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.
According to Zimmer, Yoga philosophy is reckoned to be part of the non-Vedic system, which also includes the Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy, Jainism and Buddhism: "[Jainism] does not derive from Brahman-Aryan sources, but reflects the cosmology and anthropology of a much older pre-Aryan upper class of northeastern India [Bihar] – being rooted in the same subsoil of archaic metaphysical speculation as Yoga, Sankhya, and Buddhism, the other non-Vedic Indian systems."[note 6]
Ascetic practices (tapas), concentration and bodily postures used by Vedic priests to conduct yajna (sacrifice), might have been precursors to yoga.[note 9] Vratya, a group of ascetics mentioned in the Atharvaveda, emphasized on bodily postures which may have evolved into yogic asanas. Early Samhitas also contain references to other group ascetics such as munis, the keśin, and vratyas. Techniques for controlling breath and vital energies are mentioned in the Brahmanas (texts of the Vedic corpus, c. 1000–800 BCE) and the Atharvaveda. Nasadiya Sukta of the Rig Veda suggests the presence of an early contemplative tradition.[note 10]
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.
Śaradatilaka of Lakshmanadesikendra, a Shakta Tantra work 11th century CE "Yogic experts state that yoga is the oneness of the individual soul (jiva) with the atman. Others understand it to be the ascertainment of Siva and the soul as non-different. The scholars of the Agamas say that it is a Knowledge which is of the nature of Siva’s Power. Other scholars say it is the knowledge of the primordial soul." (SaTil 25.1–3b)
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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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Description of an early form of yoga called nirodhayoga (yoga of cessation) is contained in the Mokshadharma section of the 12th chapter (Shanti Parva) of the Mahabharata (third century BCE). Nirodhayoga emphasizes progressive withdrawal from the contents of empirical consciousness such as thoughts, sensations etc. until purusha (Self) is realized. Terms like vichara (subtle reflection), viveka (discrimination) and others which are similar to Patanjali's terminology are mentioned, but not described. There is no uniform goal of yoga mentioned in the Mahabharata. Separation of self from matter, perceiving Brahman everywhere, entering into Brahman etc. are all described as goals of yoga. Samkhya and yoga are conflated together and some verses describe them as being identical. Mokshadharma also describes an early practice of elemental meditation. Mahabharata defines the purpose of yoga as the experience of uniting the individual ātman with the universal Brahman that pervades all things.
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The first known appearance of the word "yoga", with the same meaning as the modern term, is in the Katha Upanishad, probably composed between the fifth and third century BCE, where it is defined as the steady control of the senses, which along with cessation of mental activity, leading to a supreme state.[note 13] Katha Upanishad integrates the monism of early Upanishads with concepts of samkhya and yoga. It defines various levels of existence according to their proximity to the innermost being Ātman. Yoga is therefore seen as a process of interiorization or ascent of consciousness. It is the earliest literary work that highlights the fundamentals of yoga. White states:
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