There is no consensus on its chronology or specific origin other than that yoga developed in ancient India. Suggested origins are the Indus Valley Civilization (3300–1900 BCE) and pre-Vedic Eastern states of India, the Vedic period (1500–500 BCE), and the śramaṇa movement. According to Gavin Flood, continuities may exist between those various traditions:
Sandow was so successful at flexing and posing his physique that he later created several businesses around his fame, and was among the first to market products branded with his name. He was credited with inventing and selling the first exercise equipment for the masses: machined dumbbells, spring pulleys, and tension bands. Even his image was sold by the thousands in "cabinet cards" and other prints. Sandow was a perfect "Gracilian", a standard of ideal body proportions close to those of ancient Greek and Roman statues. Men's physiques were then judged by how closely they matched these proportions.
^ On the dates of the Pali canon, Gregory Schopen writes, "We know, and have known for some time, that the Pali canon as we have it — and it is generally conceded to be our oldest source — cannot be taken back further than the last quarter of the first century BCE, the date of the Alu-vihara redaction, the earliest redaction we can have some knowledge of, and that — for a critical history — it can serve, at the very most, only as a source for the Buddhism of this period. But we also know that even this is problematic... In fact, it is not until the time of the commentaries of Buddhaghosa, Dhammapala, and others — that is to say, the fifth to sixth centuries CE — that we can know anything definite about the actual contents of [the Pali] canon."
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In the early 11th century, the Persian scholar Al Biruni visited India, lived with Hindus for 16 years, and with their help translated several significant Sanskrit works into Arabic and Persian languages. One of these was Patanjali's Yogasutras. Al Biruni's translation preserved many of the core themes of Patañjali 's Yoga philosophy, but certain sutras and analytical commentaries were restated making it more consistent with Islamic monotheistic theology. Al Biruni's version of Yoga Sutras reached Persia and Arabian peninsula by about 1050 AD. Later, in the 16th century, the hath yoga text Amritakunda was translated into Arabic and then Persian. Yoga was, however, not accepted by mainstream Sunni and Shia Islam. Minority Islamic sects such as the mystic Sufi movement, particularly in South Asia, adopted Indian yoga practises, including postures and breath control. Muhammad Ghawth, a Shattari Sufi and one of the translators of yoga text in 16th century, drew controversy for his interest in yoga and was persecuted for his Sufi beliefs.
The Yoga Yajnavalkya is a classical treatise on yoga attributed to the Vedic sage Yajnavalkya. It takes the form of a dialogue between Yajnavalkya and Gargi, a renowned philosopher. The text contains 12 chapters and its origin has been traced to the period between the second century BCE and fourth century CE. Many yoga texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Yoga Kundalini and the Yoga Tattva Upanishads have borrowed verses from or make frequent references to the Yoga Yajnavalkya. The Yoga Yajnavalkya discusses eight yoga Asanas – Swastika, Gomukha, Padma, Vira, Simha, Bhadra, Mukta and Mayura, numerous breathing exercises for body cleansing, and meditation.
These meditations were seen as being supported by the other elements of the eightfold path, such as the practice of ethics, right exertion, sense restraint and right view. Two mental qualities are said to be indispensable for yogic practice in Buddhism, samatha (calm, stability) and vipassanā (insight, clear seeing). Samatha is the quality of a stable, relaxed and calm mind. It is also associated with samadhi (mental unification, focus) and dhyana (a state of meditative absorption). Vipassanā meanwhile, is a kind of insight or penetrative understanding into the true nature of phenomena. It is also defined as "seeing things as they truly are" (yathābhūtaṃ darśanam). The true nature of things is defined and explained in different ways, but an important and unique feature of classical Buddhism is its understanding of all phenomena (dhammas) as being empty of a self (atman) or inherent essence, a doctrine termed Anatta ("not-self") and Śūnyatā (emptiness). This is in sharp contrast with most other Indian traditions, whose goals are founded either on the idea of an individual soul (atman, jiva, purusha) or a universal monistic consciousness ( Brahman). Vipassanā also requires an understanding of suffering or dukkha (and thus the four noble truths), impermanence (anicca) and interdependent origination.
Sandow organized the first bodybuilding contest on September 14, 1901, called the "Great Competition". It was held at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Judged by Sandow, Sir Charles Lawes, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the contest was a great success and many bodybuilding enthusiasts were turned away due to the overwhelming amount of audience members. The trophy presented to the winner was a gold statue of Sandow sculpted by Frederick Pomeroy. The winner was William L. Murray of Nottingham. The silver Sandow trophy was presented to second-place winner D. Cooper. The bronze Sandow trophy — now the most famous of all — was presented to third-place winner A.C. Smythe. In 1950, this same bronze trophy was presented to Steve Reeves for winning the inaugural NABBA Mr. Universe contest. It would not resurface again until 1977 when the winner of the IFBB Mr. Olympia contest, Frank Zane, was presented with a replica of the bronze trophy. Since then, Mr. Olympia winners have been consistently awarded a replica of the bronze Sandow.
Ascetic practices, concentration and bodily postures described in the Vedas may have been precursors to yoga. According to Geoffrey Samuel, "Our best evidence to date suggests that [yogic] practices developed in the same ascetic circles as the early sramana movements (Buddhists, Jainas and Ajivikas), probably in around the sixth and fifth centuries BCE."
Theosophists including Madame Blavatsky also had a large influence on the Western public's view of Yoga. Esoteric views current at the end of the 19th century provided a further basis for the reception of Vedanta and of Yoga with its theory and practice of correspondence between the spiritual and the physical. The reception of Yoga and of Vedanta thus entwined with each other and with the (mostly Neoplatonism-based) currents of religious and philosophical reform and transformation throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Mircea Eliade brought a new element into the reception of Yoga with the strong emphasis on Tantric Yoga in his seminal book: Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. With the introduction of the Tantra traditions and philosophy of Yoga, the conception of the "transcendent" to be attained by Yogic practice shifted from experiencing the "transcendent" ("Atman-Brahman" in Advaitic theory) in the mind to the body itself.
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Classical yoga incorporates epistemology, metaphysics, ethical practices, systematic exercises and self-development techniques for body, mind and spirit. Its epistemology (pramana) and metaphysics is similar to that of the Sāṅkhya school. The metaphysics of Classical Yoga, like Sāṅkhya, is mainly dualistic, positing that there are two distinct realities. These are prakriti (nature), which is the eternal and active unconscious source of the material world and is composed of three gunas, and the puruṣas (persons), the plural consciousnesses which are the intelligent principles of the world, and are multiple, inactive and eternal witnesses. Each person has a individual puruṣa, which is their true self, the witness and the enjoyer, and that which is liberated. This metaphysical system holds that puruṣas undergo cycles of reincarnation through its interaction and identification with prakirti. Liberation, the goal of this system, results from the isolation (kaivalya) of puruṣa from prakirti, and is achieved through a meditation which detaches oneself from the different forms (tattvas) of prakirti. This is done by stilling one's thought waves (citta vritti) and resting in pure awareness of puruṣa.
The tantra yoga practices include asanas and breathing exercises. The Nyingma tradition practices Yantra yoga (Tib. "Trul khor"), a discipline that includes breath work (or pranayama), meditative contemplation and other exercises. In the Nyingma tradition, the path of meditation practice is divided into further stages, such as Kriya yoga, Upa yoga, Yoga yana, Mahā yoga, Anu yoga and Ati yoga. The Sarma traditions also include Kriya, Upa (called "Charya"), and Yoga, with the Anuttara yoga class substituting for Mahayoga and Atiyoga.
The first Hindu teacher to actively advocate and disseminate aspects of yoga, not including asanas, to a western audience, Swami Vivekananda, toured Europe and the United States in the 1890s. The reception which Swami Vivekananda received built on the active interest of intellectuals, in particular the New England Transcendentalists, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), who drew on German Romanticism and philosophers and scholars like G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), the brothers August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767–1845) and Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829), Max Mueller (1823–1900), Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), and others who had (to varying degrees) interests in things Indian.
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An influential text which teaches yoga from an Advaita perspective of nondualistic idealism is the Yoga-Vāsiṣṭha. This work uses numerous short stories and anecdotes to illustrate its main ideas. It teaches seven stages or bhumis of yogic practice. It was a major reference for medieval Advaita Vedanta yoga scholars and before the 12th century, it was one of the most popular texts on Hindu yoga.