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We all want to be happy and lead a life that is free from suffering. Yogic philosophy suggests that the root cause of all of our suffering is a forgetfulness and disconnection with our True Self. This forgetfulness or ignorance is called avidya and can be traced back to the mind’s creation of separateness as an individual identity, apart from the rest of existence. In this article, we discuss the 4 paths of yoga such as Karma, Jnana, Bhakti and Raja yoga.
According to Vedanta, the ancient scriptures, there are 3 impurities of the mind, which cause avidya:
- Mala – selfishness, thinking in a way which looks only for the benefit of oneself, building momentum of an individual, singular, egoic identity.
- Vikshepa – the tendency of the mind to be focused outward, constantly moving from one thought to another. Often known as the “monkey mind.”
- Avavana – the forgetfulness or not knowing our True Self in the form of layers of layers, which appear to separate us from all Life.
4 Paths of Yoga
There are 4 governing forces that represent ‘True Nature’ of our lives. These are Mind, Body, Emotion & Energy.
On the basis of these 4 forces, each person has a different kind of individuality. Hence, ancient sages developed disciplines for each kind of person to achieve the ultimate goal of yoga & we call it 4 paths of yoga.
Jnana Yoga: Jnana Yoga is the path of knowledge, wisdom, introspection and contemplation. It involves deep exploration of the nature our being by systematically exploring and setting aside false identities.
Bhakti Yoga: Bhakti Yoga is the path of devotion, emotion, love, compassion, and service to God and others. All actions are done in the context of remembering the Divine.
Karma Yoga: Karma Yoga is the path of action, service to others, mindfulness, and remembering the levels of our being while fulfilling our actions or karma in the world.
Raja Yoga: Raja Yoga is a comprehensive method that emphasizes meditation, while encompassing the whole of Yoga. It directly deals with the encountering and transcending thoughts of the mind.
1.What is Jnana Yoga?
Jnana is Sanskrit for “knowledge or wisdom” and Jnana Yoga is the path of attaining knowledge of the true nature of reality through the practice of meditation, self-inquiry, and contemplation. Jnana Yoga can be defined as the “awareness of absolute consciousness,” and is a comprehensive practice of self-study (Svadhyaya).
In Jnana yoga, the mind is used to inquire into its own nature and to transcend the mind’s identification with its thoughts and ego. The fundamental goal of Jnana yoga is to become liberated from the illusionary world of maya (self-limiting thoughts and perceptions) and to achieve the union of the inner Self (Atman) with the oneness of all life (Brahman). This is achieved by steadfastly practicing the mental techniques of self-questioning, reflection and conscious illumination that are defined in the Four Pillars of Knowledge. Jnana Yoga utilizes a one-pointed meditation on a single question of self-inquiry to remove the veils of illusion created by your concepts, world views, and perceptions. This practice allows you to realize the temporary and illusionary nature of maya and to see the oneness of all things.
Prerequisites of Jnana Yoga
The Four Pillars of Knowledge (sadhana chatushtaya) are the prescribed steps toward achieving liberation in Jnana Yoga. These practices build upon each other and thus should be practiced in sequential order. Even if one does not have the goal of achieving liberation, practicing these techniques will cultivate spiritual insight and understanding as well as reduce one’s suffering and dissatisfaction of life.
- Viveka (discernment, discrimination) is a deliberate, continuous intellectual effort to distinguish between the real and the unreal, the permanent and the temporary, and the Self and not-Self.
- Vairagya (dispassion, detachment) is cultivating non-attachment or indifference toward the temporal objects of worldly possessions and the ego-mind. “It is only when the mind is absolutely free from the attachment of all sorts that true knowledge begins to dawn.” – Swami Sivananda.
- Shatsampat (six virtues) are six mental practices to stabilize the mind and emotions, and to further develop the ability to see beyond the illusions of maya.
• Shama (tranquility, calmness) is the ability to keep the mind peaceful, through moderating its reaction to external stimuli.
• Dama (restraint, control) is the strengthening of the mind to be able to resist the control of the senses, and the training of the senses to be used only as instruments of the mind.
• Uparati (withdrawal, renunciation) is the abandonment of all activities that are not one’s Dharma (Duty). A simple lifestyle is followed that contains no worldly distractions from the spiritual path.
• Titiksha (endurance, forbearance) is the tolerance of external non-conducive situations that are commonly considered to produce suffering, especially in extreme opposite states (success and failure, hot and cold, pleasure and pain).
• Shraddha (faith, trust) is a sense of certainty and belief in one’s guru (teacher), the scriptures and the yogic path.
• Samadhana (focus, concentration) is the complete one-pointedness of the mind.
- Mumukshutva (longing, yearning) is an intense and passionate desire for achieving the liberation from suffering. In order to achieve liberation, one must be completely committed to the path, with such longing that all other desires fade away.
How to practice Jnana Yoga
It can be difficult to grasp or comprehend the intellectual approach of jnana yoga, and since one can easily overemphasize intellectual attainment it is important to cultivate humility and compassion on this path. It is easy to become entangled in the constructs and thoughts of the mind and lose sight of the goal of jnana: to realize the divine oneness inherent in all beings.
It is recommended that one practice Hatha Yoga, Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga as prerequisites. These yogic practices will prepare and purify the body, mind, and heart for the rigors of Jnana Yoga.
Once you have attained some advancement in the other yogas, begin practicing the four pillars of knowledge. You do not need to feel you have mastered one pillar before moving on to the next, but do resist the temptation to progress forward before you are ready. This is considered an advanced practice and thus would be contraindicated for anyone with a history of mental disease or emotional instability. Working with a qualified teacher or guru is highly recommended to accurately assess your progress, offer individual instruction, and provide guidance for your progression.
Three core practices of Jnana Yoga
After one has studied and successfully practiced the four pillars, then you are considered ready to begin the Three core practices of Jnana Yoga. These Upanishadic teachings include sravana or “hearing,” manana or “reflection,” and nididhyasana or “meditation”. These lead to Atma-Sakshatkara or direct realization.
- Sravana is the hearing or experiencing the sacred knowledge in the ancient Vedic texts of the Upanishad. Usually, a teacher or guru will guide the yogi through discussions on the philosophy of non-dualism. In this stage, the student should read and study the Upanishads and achieve a deep understanding of the concepts of Atman and Brahman and the philosophy of non-dualism.
- Manana is the thinking and reflecting on these teachings of non-duality. The student is expected to spend many hours thinking and contemplating on the various ideas of svadhyaya and sravana.
- Nididhyasana is the constant and profound meditation on the inner Self. This involves the meditation and reflection on the real meaning of the Maha-Vakyas, the primary mantras or “Great Sayings” of the Upanishads. Through the continuous focus on these seeds of wisdom, a yogi can obtain the union of thought and action, knowing and being.
2.What Is Bhakti Yoga?
It can seem as though the word “yoga” has become synonymous with contortionist poses, usually performed by fit, nondisabled, white bodies in utopian locales — but that is far from the full picture of what this rich tradition has to offer.
The physical postures are just a tiny fraction of the practice. In fact, many styles of yoga don’t involve doing poses at all.
Returning to the root of the word “yoga,” we find “yuj-,” which means “to yoke, bind, or connect.” While there are many lineages of yoga, all with different routes and aims, all styles and schools of yoga share a search for connection to something greater than ourselves.
It could be argued that no style of yoga is more devoted to that search than Bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion.
Bhakti yoga is often called the yoga of love or the path of devotion.
The word “bhakti” comes from the root “bhaj,” which means “to pray” or “to share.”
While there can be a heavy focus toward specific deities or the Divine, depending on your lineage, many modern scholars and teachers now explain Bhakti yoga much more globally. They consider it the practice of seeking unconditional loving for everyone and everything.
How do you practice Bhakti yoga?
Although it is now offered at popular studios, you don’t even need a mat to do this style of yoga. In fact, you don’t need anything other than your heart.
Where many forms of yoga are focused on the physical movements (asana) or specific breathing or meditation techniques, Bhakti yoga employs a wide variety of contemplative practices and rituals.
These days you’ll find many Bhakti yoga classes combined with other styles of yoga. For example, there may be something on the schedule called Bhakti Flow Yoga that includes practicing physical postures with Bhakti elements, such as kirtan (devotional singing) or mantra.
Teixeira calls her movement classes “Hatha & Bhakti.” In them, she teaches asana woven with different Bhakti practices, such as hastabhinaya, which is a form of storytelling through hand gestures.
Forms of Bhakti yoga
There are many forms in which you may practice Bhakti yoga:
In addition to praying to a deity or the Divine, sending prayer to other people can be considered a form of Bhakti.
Swami Rama (1925–1996) was a well-known yoga guru and practitioner of Bhakti yoga. He differentiated between “ego-centered prayer,” which he explains as “desire-filled prayer,” and “genuine prayer,” which comes from within.
The word “mantra” actually comes from two Sanskrit words: “manas,” which means “mind,” and “trava,” meaning “to liberate.”
Mantras can be single syllables, individual words, or passages. Many mantras are given to students directly by their guru or teacher, but others are found in yogic texts.
For example, the word “aum” (sometimes spelled “om”), which is often used as a mantra, was first introduced in an Upanishad. When a mantra is repeated, it is called japa.
Mudra is symbolic gesture usually expressed by the hands and fingers, though some mudras involve the entire body.
Teixeira enjoys teaching and sharing the work of medieval poets Mirabai (c. 1500–1545) and Aka MahaDevi (c. 1130–1160), but any poet who speaks to you and moves you can count.
The word “kirtan” means “to recite, praise, or narrate.” This style of music is based on ancient chants, mantras, or deities’ names and is usually sung in a call-and-response format.
In addition to being a renowned Bhakti yoga teacher, Teixeira happens to be married to Grammy award-winning artist and kirtan artist Jai Uttal.
Altars are structures upon which people make offerings and religious rites. In the Bible, altars are sometimes referred to as “God’s table.”
An altar can be something as simple as a desk or windowsill on which you have pictures of family members and a feather you found on a walk, or as ornate as a proper altar table. Altar items are any items that have meaning to you.
Benefits of Bhakti yoga
There are plenty of benefits to reap from practicing this profound, meditative, and gratitude-inducing form of yoga. Some of the benefits of Bhakti yoga include:
- Improved mood
Group song and chanting have long been linked to improved mood and psychological well-being, but a recent study found that even online chanting appears to have positive psychosocial benefits, showing the power of collective song.
- Positive well-being
For decades now, studies have found prayer to be linked to the improvement of subjective well-being among people who pray .
- Reduced stress
Recent findings have linked mantra meditation to reduced stress, though research is somewhat limited .
Hatha yoga, which is movement-based yoga, is regularly associated with reduced stress, so hybrid classes like Bhakti Flow or Hatha & Bhakti Yoga may provide such benefits as well.
- Improved attention capacity
A 2017 study found that praying a situation would improve helped people fixate less on their worries and strengthened their overall capacity for holding their attention on the things they wanted to focus on.
- Pain relief
Reading, writing, and listening to poetry has been linked to pain management over the years. A 2020 research review noted that poetry seemed to have particularly healing effects during the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
- Achieving bliss
One of the main goals of Bhakti practices is to attain rasa, which is sheer bliss as the result of connecting with the Divine. While this is entirely subjective and needs more scientific backing, many practitioners anecdotally report this blissful benefit.
What are the origins of Bhakti yoga?
Humans have been curious about the Divine since the beginning of contemplation and critical thinking.
Many of the prayers and mantras that Bhakti yoga practitioners recite originated in the first texts of yogic teaching, the Vedas (1500 B.C.), which are the oldest scriptures of Hinduism.
Another early mention of Bhakti yoga appears in the Shvetashvatara Upanishad.
The Upanishads are a series of commentaries on the Vedas, composed over many years from about the first century B.C. to around 1400 C.E. In the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, “Bhakti” is said to mean “devotion and love for any endeavor”.
But some teachers feel that it was in the Bhagavad Gita, a poem found within India’s great epic, the Mahabharata (composed somewhere between the first and second century C.E.), that Bhakti yoga was first taught as its own path of yoga.
The Bhagavad Gita (meaning “the song of God”), talks about four paths of yoga, called the four margas. These are:
- Karma Yoga, the yoga of selfless service
- Jñana Yoga, the yoga of knowledge and learning
- Raja Yoga, the practice of conquering the mind through Patanjali’s eight-limbed path
- Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion
It’s worth mentioning that the Bhagavad Gita is specifically devoted to Lord Krishna, while there are numerous other deities in Hindu theology. For this reason, other teachers reference the Puranas (written between 400 and 1500 C.E.) as additional pivotal Bhakti yoga texts (3).
There are said to be 18 Puranas (though the number can vary depending on the source) dedicated to different deities.
3.What is Karma Yoga?
Karma yoga is one of the four classical schools of yoga alongside Jnana (knowledge or self-study), Bhakti (devotion) and Raja (meditation), each offering a path to moksha (spiritual liberation) and self-realization.
Derived from the Sanskrit term for “action”, karma is understood by both Hindu and Buddhist traditions to be the sum of a person’s deeds in past, present and future states of existence. In yoga, karma is known as the path of action, or selfless service towards others.
Karma yoga is considered to be one of the most practical and effective means of spiritual development.
The Four Principles of Karma Yoga Explained
Everybody has duties in life. Some are because of society or family, while others are choices we make, like being a good boss or supportive friend. In Karma Yoga, duties are known as dharma, and recognizing and ranking them is key.
While understanding our role in other people’s lives is fundamental, the highest obligation you have is towards yourself. Only by ensuring your well-being can you effectively support others. Moreover, any duty you perform should be done with diligence. Whether tidying a room or completing a task at work, it should reflect your best efforts.
Ego is your self-image and the thoughts you have about yourself and others, shaped by characteristics such as your likes, dislikes, and desires. Often, we base our actions on how they’ll affect our image. While some believe ego helps them perform better, it can also be harmful. Ego can distort our view of reality and cloud our understanding.
In contrast, selfless action is about performing duties without thinking about yourself. The core goal of this practice is to manage and eventually free yourself from ego.
Karma Yoga is about doing your duty impartially, without getting attached to it. Whether you enjoy the task or not, you give it your all. For instance, as a teacher, you wouldn’t favor one student over another. The focus is on performing the duty, without concern for the outcome or the process.
4. Expectation of Reward
We often act with the expectation of a return. This could be working for a paycheck or recognition, or even caring for loved ones in hopes of receiving their love and gratitude. But when you act without expecting rewards, the result doesn’t influence your actions. You do it because it’s the right thing to do, not for personal gain. This is Karma Yoga.
Benefits of Karma Yoga
Karma Yoga has many benefits. Some of these can be seen immediately, while others will only be realized after consistent regular practice. Here are three 341significant benefits of selfless action:
- Reduces Ego
Karma Yoga helps you act without letting your ego get in the way. You do what needs to be done rather than what you feel like doing. Over time, this reduces your ego and helps you think and act with pure intention.
- Priorities Become Clearer
By practicing Karma Yoga, you get a clear idea of what’s important. You understand your responsibilities and do them without getting too attached or making it about yourself.
- Balances Karma
Since you’re doing tasks without letting ego or personal desires interfere, you can fix past wrongs without creating new ones.
How to Practice Karma Yoga Daily
To practice karma yoga in your daily life, follow these simple steps:
1. List Your Core Duties
Everyone plays multiple roles in their lives. In order to practice Karma Yoga, you first need to inspect your relationships in the light of yoga philosophy and distinguish between the roles we play for personal gain from those we do without expecting anything in return. Identifying your duty in your relationships helps you make the right choices.
2. Rank & Prioritize Them
Not all roles and duties carry the same weight in different phases of life. By prioritizing them, you don’t just organize them based on their importance, but you also reflect on the significance of your contribution to each role. This can also help in allocating your time and energy more effectively. Recognizing the importance of each role can also instill a sense of purpose, aligning more closely with the principles of Karma Yoga.
3. Fulfill Your Duties
Karma Yoga is about consistency and dedication. Once you have your roles outlined and prioritized, actively engage in fulfilling them on a daily basis. This doesn’t mean you have to do everything perfectly, but rather approach each role with dedication, sincerity, and without any expectations of a reward.
Misconceptions about Karma Yoga
Although volunteering our time to help others is a common example of selfless action, the true essence of this practice goes beyond simple acts of kindness. To clear up any misconceptions, here is what Karma Yoga is not:
- A Transaction
Selfless action is not an exchange, where you provide a service in return for another, like a training course or accommodation. The essence of Karma Yoga is performing actions without the expectation of any rewards or returns.
- Free Work
Simply working without fair compensation does not automatically qualify as selfless action . True Karma Yoga is about the internal detachment from the fruits of the action, not just the absence of a financial transaction. It’s about selfless intent and not being attached to outcomes.
- Cheap Labor
Just because someone is willing to work for less in the name of Karma Yoga, doesn’t mean it aligns with its principles. True selfless action is never about undervaluing oneself or others but about performing your duty with pure intent.
- Social Service
While social service aligns with the principles of Karma Yoga, not all acts of social service qualify as selfless action. The distinguishing factor is the internal motivation and detachment from the outcome. For instance, if someone helps in a community with the hope of recognition or personal satisfaction, it’s not in the true spirit of this practice.
4.What is Raja Yoga
In Sanskrit, the word raja translates as king, chief, or royal. Thus, raja yoga is considered to be the best path to attaining the highest state of yoga—samadhi or enlightenment. It refers to both the highest goal of yoga and the meditation practices used to attain this goal. Swami Vivekananda describes this internal meditative practice as a path towards mastering the whole universe. He writes, “Raja-Yoga proposes to start from the internal world, to study internal nature, and through that, control the whole—both internal and external.”
The Benefits of Raja Yoga
When we practice the Yamas and Niyamas on a daily basis, our character becomes purified, our virtues increase, and our spiritual growth accelerates. The regular practice of yoga poses and breathing improves our physical health, increases our mental clarity, boosts our life force energy, and stabilizes and calms our emotions. When we practice the Dharana and Dhyana on a daily basis, our concentration increases, our memory improves, excessive thinking diminishes, and our wisdom expands.
Through a dedicated practice of raja yoga, one develops detachment towards worldly objects, our thoughts, and the results of our actions. This develops an understanding of our true nature and leads to the cultivation of inner peace and tranquility.
How to Practice Raja Yoga
Raja Yoga is considered quite challenging to practice, because it requires consistent self-control. Luckily, it can be practiced at a level that fits your life and circumstance. You could be so moved by yoga philosophy that you decide to become a monk and give up all the chattels of material life. But more likely, you would prefer self-improvement without making such an extreme choice.
In Raja Yoga, there are eight specific practices presented in an exact order. Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, declared that mastering each of these practices in order would lead to enlightenment.
The eight practices of Raja Yoga
- The Yama – five areas to improve self-control and purify your intentions.
- The Niyama – five areas in which to purify your habits
- Asana – the physical practice to purify your body
- Pranayama – practiced using breathing exercises to purify the energy body
- Pratyahara – withdrawal from the senses to calm the senses and mind
- Dharana – concentration to control the mind
- Dhyana – meditation to understand the Self
- Samadhi – becoming liberated from the illusions of the outer world.
Each of these practices leads naturally to the next. A great many people first find yoga through an asana class, or breathing exercises. The philosophy of Raja Yoga teaches that the Yama and Niyama steps are too important to simply skip. You will still need to practice Yama and Niyama before you can make progress towards enlightenment.
The first practice: the five Yama
There are many yama – twenty-seven is a likely number but some sources claim less or more. In the practice of Raja Yoga, five are described because they were listed as examples by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. (The word ‘yama’, like ‘fish’, doesn’t change when it becomes plural!)
Yamas are qualities we carry within us, qualities of character we can strive to improve by using self-control and developing pure intentions.
Ahimsa means non-violence. Most people consider themselves to be non-violent, but in the yoga sutras the concept extends well beyond not kicking your dog. Let’s consider it in two categories – being non-violent to yourself, and being non-violent to others.
Think of violence as causing harm. You could cause harm to your body by eating an unhealthy diet, inhaling cigarette smoke, over-doing exercise or not exercising enough. Your mind could be harmed if you expose yourself to unnecessary negativity, criticize yourself, or stew in angry thoughts.
Violence or harm to others might seem more obvious, but ‘others’ doesn’t just mean people. Others also includes the ant biting your foot, the mosquito buzzing in your ear, and the bacteria that used to be alive in the water you just boiled for a cup of tea.
Completely avoiding violence is almost impossible. Unless you are a monk, you need to cook, to clean your home, to maintain your garden. This means practicing non-violence at “householder level”. The principle of non-violence remains, and you build this within your character by always asking yourself whether this violence is really needed. Do I need to kill this spider, or can I safely put him outside? Can I use less hot water? Can I allow this insect in my garden? Becoming aware will lead to less violence.
Satya 11means truth. This starts with finding out what is true. Once you are aware of something true, you can practice speaking your truth and living it.
The third aspect of Satya is not ignoring the truth, which can be very tempting when the facts are unpleasant or don’t fit with our beliefs.
Honesty is an important expression of Satya, and so is learning to express yourself, stand up for yourself, and inspiring others to speak their truth also.
Asteya means non-stealing. Examples of Asteya include not taking things that don’t belong to you, or things you don’t deserve. It also includes making sure you give fair exchange for things you take, whether that be your wages or your new car.
Asteya also discourages the stealing of less tangible things, such as using unkind words steal someone’s joy.
As humans, we have a tendency to look for personal benefit. We try to come out ahead by getting a better deal, or we accept full payment for work we know wasn’t our best effort. To practice Asteya, become aware and try to create fairness in any exchange.
Brahmacharya means non-indulgence. In a literal sense, the word refers to behaving in a way that aligns with the divine. In practice, it means taking pleasure in what you do, without constantly seeking or planning activities that are purely for pleasure.
At “householder level”, most people will indulge occasionally. In practicing Brahmacharya, you try to make more choices that are based on needs, and less choices that are based on indulgence. You might try to choose foods that keep you healthy, and enjoy your nice warm shower only for long enough to get clean.
Developing self-control means we are no longer being controlled by our desires. When we learn and practice Brahmacharya, we can find contentment and peace in our lives.
Aparigraha means non-possessiveness. It means not collecting possessions (or people or outcomes) we don’t really need, and not being jealous of what other people appear to have.
The minimalist movement, the vanlife movement, and the trend of capsule wardrobes are all examples of people seeking the benefits of stepping away from the extreme materialism so common in the modern world.
One way you can practice Aparigraha is to ask yourself some questions before you buy an item. First, do I really need it, not just want it? If you know you don’t need it, don’t buy it. If you feel you do need it, ask the second question: Can I manage without it? Buy the item only if you know you can’t manage without it. If it’s a big investment, let it rest for a week before making your final decision.
Practicing Aparigraha leads to a simplified and more contented life.
The second practice: the five Niyama
Once you have understood and practiced the Yama, you can begin to practice the Niyama. The Yama related to personal qualities or character, while the Niyama relate to habits. Again, there are actually many more, but we will focus on the five listed in the Sutras of Patanjali.
Saucha(pronounced Shoucha) means cleansing. As you might be expecting by now, it applies to both the mental and the physical. The physical side includes hygiene habits like cleaning your teeth and your house. Mental cleanliness means clearing the mind of negative intentions, damaging thoughts and unhelpful emotions. Just like physical cleanliness, this means developing a regular habit for hygiene. That might mean regular prayer, mindfulness, or using positive affirmations or mantras.
Santosha means contentment. This means intentionally practicing gratitude for what we have. This leads naturally to a happy and contented life.
An important aspect of Santosha is that it does not mean you must accept what you have and never seek change. It may be that you are in a situation so unpleasant that the only way to practice Santosha is to leave that situation and create new circumstances.
It’s also possible to practice gratitude for what you have now, while still planning to change and grow!
Tapas means self-discipline. In practice, Tapas means choosing to restrict yourself in order to step away from bad habits.
Monks practice restriction in extreme ways – they give up possessions, they meditate in ice caves instead of on a comfortable cushion. The average person can practice Tapas by applying self-control, resisting temptations, and staying committed to positive choices.
Ishvara Pranidhana means always connected with your god. Note, this is not about one particular god – your god might be Krishna, Allah, the father of Jesus, or another. What matters is that you remember your god when things are good as well as when you need help.
This constant connection helps us understand our purpose in life, and recognize the amazing connection between all things in the world.
Swadhyaya means self-study. There are many self-help books and other resources for self-study, as a lot of people want to identify their purpose and their core beliefs so they can feel a deeper sense of self and a direction in life.
A simple way to practice this is to set aside a little time each day to ask yourself who you are. Who’s in there? What do I feel and why do I feel that way? What did I do today and why did I do it?
The third practice: Asana
Asana is the physical part of yoga most seen in public life. It’s usually assumed that ‘asana’ means pose or posture. The word actually means a steady and comfortable state of the mind and body.
The aim of practicing asana is to be able to achieve a steady and comfortable state while in the posture. Most of us would have barely a few minutes of this, and perhaps none at all, in a whole class of yoga!
Asana were developed by monks who needed a way to keep their bodies healthy even though they ate and drank little, and spent long periods of time immobile in meditation. The original asanas were used to stimulate glands and internal organs while allowing meditation and not demanding too much energy.
Today the focus of asana practice is more on physical appearance, fitness, flexibility and the anatomical perfection of a pose. In your journey towards self-awareness, it’s more useful to think of asana as a way of purifying and giving health to the body.
The fourth practice: Pranayama
We practice pranayama using breathing exercises, and the purpose is to expand our capacity for life force energy.
An ancient book called Shiva Samhita claims that the life of a being is not a number of days, it is a number of breaths. We can see support for this theory if we look at a dog, which breaths faster than us and lives a shorter life. A turtle breathes slowly, and lives for hundreds of years.
Practicing breathing exercises for pranayama involves slowing and controlling the breath so that we learn to take in more prana, and use it up more slowly.
The fifth practice: Pratyahara
Pratyahara means withdrawal from the senses, or not feeding the senses. In practice, this could mean deliberate sensory deprivation such as using flotation tanks. It could also mean simply aiming to reduce our sensory stimulation. This allows calming of the senses and the mind.
You can reduce sensory stimulation simply by closing your eyes.
You could also try practicing the Shanmukhi Mudra. To do this, close both your ears with your thumbs. Place your index fingers on the lower parts of your eyelids to close your eyes. Use your middle fingers to partially close your nostrils. Place your ring fingers above your lips. Put your pinky fingers below your lips to close your mouth. In this position, our hands close the six mouths of our senses, and reduce sensory inputs from the outer world.
The sixth practice: Dharana
Having learned, through the previous practices, to control our minds and senses, we can move on to concentration.
In Dharana, we focus on one external thing. Some of the most popular ways to practice this are focusing on the breath, or on a candle, or a chosen word or mantra. You might also direct your focus by doing a body scan, or concentrating on a teacher’s voice in a guided relaxation.
Although many of these practices get called meditation, they are actually examples of practicing concentration. Learning to concentrate is vital for true meditation.
The seventh practice: Dhyana
After learning to focus using Dharana, a person can learn to turn that focus inwards towards the self. It’s very difficult to focus on the self, because you can’t see or hear it in the normal senses. It’s more likely to feel like an awareness of a presence.
Achieving this awareness takes incredible concentration and stillness. It’s like trying to look at something underwater – the slightest ripple on the surface, and you’ll lose sight of what’s below.
Practicing dhyana involves finding stillness of the mind and body, then turning your focus inwards to connect with your self.
The eighth practice: Samadhi
Samadhi is the culmination of Dhyana. It occurs when your meditation is so deep that you connect fully with yourself, and disconnect from the outside world. You disconnect from time, space and reason. You are free from the illusions of the external world.
Raja Yoga in daily life
The steps to practicing raja yoga appear complex and difficult at first, but will become easier with patience and continued practice. As Swami Vivekananda writes, “Practice is absolutely necessary. You may sit down and listen to me by the hour every day, but if you do not practice, you will not get one step further. It all depends on practice. We never understand these things until we experience them. We will have to see and feel them for ourselves.”
When you begin to practice these fundamentals, you will see that each step is built upon the previous one. It’s like building a house brick by brick. Each new layer adds stability and support to the structure. Eventually, with great patience, determination and effort, the entire edifice comes together.
Even though these four paths appear different, there is really only one Yoga, one Union. We may be drawn to one Path more than the others but they complement each other.
The Paths are like four different strands woven together to form the same rope, each one strengthened by the others. Choose whichever aspects of each path resonate with you and begin to incorporate them into your life. Look for joy in your daily practice and let it guide you.
What is the purpose of the 4 paths of yoga?
The spiritual practices of each path helps us to develop holistically. They can purify the mind, physical body, and energy body. This will allow us to achieve mastery over the senses and gain enlightenment.
Which path of yoga requires inquiring minds?
Gyana (Jnana) Yoga:
It is the means to Enlightenment through the process of reason—particularly the process of discrimination between what is real and what is not real, what is true and untrue—through study and self-inquiry.
What is the difference between karma Jnana and Bhakti Yoga?
Jnana means knowledge and wisdom, an activity of the brain and intellect. Karma means action; an activity performed using the sense organs and organs of action. Karma is the ‘doing ‘ or ‘willing’ aspect of the human being. Bhakti is the ‘feeling’ aspect of a person’s existence experienced in the heart.
Which path of yoga is best?
For those more emotional than intellectual, bhakti yoga is recommended. Bhakti yoga is the path of devotion, the method of attaining God through love and the loving recollection of God. Most religions emphasize this spiritual path because it is the most natural.