Yoga: the forgotten martial art

When most people think of yoga, they imagine calm and mediation, perhaps with a nice backdrop of the Himalaya or possibly the a quasi-mystical setting on the banks of the Ganges River. Or in the last few decades as yoga has become popular outside of its native India, it has become associated with peace-loving California hippies. But with a history that several thousand years old it’s wrong to think of it in such simple terms. Yoga, in fact, started life so to speak as a form of martial art practised by warriors as battlefield training.

As with almost anything with a history that traces back to the dawn of humanity, the early records are unreliable or not existent. It was essentially a folk practice, passed down in families and specific social circles, but not codified. In this way it was similar to many folk practices like cooking or early medicine.

What is known is that the earliest forms of yoga were a combination of training for war and spiritual devotion. Most gods of the Hindu pantheon have a specific weapon associated with them and early yogic practice focused on the duality of war and worship.

It wasn’t until the Classical Period of Indian culture, ranging roughly from the 3rd to 11th centuries of the Common Era, that yoga began to be more codified. It’s in this period that we begin to see the very gradual shift from yoga as a tool for the warrior caste to yoga as a widespread practice across all of the Indian Subcontinent. Unsurprisingly this corresponds with the rise of Buddhism and religious texts in Sanskrit and Pali, when written records become far more widespread.

In 1526 Babur and his armies arrived from Mongolia via Afghanistan in India bringing with them Islamic religion, culture and architecture. Many of great symbols that today we think of as quintessentially Indian originate from this period such as the Taj Mahal. The nominally Muslim Mughal Empire was formed in the 16th century. When the Muslim minority ruled over the Hindu majority, many the traditional practices were divorced of their religious meanings and yoga became more of a sport than a religious pursuit. It’s from here that yoga as we know it today was formed. It became a way of training the body, and like other sports it became popular with as a spectator hobby as well, complete with people places betting on — a traditional that continues to this day.

But yoga didn’t lose its martial background. It was used by the Mughal, Sikh and British Empires by troops to train their bodies and minds for war. Even to this day the Indian Army uses yoga as a means of keeping soldiers in shape. Yoga and martial arts complement one another perfectly and for anyone who is a devotee of martial arts yoga is an excellent way to train the body! So, it’s not just for peace-loving hippies, even if that’s the reputation it has these days.