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The 4 Paths of Yoga

When you surf the web searching for types of yoga, you find a mess of terms, names styles and schools. Most of the articles are concerned with modern trademarks of sequencing yoga asanas (postures) mainly created in the west in the 20th century. The yogic tradition recognizes for main paths of yoga: Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga and Jnana Yoga. Each of these four paths is concerned in developing a different aspect of our system (Intellect, heart, body and mind) and each of the four if practiced adds to the evolution in the other three. People have different preferences and temperaments, so one may choose a certain path of these four as her/his main practice. Dispite our predisposition to be more emotional or bodily or intellectual, etc.. as human beings we are holistic in nature, we do not identify exclusively with one aspect of our being excluding the others… thus the best thing would be integrating all the four path in our daily practice (which is known as integral yoga).The physical practice of yoga postures (Hatha Yoga) was traditionally considered to be a preparation for Raja Yoga (real Raja Yoga discussed later in this article, not the technique taught by a Brahma Kumaris).

Karma Yoga: is the path of selfless service, the yoga of work. Yoga as a tool for achieving highest fulfillment teaches that “not by merely abstaining from work can one achieve freedom, therefore no one can refrain from doing something, not even for a moment”. Your peace and joy should not be conditioned by the activity your are doing even if the job you are engaged in is not the ideal job you’d like to be doing, and even if your actions and hard work are not bringing the fruits you have aspired. Fulfillment is a fruit of nonattachment not a result of action. “Therefore, without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty; for by working without attachment, one attains the supreme fulfillment”. Swami Sivananda says: “Man generally plans to get the fruits of his works before he starts any kind of work. The mind is so framed that it cannot think of any kind of work without remuneration or reward.” Therefore, the practice of Karma Yoga starts with maintaining the right attitude: performing the action for the sake of action itself, doing your duty for the sake of duty, as an offering totally detached of the results… To put it simpler, the duty of a pupil is to study, to learn, not to score good marks… to learn just for the sake of learning. The results of the exam are somebody else’s duty.

Bhakti Yoga: is the yoga of devotion, of universal love. Sufi’s can serve great examples of Bhakti Yogis. Jalaluddine Rumi says: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it”. This is exactly what Bhakti Yoga is. A Bhakti meets with love and devotion all life experiences considering them to be gifts and blessings no matter how hard they are. “You live that you may learn to love. You love that you may learn to live. No other lesson is required of Man. And what is it to love but for the lover to absorb forever the beloved so that the twain be one?”, as Mikhail Noaimi expresses it.

Jnana Yoga: is the yoga of knowledge. It is on one hand the theoretical explanation of the yogic experiences, and on the other hand an active inquiry on the true nature of the self, a careful inspection of “who am I?” setting aside all false identities (traditionally expressed as “ne ti, ne ti” – not this not, that). Such a systematic approach leads to the ultimate knowledge that the “Self” is not the body or mind, that one’s true nature is transcendental bliss and consciousness.

Raja Yoga: is the kingly yoga, the yoga of eight limbs. It is the path of skillfully controlling the body and mind. The eight limbs of yoga as stated by the sage Patanjali are: 1. Yamas. 2. Niyamas. (these two are the do’s and don’ts of yoga) 3. Asanas (yoga postures). 4. Pranayamas (brething techniques). 5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of organs of senses). 6. Dharana (concentration, shifting the attention to a fixed object) 7. Dhayana (meditation) 8. Samadhi (absorbtion in meditation). Note that it is not enough to withdraw the external senses when practicing Raja Yoga. “One who restrains the senses and organs of action, but whose mind dwells on sense objects, certainly deludes himself and is called a pretender”, as said in Bhagavad Gita.

Where then do all the physical “yogas” stand? “ashtanga”, “anusara”, “vinyasa”…etc.?
As mentioned above these are names of schools that deal with Hatha Yoga, which is traditionally a preparation for Raja Yoga. Hatha Yoga, though used now in the west to describe gentle asana classes is a indeed the general name under which all physical posture schools are included. If you attend an “ashtanga” yoga class at the local gym or yoga center it is a Hatha Yoga practice a la mode de Krishnamacharya who taught in the beginning of 20th century a specific sequence of postures (sequence I, II and III). The word “ashtanga” initially means “the 8 libms” of raja yoga but is now commonly used to describe Krishnamacharya’s sequence. Iyangar yoga is also a Hatha Yoga style that is based on the ashtanga sequence with some adjustments and variations added. The same applies to Anusara, Bikram and Jivamukti styles. All are styles of Hatha Yoga that is not a purpose in itself but rather a tool to help control the mind.