The spiritual sense of the word yoga first arises in Epic Sanskrit, in the second half of the 1st millennium BCE, and is associated with the philosophical system presented in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, with the chief aim of "uniting" the human spirit with the Divine.[24] The term kriyāyoga has a technical meaning in the Yoga Sutras (2.1), designating the "practical" aspects of the philosophy, i.e. the "union with the supreme" due to performance of duties in everyday life.[25]
During the Gupta period (4th to 5th centuries), a movement of northern Mahāyāna Buddhism termed Yogācāra began to be systematized with the writings of the Buddhist scholars Asanga and Vasubandhu. Yogācāra Buddhism received the name as it provided a "yoga," a systematic framework for engaging in the practices that lead through the path of the bodhisattva towards awakening and full Buddhahood.[168] Its teachings can be found in the comprehensive and encyclopedic work, the Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra (Treatise on the Foundation for Yoga Practitioners), which was also translated into Tibetan and Chinese and thus exerted a profound influence on the East Asian Buddhist and Tibetan Buddhist traditions.[169] According to Mallinson and Singleton, the study of Yogācāra Buddhism is essential for the understanding of yoga's early history, and its teachings influenced the text of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra.[170]
Modern yoga is a physical activity consisting largely of asanas, often connected by flowing sequences called vinyasas, sometimes accompanied by the breathing exercises of pranayama, and usually ending with a period of relaxation or meditation. It is often known simply as yoga,[211] despite the existence of multiple older traditions of yoga within Hinduism where asanas played little or no part, some dating back to the Yoga Sutras, and despite the fact that in no tradition was the practice of asanas central.[212]
The first known appearance of the word "yoga", with the same meaning as the modern term, is in the Katha Upanishad,[10][95] probably composed between the fifth and third century BCE,[96][97] where it is defined as the steady control of the senses, which along with cessation of mental activity, leading to a supreme state.[67][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.[99][100] It is the earliest literary work that highlights the fundamentals of yoga. White states:
^ * Wynne states that "The Nasadiyasukta, one of the earliest and most important cosmogonic tracts in the early Brahminic literature, contains evidence suggesting it was closely related to a tradition of early Brahminic contemplation. A close reading of this text suggests that it was closely related to a tradition of early Brahminic contemplation. The poem may have been composed by contemplatives, but even if not, an argument can be made that it marks the beginning of the contemplative/meditative trend in Indian thought."[73]
An influential text which teaches yoga from an Advaita perspective of nondualistic idealism is the Yoga-Vāsiṣṭha.[260] 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.[261]

In 1989 and 2003, the Vatican issued two documents: Aspects of Christian meditation and "A Christian reflection on the New Age," that were mostly critical of eastern and New Age practices. The 2003 document was published as a 90-page handbook detailing the Vatican's position.[286] The Vatican warned that concentration on the physical aspects of meditation "can degenerate into a cult of the body" and that equating bodily states with mysticism "could also lead to psychic disturbance and, at times, to moral deviations." Such has been compared to the early days of Christianity, when the church opposed the gnostics' belief that salvation came not through faith but through a mystical inner knowledge.[280] The letter also says, "one can see if and how [prayer] might be enriched by meditation methods developed in other religions and cultures"[287] but maintains the idea that "there must be some fit between the nature of [other approaches to] prayer and Christian beliefs about ultimate reality."[280] Some[which?] fundamentalist Christian organizations consider yoga to be incompatible with their religious background, considering it a part of the New Age movement inconsistent with Christianity.[288]

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.[59] Early Samhitas also contain references to other group ascetics such as munis, the keśin, and vratyas.[67] Techniques for controlling breath and vital energies are mentioned in the Brahmanas (texts of the Vedic corpus, c. 1000–800 BCE) and the Atharvaveda.[59][72] Nasadiya Sukta of the Rig Veda suggests the presence of an early contemplative tradition.[note 10]
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Tantra is a range of esoteric traditions that began to arise in India no later than the 5th century CE.[180][note 17] George Samuel states, "Tantra" is a contested term, but may be considered as a school whose practices appeared in mostly complete form in Buddhist and Hindu texts by about 10th century CE.[182] Tantric texts include yogic techniques, as well as complex rituals, the use of mantras, devotion towards particular deities and various other practices. Tantric yoga developed complex visualizations which included meditation on the body as a microcosm of the cosmos. They included also the use of mantras, pranayama, and the manipulation of the subtle body, including its nadis and cakras. One of the most popular models of the Hindu tantric body is that of the Kubjikamata tantra (10th century), in which six power centers or cakras of the subtle body as seen as six forms of the goddess Kubjika and her consort. This tantra also contains a teaching on the goddess Kundalini, which resides at the base of the spine and through certain visualization exercises may be made to rise up through the central channel to the crown of the head where she is united with Siva. These teachings on cakras and Kundalini would become central to later forms of Indian Yoga.[183]
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)[35]

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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.[244] Two mental qualities are said to be indispensable for yogic practice in Buddhism, samatha (calm, stability) and vipassanā (insight, clear seeing).[245] 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).[246][247] 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.