to conceptualise, systemise and practise ‘yoga’.

And for that we could do no better that to look at our own life experience...what trigger us to seek out Yoga in the first place? What hole did it fill in our lives?

For was the answer to questions I had had for a very long time. Existential questions..and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one.

With that in mind I want to share the late author Henning Mankell’s description of the day, aged 9, he woke up to himself. This excerpt comes from the book that he wrote when diagnosed with cancer - his memoir on what it is to be a human...

“As I stand there on that freezing-cold morning fifty-seven years ago I experience one of those vital moments that will affect the rest of my life. I recall the situation in minute detail, as if the images have been branded into my memory. I am suddenly possessed by unexpected insight. It is as if somebody has given me a good shaking. The words come into my head of their own accord.

‘I am myself and no one else. I am me.’

At that moment I find my identity. Until then my thoughts had been childish, as they were meant to be. Now the situation was entirely different. Identity is necessary in order to develop awareness. I am myself and nobody else. I cannot be exchanged for anybody else. Life has suddenly become a serious matter.

I don’t know how long I stood there in the freezing-cold darkness, possessed by this new and bewildering understanding. All I remember is that I arrived late for school.”

- Excerpt from Quicksand by Henning Mankell.

Can you relate? I can.

It wasn’t until my teenage years that I woke up to myself and tbh I found it terrifying. I often wonder these days - if I had a spiritual practice back then would it have been such a shock?

As it was it totally derailed me. My mind was ravaged..."Who am I? What is the point of me? are these my thoughts? What is the point of life?" The reaction to these questions was visceral - anxiety and panic - an existential crisis if ever there was one. I felt trapped in my own mind and was overwhelmed with the feeling of fearful anguish.

At this point I want to relate Sri Ramana Maharshi’s own account of his existential crisis. Maharshi was 17 years old, had had no spiritual training and learnt nothing of spiritual philosophy when he spontaneously realised the Self (we can also call it 'enlightenment') - a state attained by very few of the most learned of sages after long and arduous training…

“It was about six weeks before I left Madura for good that the great change in my life took place. It was quite sudden. I was sitting alone in a room on the first floor of my uncles’s house. I seldom had any sickness, and on that day there was nothing wrong with my health, but a sudden violet fear of death overtook me. there was nothing in my state of health to account for it, and I did not try to account for it or to find out the reason for the fear. I just felt ‘I am going to die’ and began thinking what to do about it. It did not occur to to consult a doctor or my elders or friends. I felt that I had to solve the problem myself, there and then.”

Again..can you relate? I can.

Suffering, unease, shock, crisis…they are the catalysts that drove me to seek out something that made sense of it all.

Ramana Maharsi continues…

“The shock of the fear of death drove my mind inwards and I sadi to myself mentally, without actually framing the words: ‘Now death has come; what does it mean? What it is that is dying?This body dies.’ And I at once dramatised the occurrence of death. I lay with my limbs stretched out stiff, as though rigour mortis had set in, and imitated a corpse so as to give greater reality to the enquiry. I held my breath and kept my lips tightly closed so that no sound could escape, so tha neither the word ‘I’ nor any other word could be uttered. ‘Well then,’ I said to myself, ‘this body is dead. It will be carried stiff to the burning ground and there burnt and reduced to ashes. But with death of this body am I dead? Is the body I? It is silent and inert but I feel the full force of my personality and even the voice of the ‘I’ within me, apart from it. So I am Spirit transcending the body. The body dies but the Spirit transcending it cannot be touched by death. That means I am the deathless Spirit.’ All this was not dull thought; it flashed through me vividly as living truth which I perceived directly, almost without thought-process. ‘I’ was something very real, the only real thing about my present state…Fear of death had vanished once and for all.”

Maharshi continued to feel this whole and complete connection with his inner Self his entire life. He describes how even when he was chatting, reading, or anything else that involved his outer personality that the underlying ‘I’ was always there…like a base note. But that it was not always that way...

“Previous to that crisis I had no clear perception of my Self and was not consciously attracted to it. I felt no perceptible or direct interest in it, much less any inclination to dwell permanently in it.

It is true to say that not all of us will have these experiences. Or, perhaps we have them but (and this was true for me) but we get stuck in the questions…repeating them over and over causing more anguish.

What Ramana did differently to me was that he allowed the question to arise and then he forced himself to stay quiet and wait for the answer. I am in awe of the strength of mind it took to do that but he was an extraordinary man.

Over his lifetime never wavered in his simple philosophy - Pose yourself one question ‘Who am I?’. The answer, he assured, would transcend everything. You want to worship a single God? sure go ahead…finding your Self won’t negate it, it will just transcend the doctrine without denying it. He concluded that as everything is a manifestation of the Source of All and that your time would be best spent seeking the part of the Source of All that is within you.

And so finally I get round to what inspired this piece of writing in the first place and it is a passage from the Chāndogya Upanishad that I have been using in class this week:

1. [The teacher speaks] Harih, om. There is this city of brahman [the body], and in it a palace, a small lotus [of the heart], and in it a small space. What exists within that small space, that is to be sought; for that is to be understood.

2. And if they [the students] should say to him: ‘Now with regard to that city of brahman, and the palace in it, i.e. the small lotus of the heart, and the small space within the heart, what is there within it that deserves to be sought or to be understood?’

3. Then he should say: ‘As large as this space [all space] is, so large is the space in the heart. Both heaven and earth are contained in it, both fire and air, both sun and moon, both lightening and stars; and whatever there is of it [the Self] here in the world, and whatever is not [i.e. whatever has been or will be], all that is contained within it.

4. And if they should say to him: ‘If everything that exists is contained in that city of brahman, all beings and all desires [whatever can be imagined or desired], then what is left of it when old age reaches it and scatters it, or when it falls to pieces?’

5. Then he should say: ‘By the old age of the body, that [the space, or brahman within it] does not age; by the death of the body, that is not destroyed. That [the brahman] is the true Brahma-city [not the body]. In it all desires are contained. It is the Self, free from sin, free from old age, from death and grief, from hunger and thirst. It desires nothing but the highest reality and wills nothing but its own wholeness.

So maybe we can see the synchronicity between teachings noted down thousands of years ago... to the experience of a 9 year boy on a cold winter's day in late 1950’s Sweden... to the enlightenment of a modern day Indian sage…to maybe ourselves.

And that, to me, is the origin of yoga.


The books quoted from in this piece are:

Quicksand by Henning Mankell buy it here

Upanishads translated by F Max-Müller buy it here

The Collected Works of Sri Ramana Maharshi buy it here

Please note that these above links are affiliate links, that means if you purchase a book after clicking on there I get a small cut. Thanks for understanding.

photo credits - Emily Walker

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