21st Century Yoga is uni-dimensional, almost. Think Yoga, and you have an image of Yoga-pants-clad-Women stretching into Asanas on rubberized yoga Mats (on a wooden-floored Studio)! However, Yoga means a million times more than that – in fact, Asanas is just 1/8th part of 1 of the 4 main Branches of Yoga! In this post, let’s delve a little into Yoga’s tradition and unearth the 4 main branches of Yoga.
Before listing the 4 approaches in Yoga; it’s important to first have an understanding of what Yoga really means. Yoga, as described by its foremost authority – the Sage Patanjali (author of the Yoga Sutras, circa 500 BCE) – is a ‘Quieting of the Mind’ so that Innate Knowledge of our Self is Realized. This is my rudimentary explanation of Patanjali’s glorious Yoga definition, “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah”. It implies Self-Realization, Union of the Individual with Cosmic Consciousness, Transcending one’s limited Self, Nirvana, Samadhi and so on.
So, the goal of Yoga has been determined. Now, more important, is how does one reach this lofty goal. If YOU were to achieve Nirvana, what would you do? What options would be open to you? What are the tools that you can start with? This will depend on your Personality of course. Are you a thinking ‘Head’-oriented person? Or a loving ‘Heart’-oriented one? Or ‘Hands’-oriented? Let’s explore how this determines your primary mode of Yoga practice. Remember, all approaches have one common goal – Yoga – to raise you beyond your current, limited identification with your Self.
RAJA YOGA: All modern Yoga derives from Raja Yoga or the ‘Royal Path’. In fact Hatha Yoga, which forms a part of Raja Yoga is the basic building block for the modern Yoga practices. In Raja Yoga the Yogi utilizes his ‘body, mind and energy’ through a series of exercises – Asanas, Pranayam & Dhyaan – in order to enter into Meditation that will take him to a state of Samadhi or Nirvana. The classic example of a Raja Yoga practitioner is Patanjali himself.
JNANA YOGA: This is the Yoga of Enquiry, ‘of and beyond’ the Mind. Generally a thinking person interested in Philosophy is drawn to Jnana Yoga – where an understanding of the Self and the Universe is sought. The best starting point is an enquiry – traditionally the most potent one being, ‘Who am I?’ Logical, immediate answers are surpassed with time as this search for ‘who am I?’ becomes an all-consuming, life-long adventure. You’ll be able to use Logic up to a point but then will have to make a quantum leap to go beyond Logic and reach the realm of the Allogical (beyond logic and illogic). Classic example of a Jnana Yogi is Sri Ramana Maharishi, the great Indian seer who steadfastly search for an answer to ‘Who am I?’; reaching enlightenment through that means.
BHAKTI YOGA: This is the Yoga of the Heart, of Faith and Love. Here the aspirant’s spiritual practice is to worship God or the Divine. In that process the aspirant (Sadhak) is able to transcend his/ her limited Individual self. Bhakti Yoga is meant for people to whom Faith comes effortlessly. It’s a beautiful journey that has become the bedrock of religions such as Christianity and Islam. In India, a classic example is Meera and her undying love and worship of Krishna.
KARMA YOGA: Karma Yoga is the Yoga of Service, of helping and serving one’s brothers and sisters! It’s the most wonderful Service one can render – the essence being that it’s Service rendered without expecting a gain/favour in return. Through tireless Service without expecting to covet the Fruits of your Labour, the Karma Yogi is set free from the chain of Karma (cause-and-effect). Selfless Service frees an Individual allowing him/ her to transcend the limiting aspects of his/ her personality. A classic example being Mother Teresa who toiled tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of the poor lepers.
To succeed you need to use all 4 paths! Although these 4 paths appear to be different; it is often emphasized that as a Yogi you need to practice all the paths. Whilst one is your primary path, you definitely need a bit of every aspect so that you are able to approach Life and Liberation by using your Intelligence, Emotions, Body, Energy and everything else that you have! In fact there’s an old story that 4 wandering yogis met each other in the jungle. Each one followed a different approach – one Raja yogi, one Jnana yogi, one Bhakti yogi and one Karma yogi! As they spoke each one boasted about the sole importance of his path to liberation – and denounced the others for wasting their time. So the Jnana yogi made fun of the Raja Yogi for wasting time in physical poses, and laughed at the Bhakti yogi for worshipping God and the Karma Yogi for trying to help people before finding himself. Likewise each one decried the others too! All of a sudden it began to rain heavily and the yogis ran in search of shelter. As the night grew longer they got tired searching for a place to escape the rain. Eventually, it so happened that they all ended up at the same small temple that had a Shivling in it. The temple was just a covering for the Shivling – and so they all collapsed out of exhaustion on the Shivling statue and fell asleep. As morning came, they were in for a real surprise! As they woke up, they saw that the Shivling was not there – but in its place was Shiva himself! The 4 yogis bowed in veneration and began questioning him saying that ‘I have search for you for 20 years! Yet I haven’t ever found you?’ Shiva finally replied to them saying that only when you look for me with your Head, Heart and Hands – only when Raja, Jnana, Bhakti and Karma come together – will you find me!!
– Manish Pole Yogi, Teacher, Writer, Founder-Director: Total Yoga