The Origins of Yoga

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Yoga is becoming a hot trend globally because of its effect on both body and mind. Kat Fatland explores the origins of this ancient practice and discovers its ability as a great form of exercise for young and old, fit and unfit alike.

The Worldwide Buzz of Yoga

Yogo is somewhat of a buzzword in today’s exercise scene. More and more yoga studios are popping up in all corners of the globe: in small-town America, in Siem Reap, and notably in Kuala Lumpur. Penang’s yoga scene, albeit smaller, is full of passionate teachers ready to extoll the virtues of yoga to anyone ready to try yoga for the first time, or to brave the studio after years of floor practice at home. Studies continue to confirm yoga’s health benefits, which range from the psychological – lowered stress levels, heightened mindfulness – to the physiological – greater flexibility, lowered risk of obesity. Some research shows that practicing yoga can lower the risk of heart disease, and may even aid in the recovery of certain cancer patients. From high-profile celebrity testimonials to the suddenly-popular trend of yogis featuring their best backbends on their Instagram feeds, information abounds on the benefits of yoga. But much less is readily known about what yoga actually is and where it came from.

The Spiritual Origins of Yoga

For many of its modern practitioners, yoga is primarily a form of exercise, based around a series of postures, or asanas, designed to both stretch and strengthen the body. But this is just one of several parts that make up the ancient, holistic practice of yoga. Several seals found in Pakistan’s Indus Valley that depict figures sitting in yogic postures date back to 2000 BCE, suggesting that the physical aspects of yoga have been practiced for millennia. But metaphysical aspects of yoga did not reach full fruition until the second century BCE, when the Indian scholar Patanjali wrote what would come to be known as the formal philosophy of yoga: the Yoga Sutras. In Patanjali’s defining work, yoga is defined as “the stilling of the changing states of the mind”. In this definition, yoga’s greatest purpose is to attain a state of permanent peace through purification of body and mind.

The Sutras are a collection of 195 statements (“sutra” being loosely defined as “the condensation of the greatest amount of knowledge into the most concise description possible”) that offer guidance on how to gain mastery over one’s mind, body and emotions. According to the Sutras, yoga is made up of eight “limbs”, each of which contribute to the quieting of the mind. These include yamas (restraints), niyamas (observances), asanas (postures), pranayama (control of breath), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyani (meditation) and samadhi (absorbation, liberation or enlightenment). Taken together, the eight limbs are referred to as ashtanga and may be called “classical” yoga.

Postures and Breath work The yoga most of us are familiar with incorporates two of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s Sutras: asana and pranayama. These are the two primary components of Hatha yoga, practiced since the fifteenth century. Hatha was likely the first branch of yoga to practice the asanas as full-body postures, rather than sitting postures alone. Taking the two most physical elements of the original eight “limbs”, Hatha yoga builds strength and stamina in the body to prepare it for long periods of meditation. The word “hatha” is made up of two roots: ha, or sun, and tha, or moon. When combined, hatha indicates a balance between hot and cool; active and receptive; effort and surrendor. The 84 classical asanas of Hatha yoga focus on creating and maintaining this balance between opposites. Throughout the asanas, pranayama is used to regulate the breath, which further aids in bringing an equilibrium into one’s yoga practice, preparing the yogi for meditation.

There are hundreds of variations of Hatha yoga. Each are rooted in the fundamental ‘limbs’ of asana and pranayama. They differ in what they choose to emphasize. The popularly practiced Iyengar yoga emphasizes balance and posture; more so than other branches of yoga, great attention is paid to the alignment of each individual asana. Iyengar practitioners commonly utilize belts, pillows and blocks to achieve correct alignment. Anusara yoga is derived from Iyengar yoga, but focuses specifi cally on alignments that open the heart, like backbends. Vinyasa focuses particularly on the movement, or “fl ow”, between postures. This form of yoga is perhaps the most physically demanding, as yogis move relatively swiftly from one pose to another. Kundalini yoga focuses particularly on breathwork, in order to better control the release of “kundalini” energy, thought to reside at the base of the spine. But although the emphasis of each of these branches may be different, each represents yoga in its most physical form.

Modern Yoga Practice Of course, in modern culture, it’s fairly common to divorce our definition of “yoga” from its larger spiritual meaning. But yoga doesn’t merely burn calories, nor does it merely make our bodies more elastic, although it certainly does that in spades with enough practice. More than that, it offers its practitioners a time to slow down the speed of everyday life, to recover from the constant ups and downs that cause stress and anxiety. Although there are physical gains to be had from yoga practice, it remains rooted in a spirituality that advocates the unifi cation of body and mind towards a higher purpose of meditation and understanding.

In Penang, yoga culture outside of the gym is small, but is slowly and steadily growing. A core group of yoga teachers run studios all over Penang, bringing yoga to Penangites and expats alike. Two local instructors chimed in when I asked them what advice they may have for those seeking to start practice. Han Ni, yoga instructor at Penang’s Inner Peace Yoga Circle, often gets enquiries from people who believe they’re too inflexible or too big to practice yoga. Her response to those who don’t see themselves as fit for practice is that each of us has our limitations, but they should not deter anyone from trying yoga. “Lots of people associate yoga with contortion, postures and stretching,” she says, “but as more and more people become aware of the benefits of yoga, more people have the courage to give it a try.”

Michelle Quah of Nirmaya Yoga has been practicing yoga for eight years, receiving her teacher’s training in Ashtanga yoga and later moving towards an Anusarai nspired practice. She shifted towards the latter because of its joyful nature, which she passes on to her students during yoga sessions. Above all, she says, yoga is not about losing weight, or about out-posing the person on the mat beside you: it’s about connecting deeply with your own body, learning to stay in the moment, and breaking free of illusion (Nirmaya, in fact, translates to “without illusion”: a fitting name for Michelle’s studio). She advocates for yoga practitioners of all levels to stop by any of Penang’s studios every once in a while, as hands-on correction of postures is very important and helps yogis advance further in their practice.


With so many online resources and a growing number of studios, it’s easier than ever to try yoga out, and reap its many benefits. For more information on Penang studios, visit For more information on Han Ni’s studio, visit For more information on Michelle Quah’s studio, visit

Homepage highlight photo credit: Tomas Sobek, Flickr

Source: Penang International December 2013/ January 2014

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