The Four Periods of Yoga

The Four Periods of Yoga

1. Archaic Yoga: It is during this time that the four ancient hymnodies, the Vedas (meaning wisdom), and ritual texts of the Aranyakas (forest dwellers) are found. These texts were the “revealed sacred knowledge” from holy people and consisted of thousands of hymns and chants designed to bring good fortune to those who invoked them. They were very ritualistic, and the rituals were not to be performed by just anyone. They were carried out by four priests. Each word and every inflection of tone was believed to be significant, so three would perform the ceremony, while the fourth would observe to make sure each word was spoken correctly and with the right inflection. 

2. Pre-classical Yoga: Pre-classical yoga is marked by the Upanishads. The word upanishad means “to come sit near.” Students would gather around their teacher to gain their wisdom. The Upanishads took a more philosophical view of life and living. They introduced the concept of reincarnation and an understanding of the energy (chakra) systems in the body. The Upanishads had four central concepts.  

  1. The ultimate reality of the universe is identical with our innermost nature.
  2. Only the realization of this can liberate one from suffering and the necessity of birth, life, and death.
  3. One’s thoughts and actions determine one’s destiny. 
  4. Unless one is liberated and achieves formless existence as a result of “true” wisdom, one is reborn. 

The most famous of the Upanishads is the Bhagavad-Gītā. It is in this epic Hindu text that the great Lord Krishna reveals the secrets of the universe to Arjuna as he is riding into battle. The Bhagavad-Gītā is also the text which outlines the practices of karma yoga, the discipline of selfless action as the path towards spiritual liberation.

3. Classical Yoga: Classical Yoga is defined by the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. He wrote his Yoga Sutras around 200 AD. The exact time is difficult to pinpoint as very little is known about Patanjali himself.  The word sutra means thread. The sutras consist of 195 aphorisms of yoga wisdom that can easily be committed to memory. Each aphorism is like an individual pearl of wisdom. The pearls can then be threaded together to form a complete philosophical outlook. These aphorisms are divided into four books known as Padas. The Sutras are probably best known in the Western yoga world for the eight limbs outlined as a roadmap for anyone interested in the pursuit of truth. Each limb is designed to help free the practitioner from his or her ignorance (avidya), by revealing a practitioner’s true nature (purusa). Among the limbs, you find ethical guidelines for living; breathing techniques; practices for exploring and taming the tumultuous currents of the mind; and of course, the physical practice of yoga postures (asana).  Classical yoga is known as yoga Darsana or the philosophical viewpoint. In this era, there are four main paths to God:  

  1. Karma yoga. The path for the active person, as it is the path of work and duty.
  2. Bhakti yoga. The path for the emotional person, as it is the path of devotion and love to a personal God.
  3. Jnana yoga. The path of the intellectual person, as it is the path of "right" knowledge.
  4. Raja Yoga. The path of the reflective person, as it is the path of controlling the mind and mastering the senses. 

It’s helpful to think of these four paths as individual colors of a rainbow. Each color mixes and fades into the other creating the complete spectrum of color within light.  

4. Post-Classical period: Post-Classical is everything that follows the Yoga Sutras, from about 200 AD onwards. It is at this time that Hatha yoga is born. Hatha means forceful. Hatha yoga places greater emphasis on the purification of the body. Including the physical practice of asanas. Hatha yoga is the foundation for many of the forms of yoga that Westerners practice today, which include: Iyengar, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Anyasura, Bikram, and Power Yoga.  

TKV Krishnamacharya is often given credit for the creation of vinyasa. It has been said that he observed the movements of acrobatics and wrestling and combined them with the poses he was taught by his teacher to develop Suryanamaskara A (Sun Salutations) and the more flowing transitions between postures. In 1933 he opened a yoga shala and trained three teachers who went on to be very influential teachers in the West. They were BKS Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga), Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga Yoga), and Indra Devi (Vinyasa Yoga).

These four broad categories, from Archaic Yoga to the Post-Classical period, span some 5,000 years. There are many spiritual texts, gurus, and subcategories I did not mention here. My intent with this section is to give you, the reader, a basic understanding of yoga's rich history, and to convey the depth of a practice that is much more than just a one-hour asana class. As a yoga practitioner, you are stepping onto a path that has been walked by many men and women before you. Yoga, whichever path you choose to follow, is not for the weak of heart or faint in spirit. It demands as Iyengar said, "honesty, sustained application and above all love in your heart."