The tradition of yoga originates from a long line of complex yet potent written teachings. While the Vedas are considered the most sacred and treasured spiritual texts of India, it is the Upanishads that transferred the foundational wisdom of the Vedas into practical and personal teachings. The stories and lessons in the Upanishads may seem distant and vague, they are essential for a dedicated yogi to study and understand. There are four primary teachings that create the framework and foundation of yogic philosophy.

What are the Upanishads?

The word Upanishad is usually interpreted as “sitting down beside.” This Sanskrit word can be broken down into three parts and translated as “upa” meaning near, “ni” as down and “shad” as to sit. Thus the meaning of the word confers the intent of these texts to directly transfer knowledge and truth from teacher to student. The collection of Sanskrit texts known as the Upanishads are thought to be the direct teachings received at the foot of the ancient Indian sages or Rishis.

In these sacred texts, we see an internalization of the sacrifice and worship extolled in the Vedas and a deeper understanding and exploration of the internal world of mind and spirit. Composed over several centuries and in many volumes, the Upanishads reflect a strong need to express and communicate the deep mystical states and spiritual contemplations that the ancient yogis experienced.

According to tradition, there were over two hundred Upanishads, but there are only eleven “principal” Upanishads, as commented on by the ancient sage Shankara. The texts are written in a passionate poetic verse describing mystical states and spiritual concepts or in descriptive short stories and dialogues between historical figures.

There are between 180-200 Upanishads but the best known are the 13 which are embedded in the four Vedas known as:

  • Rig Veda
  • Sama Veda
  • Yajur Veda
  • Atharva Veda

The Rig Veda is the oldest and the Sama Veda and Yajur Veda draw from it directly while the Atharva Veda takes a different course. All four, however, maintain the same vision, and the Upanishads for each of these address the themes and concepts expressed. The 13 Upanishads are:

  • Brhadaranyaka Upanishad
  • Chandogya Upanishad
  • Taittiriya Upanishad
  • Aitereya Upanishad
  • Kausitaki Upanishad
  • Kena Upanishad
  • Katha Upanishad
  • Isha Upanishad
  • Svetasvatara Upanishad
  • Mundaka Upanishad
  • Prashna Upanishad
  • Maitri Upanishad
  • Mandukya Upanishad