Paths of Yoga
With so many yoga styles floating around these days it can be confusing to understand how all of these styles fit together and what they share in common. Yoga is a system and a science of exploring what it means to be human, in this body, with this mind and connect to the divine that is within all of us. Just like different tools are needed for different jobs, so different paths of yoga are prescribed for different people. Below are the four main paths outlined in the ancient India text the Bhagavad Gita. As you read this, think to yourself, which one of these paths fits best with my personality?
Bhakti Yoga: This is the yoga of devotion. Of complete surrender to whatever chosen deity or God we beleive in. This is the path that is commonly practiced by the Hari Krishnas, you know, those guys you see on the streets in robes, singing, dancing, and chanting. It involves heart opening practices like mantras, and thinking about the wisdom stories, connecting with aspects of whatever you call Divine, with what makes you feel connected. One of the things that seems important to me about bhakti is what Krishna says in the Gita: all the paths work, but the bhakti path is easier, because it gives you a form to focus on.
Within the bhakti tradition, you reflect on Kali, Krishna, Jesus, or whoever is your favorite form and as that reflection matures you let go of the separation, you take the deity into your body and you feel like you are Krishna or Kali. In bhakti yoga losing yourself in the devotion brings deep happiness that leads toward wisdom, love, and clear seeing.
For more on Bhakti take a look at the recent interview with Sean Feith: The Magic of Devotion
Yama (abstinence) – non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-greed.
Beginning with the outside world, this step is a good recipe for how the yogi should prepare him/her self. It deals with the vital matters of our behavior, our attitudes, and how we are with others.
Niyama (observance) – purity, contentment, accepting but not causing pain, study of spiritual books, and self surrender to God
The second steps encourages us to treat our bodies as a temple that houses the spirit within. Keep it pure, clean. The same goes for speech and thought, keeping those clean and pure makes for a holy temple that becomes our vehicle for practicing yoga.
The downward dogs, the lounges, and the headstands, all fit into this category. In fact almost any Western style yoga class, no matter if its called shadow yoga, Iyengar, or Vinyasa, fits into this third step in the Raja Yoga tradition. Developed thousands of years ago, these poses are meant to cleanse and strengthen the body to prepare us for the later stages of yoga.
Pranayama (breath control)
Once the body has become strong and steady, what to do with this crazy monkey mind? To practice meditation we need not only a steady body but also a still mind and thus pranayama is used. There are dozens of different breathing techniques all with the purpose of purifying the mind.
Pratyhara (sense withdrawal)
As we get into this fifth stage, we are now ready to begin the journey inward and this means relinquishing our attachment to the world. In this stage we much let go of the need for others approval, and of societal norms. Here, the entire focus of our minds in every moment is set on observing the internal world that is within ourselves. This includes our bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts.
Many meditation techniques fall into this category. Just like a good cook needs sharp and strong knives so a yogi needs to have strong and focused mental powers to probe the depths of the mind.
Patanajali defines meditation as concentration that is unbroken. As an example, if your object of concentration is a candle, you can hold your attention on it without wavering for a long time. Or the object of concentration can be your heart or the tip of your nose.
In samadhi, meditation becomes so deep that we begin to experience states of ecstasy, and super- conscious states where we go even beyond the confines of thinking and thought and touch something deeper that is within us always. When the highest state of samadhi is achieved, the final part of our selfish ego is burned off and we become like the ancient masters; radiantly peaceful, completely content with whatever life brings us, and dedicated to selfless service in the name of mankind with an open and compassionate heart.
Karma Yoga: It is the path of action where we try to work a little bit more selflessly in the world. So that every act becomes an act of worship. That way we transform everything around us into the sacred, so there is no secular left. And so it becomes all encompassing, it becomes universal, all-accepting.
Like Mother Theresa used to say – I’m serving Christ. Christ in the poor, the destitute, or the one ridden with leprosy. How can I treat every single person as my teacher, as the divine embodied in front of me. Strive with every ounce of your strength for self-realization, and then translate that into action. You grow a little bit, and you are able to serve more effectively more selflessly, and through that you grow – elegant positive feedback, reinforcing itself, spiraling upward.
Just start where you are, you don’t have to wait to be highly evolved. A little bit each day, two minutes, five minutes. Work to the best of your ability without caring what comes out of it, without caring what others will think about it.
Jnana Yoga: Literally translates as knowledge yoga, uses two main tools to bring about yoga: viveka (discrimination) and vairayaga (dispassion). Viveka is the constant scrutinizing of every thought, every emotion, every sensation to determine what is real and what is not. Real being that which is unchanging and unreal is everything that is changeable and impermanent. At the same time, vairayaga accompanies one to stay unattached in order to really see reality for what it is – mind made. The ultimate goal of Jnana is to see the difference between the object of our awareness and that part of ourselves which can be called the knower or the witness. Once we realize that everything is changing all the time and the only true stillness is the witness within ourselves, we can rest in that part. With continued practice, for a long time, without break and in all earnestness all ignorance fades and yoga is achieved.