top of page

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…