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About these Courses

In this tour de force course trilogy on the history of yoga, no Sanskrit page, meditation cushion, or yoga block is left unturned. Embracing a wide variety of evidence, from pre-Common Era texts to contemporary books and academic scholarship, from archeology to mythology, from teacher-student lineages and oral histories to genetics, we invite you to journey with us into the colorful universe of ancient, premodern, and modern yoga.

We will investigate many angles and questions about yoga history:  When and where did yoga originate? Was the Buddha a yogi?  Is our received information romanticized alternative fact? When did yoga reach the US?  What are the oldest poses and which ones were made up yesterday?  How should we navigate conflicting histories? Can we strike a balance between tradition and innovation? Is the Western practice of yoga cultural appropriation or appreciation?  What, after all, is yoga—an exercise system, religion, science, spiritual path, or all of the above? 

By exploring yoga’s past and its ever-changing modern moment, you will gain new ways to think through information, mis- and dis-information about its origins and diverse unfolding expressions. You will learn how the yoga tradition developed from Indian practices deeply rooted in guru lineages to modern spiritual, exercise systems and post-lineage cultures. You will also study how ancient and modern traditions continue to blend and inform each other. A detailed 5000+ year timeline of texts, teachers, and traditions is provided.


Course 1: The Ancient Yoga Period 

(5000 B.C.E. to 200 C.E., including the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad-Gita, and Yoga Sutras) We will address the following topics from this period: When and where did yoga originate–in the ancient Vedas, the parallel tradition of Shaivism, or through a complex confluence of both these sacred traditions? What is the Aryan migration debate all about? Examining textual and genetic evidence, we will analyze how the Aryan controversy has affected the evolution of yoga, including India’s recent rise in nationalism. By looking at the Pashupatinat seal and a corresponding figure from Europe, we will explore various arguments about whether these are archeological evidence of ancient yoga postures. We will also delve into yoga’s formative texts and systems such as the Vedas, Upanishads, Ayurveda, Samkhya, Bhagavad Gita, and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Finally, we will discuss the oldest textual evidence of yoga postures, the latest work of James Mallinson and Mark Singleton who state that yoga originated in the Sramana movement, yogi mendicants such as the Kapalikas who may have influenced Buddhism, Jainism and later Hinduism, and lastly the development of classical yoga influenced by the compilation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
In this module, we will discuss when and where yoga originated–in the ancient Vedas, the parallel tradition of Shaivism, or through a complex confluence of both these sacred traditions? We will decode the Aryan migration debate, discuss the textual and genetic evidence and explain how the Aryan controversy has affected the evolution of yoga.
We will discuss the Indus Valley civilization and the Pashupatinath seal and a corresponding figure from Europe and explore various arguments about whether these are archeological evidence of ancient yoga postures. We will explore the early Vedas and how they were possibly influenced by a different culture; we will discuss the importance of two archetypes: the Vedic priest and the yogi. How different are they, and can they be the same person?
In module 3, yoga’s formative texts and systems will be discussed—the Vedas, Upanishads, Ayurveda, Samkhya, Bhagavad Gita. What are some common threads in these texts and what are some of the main differences? What were the cultural circumstances under which these texts were developed, such as in the greater Magadha culture? Were the texts coming from different sources and cultures, and were they part of oral lore long before they were written down?
The oldest textual evidence of yoga postures, as well as the latest work of James Mallinson and Mark Singleton, who state that yoga originated in the Sramana movement at the time of the Buddha (500 BCE), will be discussed. We will end the module with an in depth look at the nature and importance of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and compare its nature and influence to Samkhya, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.

Course 2: The Premodern Yoga Period

(200 C.E -1800 C.E., including Tantric traditions, Hatha Yoga, and Bhakti Yoga) We will address the following topics from this period: The so-called Tantric Renaissance in the Middle Ages to discern whether Tantra was a new development or a continuation from the oral tradition and the Puranas. The meditation practices described in the Yoga Sutras and analyze its Kriya Yoga system to determine its possible Tantric roots. By looking at various Hatha Yoga texts, the influential Nath tradition, and its famous teachers Goraksanath and Matsyendranath, we will discuss their possible influences on later and contemporary yoga traditions. The Kashmir Tantra traditions, its teachers, and some of its most important texts, such as the Vijana Bhairava. Then we will revisit some important questions: did yoga originate in the Vedas and advance through the Upanishads and the Yoga Sutras, and blossom into the later Tantra traditions? Or did yoga advance as a composite tradition from the beginning, with core teachings from both Vedic and Tantric traditions? We will finally explore the different expressions of yoga, such as Vedanta and Bhakti Yoga, the many Tantric paths, as well as the development of Hinduism after various Muslim invasions, and also the British imperialist influence on yoga, both in India and globally.
We’ll begin where we left off at the end of Trimester #1 by looking at textual and material culture evidence from the Ancient Yoga Period to determine what practices existed before and around the shift to the Common Era. The core teachings of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, especially sutras that discuss meditation, will be our focus.
In module 2, we will look at post 2nd c. texts, some of which are categorized as “Hatha Yoga,” such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, to learn about what they say about asana, etc. and how they relate to contemporary yoga traditions. Our discussions will mention the Nath tradition and its teachers Goraksanath and Matsyendranath. different are they, and can they be the same person?
In module 3, we will explore Kashmir Tantra traditions and texts such as the Vijana Bhairava and the Pratyabhijna-Hrdaya.
In module 4, we will look at the underreported Siddha tradition of South India, especially the Tamil Shaiva Siddhanta of Tirumular. We will also review the information presented until this point in history, and set the stage for where we will go in Trimester #3.

Course 3: The Modern Yoga Period 

(1800 C.E. until today, including Vivekananda’s arrival in the US, Krishnamacharya’s invention of modern postural yoga, and the popular yoga revolution) We will address the following topics from this period: The influential Indian sage Ramakrishna and his famous disciple Vivekananda who became the first Westernized Indian yogi. Following in these footsteps, Yogananda arrived in the West and taught an integral yet modernized form of yoga incorporating both meditation and posture yoga. Next is Krishnamacharya who invented modern posture practice, and his disciples including Pattabhi Jois and B. K. S. Iyengar, who popularized these practices in yet newer forms in the West. We will discuss whether Krishnamacarya drew on older asana teachings or invented new postures. We will then explore the difference between the traditional, largely soteriological paths of yoga and how that overlaps and contrasts with modern yoga as a fitness, spiritual, holistic lifestyle practice. The many cultural, psychological and even political issues surrounding modern yoga will be explored, such as appropriation vs. appreciation, commercialism, fame and abuse, the pros and cons of gurus, and the growing post-lineage yoga movement. Finally we will discuss what the future of yoga may hold—will it become largely Westernized and self empowerment oriented, or will it herald a new bridge, a global, universal, cross cultural search for health, happiness, meaning and enlightenment. Or will it blossom into something entirely different.
The transition into the Modern Era occurred during Islamic and then British colonial rule in India. We will discuss these outside influences on the development of yoga and look at particular figures such as Ramakrishna and his disciple, Vivekananda, who was the first Westernized Indian yogi. Following in his footsteps, Yogananda arrived in the West and taught an integral yet modernized form of yoga. Krishnamacharya invented modern posture practice, and his students B. K. S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, Desikachar, and Indra Devi popularized these practices in yet newer forms in the West. We will discuss whether Krishnamacarya drew from older asana teachings or invented new postures.
We will explore the global reach of yoga by looking at its influence in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, and also its effect on Mahatma Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King Jr’s political movements. It’s a testament to yoga’s global reach that there are more teachers to discuss than what time allows for, though we will mention Maharishi Mahesh Yoga, Yogi Bhajan, Krishnamurti, Swami Muktananda, and others. different are they, and can they be the same person?
We will continue to explore the many influential teachers who popularized yoga worldwide. A focus will be the difference between traditional, largely soteriological paths of yoga, and how that overlaps and contrasts with modern yoga that can be a fitness, spiritual, holistic lifestyle practice. The many social, psychological, and political issues surrounding modern yoga will be addressed, such as cultural appropriation vs. appreciation, commercialization, fame and abuse, pros and cons of gurus, and the growing post-lineage yoga movement.
In this final class we will ask and answer big questions: What is yoga’s history? Is yoga Hindu, Buddhist, both, or neither? Is yoga religion? What legal issues and lawsuits have arisen? What teacher/student boundary issues have developed? What does the future of yoga hold? Will it herald a new bridge as a global, universal, cross-cultural search for health, happiness, meaning, and enlightenment? Or will it blossom into something entirely different? And what role will you play in this unfolding history and the stories told about it?

Students who take this course will:

  • Learn about the texts, teachers, and traditions in yoga’s 5000+ year history.
  • Become knowledgeable about the past in order to contribute productively to discussions about what yoga is and can become.
  • Identify the information, mis- and dis-information embedded in received histories of yoga; dissect facts from fictions.
  • Encounter some of yoga history’s most colorful and influential teachers.  Discover fascinating and even contested details about yoga’s origins, history, philosophies, and future.
  • Study with two scholar-practitioners from vastly different educational and personal backgrounds, whose views do not always align while watching them model civilized dialogue and mutual respect.  A rare opportunity!
  • Participate in a class where people come together despite and because of our differences to create something bigger than any of us can create from within our separate echo chambers.
  • Embrace the fact that the study of history is an essential part of being human and thus part of an ethically grounded and evolving yoga journey.

About

About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes is the co-founder and Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center specializing in yoga and Ayurveda in the spirit that a balanced lifestyle is our best medicine. Ramesh is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He lived in India and Nepal for several years in the 1980s learning directly from the traditional teachers of Tantric yoga. He studied yoga therapy in India, Ayurveda at California College of Ayurveda and yoga detox therapy in the Philippines. He is the author of four books, including Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House). Ramesh lives and practices with his wife in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Websites: www.rameshbjonnes.com & www.prama.orgÊ

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  • Member Only Content
    Unlimited access to premium articles, special podcast series, and other member only content.
  • EPTV Streaming Video Service
    Access to EPTV Original Series and our video library of over 250+ hours of lectures, talks and workshops.
  • Wisdom School Courses
    Access to 60+ on-demand courses plus two new courses every month.