THE FOUR PATHS OF YOGA
Erika Smith Iluszko
Yoga is one of the six Darsana – the six philosophies in India – based on the Vedas. Yoga philosophy is a sister philosophy to Samkhya. It aims to purify the heart, mind and body of a human being, allowing for freedom from suffering and the union of the individual Self (the Atman) with the universal Self (the Brahman). Within this system of yoga are four major schools or paths, here we see that yoga acknowledges that different people have different personalities and ways of thinking; what works for one human being may not work for another. For this reason, there exists these four paths or school of yoga. These are Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga and Raja Yoga.
The first three schools of yoga were explained by Lord Krishna to Arjuna just before the start of the epic battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas in the Bhagavad Gita.
The last by the Maharsi Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra.
The first school of yoga, Jnana Yoga is the yoga of knowledge, this is a kind of yoga that is appropriate for people who are naturally philosophical, naturally seeking to understand very deeply how things work. How the world around them works and how they themselves function in relation to the world around them, what they’re made up of and trying to go deep down to the very nature of life. Going to the smallest possible parts of understanding everything down to the smallest details. This kind of yogis also like to study classical texts – the Upanishads, the Vedas, the Mahabharata, the Yoga Sutra, etc. If you are the kind of person who finds realization, understating, and peace through study – studying with a teacher, reading, philosophizing, asking questions, interpreting text or learning new things every day, then you may be a Jnana yogi. The two main qualities or qualifications for Jnana Yoga are known as viveka and vairagya. Viveka is translated as discernment, discernment relating to the knowledge of the Self, discerning between the real and the unreal, between the Self and the non-Self. The second quality Vairagya can be loosely translated as non-attachment or non-identification. Having the ability to subdue excitement, passion, attachment to the Self and the component of the Self – the mind, the senses, the feeling, emotions, our narrative, our stories, the identity that we have formed for ourselves over the years.
Bhakti Yoga is devotional yoga. It is the path of love. It is a yoga of divine worship, divine love. Seeing God in everything, seeing unconditional love in everyone and seeing everyone as divine. Ram Dass can be seen as a Bhakti yogi, he used to say that we are all gods, gods in drag. You may be a bhakti yogi if you are person who finds realization, peace and truth through worship or prayer. Maybe the most power practice you have ever experienced is group chanting, kirtan, or you cherish creating an altar or having a guru or a person or a divine that you worship to, that you can draw inspiration from. Bhakti yoga is an ancient school of yoga, it was even mentioned in the Upanishad in the context of participation, devotion and love in any activity. In the Upanishads, anything that is done with devotion and conscious worship and seeing everything as the divine is Bhakti yoga.
The third school, Karma Yoga, the yoga of Action. According to Lord Krishna, karma yoga is the spiritual practice of selfless action performed for the benefit of others. Karma yoga teaches that a practitioner or a spiritual seeker should act according to dharma without being attached whatsoever to the fruits of their actions or essentially to the personal consequences of their actions. It is said that karma yoga is best suited for people who are naturally extroverted, people who have enhanced interpersonal skills, people who are naturally active, dynamic and outgoing, they have a way with dealing with others. These types of people may find freedom from ignorance through work with others, though their selfless social service. You may be a karma yogi when you find that what you enjoy most in the world is connecting with others, being able to uplift, help or change a perspective for others, hold events for people and you know you are a karma yogi when you do these without any thought to what you may gain or how this will benefit you, you may be a karma yogi if this is true for you.
The last of path to yoga is Raja Yoga. Raja is Sanskrit for royal, high or majestic. This kind of yoga has been defined differently throughout history, now it is most closely associated with Ashtanga Yoga not the asana practice from Mysore but the eight-limbed path as described by the Maharasi Patanjali. This school of yoga is well-suited for people who are naturally meditative, more contemplative and are able to reach the states of pratyahara, dharana, dhayana and eventually Samadhi. Raja yoga, the eight-limbed path gives us clear steps to access union between the object of meditation and the subject, the observer and the observed, so eventually they come together and become united. It is said that this kind of yoga is best suited for people with a desire to achieve this systemic meditative and contemplative states.
You may feel that you like the combination of some or even all of these schools of yoga, either way it’s nice to know a bit of background. Since there are many ways of practicing yoga, gradually the interest in one path will lead to another. It could be that you begin by studying the Yoga Sutra or by meditating, or you may begin with practicing asanas and so start to understand yoga through the experience of the physical body, or maybe you begin with pranayama, feeling the breath as the movement of your inner being. There are no prescriptions regarding where and how we can begin our practice. We begin where we are and how we are, and whatever happens, happens. Whether we begin studying yoga by means of asana, pranayama, meditation or by reading ancient texts, the way we learn is the same. We progress, the more we become aware of the holistic nature of our beings, that we are made of body, breath, mind and more.
To us, the different paths of yoga are like a forest with different trees, filled with variety and color, the trees may look different from each other and they grow at different speed, but all them have one goal; to reach towards the light. One tree’s method is not better than the other.
Each species has individual characteristics which enable it to grow to its greatest potential. The various yogic systems are unique, yet all have the same purpose: to grow toward enlightenment. When practiced with regulation and awareness, the tree sprouts. Practice is the only way of feeding it. Pattabhi Jois is fond of saying, “99% Practice and 1% Theory. As I get older I begin to appreciate this quote more.
You may notice that Hatha yoga is not included in paths of yoga, since it is not an official path or school of yoga within in the yoga philosophy. Nowadays, hatha yoga is associated with the postural practices, I’ll do another blog about hatha since there seems to be a lot of confusion there.