The Different Paths of Yoga

- by Yoga Acharya Tej

The word Yoga comes from the sanskrit word “yuj” which means to join or to yoke. In the ancient times the practitioners of Yoga were called Yogis and had chosen different paths to make the union of mind, body and spirit.

How do we apply this understanding of this ancient concept to our modern day practice? Let us first understand the different paths of yoga, and define our own understanding of this ancient practice.

Hatha Yoga

The path of Hatha Yoga generally precedes the other forms. To tread any path of yoga, physical, psychic and mental health is essential and these are the basic aims of hatha yoga. In fact, it is often regarded as the first part of raja yoga, for without the preliminary practice of hatha yoga, raja yoga becomes very difficult, if not impossible.

The word hatha is composed of two syllables, namely ha and tha. Ha means the ‘sun’ and tha means the ‘moon’. Thus hatha yoga means the harmony between the sun and moon aspect of our being. The right nostril is connected with the sun aspect; the left is associated with the moon aspect. The moon rules over the mental functions, while the sun controls the vital and physical functions. This applies to everyone and is a basic tenet of yoga. The two nostrils have a deeper association with the flow of prana within our being. It is this flow of prana that ultimately influences the mental and physical functions. If the moon flow is predominant, then one tends to think too much. If the sun flow is predominant there is a tendency towards extroversions and physical activity. Throughout the day we tend to operate either more mentally or more physically. This is a natural process. However, for perfect mental and physical balance the sun flow should predominate for the total of about twelve hours and the moon flow for the other twelve hours in each day. This ensures a balanced personality neither too much introversion nor too much extroversion. The balance of these two is essential and is the basic aim of hatha yoga. Not only this, but balance leads to perfect physical health. Further, it is the period when the flow in both nadis is exactly the same (manifested by equal flow in both nostrils) that spontaneous states of meditation can arise.

Some of the basic practices of Hatha Yoga include:

  • Shatkarmas Are the main concerned with cleansing the body. Many diseases are caused by the build-up of toxins within the body. These practices are the first step in eliminating these waste products, and thereby regaining perfect health.
  • Asanas are the physical postures of yoga. There is much controversy between the different schools of yoga as to whether asanas are actually a part of hatha yoga, raja yoga, tantra yoga or of all three. Pranayama is the control of prana which is acheived though breathing exercises of hatha yoga.
  • Mudras and bandhas are often classified with hatha yoga. Mudras are special physical position of the body are parts of the body which induce deeper physiological, psychic and mental changes in one’s being. Bandhas are physical locks which perform the same function.

Health is the fundamental aim of Hatha yoga. Hatha yoga attempts to harmonize the body so that it can be forgotten or transcended. In this way one is less hampered by the body and associated ailments, and more able to dedicate oneself to mental and spiritual pursuits.

Karma Yoga

This is the yoga of action, the system of attaining awareness through activity. It is performance of our daily work with constant awareness and at the same time without any expectation of reward. It is this living in the present which enables far more effective, efficient and powerful actions. By totally absorbing the self in the work at hand we tend to reduce the power of the ego. This is the essence of karma yoga, and results in less emotional and mental upsets in life. It helps to make the mind more calm and peaceful under any circumstances and more receptive to the practices of yoga. This in itself can lead to meditation.

Bhakti Yoga

This is the yoga if devotion. It is the channeling of emotions into devotion. In this way the emotions are given an outlet, instead of suppressing them or dissipating them in different directions. The bhakti absorbs him or her-self completely in his or her object of devotion, losing his or her individuality or ego. Emotional and mental problems disappear, concentration increases and the path to higher awareness  is opened.

Jnana Yoga

This is the path of enquiry. It is not, as so many people say, the path of the intellect. It attempts to transcend the limitations of the intellect or logical faculties of each individual, so how can it possibly be the path of intellect? Higher awareness can never arise through rational thinking. Jnana yoga is the path towards illuminative knowledge, and this is alogical neither logical not illogical. It transcends them both.

In this path one enquires about the essence of existence and one’s true nature. Effort, concentration and total absorption in the enquiry are prerequisites for success in this path. Without these attributes, illumination will not take place. By illumination we do not mean stereotyped answers, but intuitive answers which cannot be spoken about. If one can talk about an illumination it usually has not occurred. This is the reason why so many great yogis have refused to talk about their highest experiences as they know it is impossible.

The path of jnana yoga is open for everyone, but at the same time few people are really ready for it. They have too many mental tensions and problems and are unable to relax. They dissipate their mental energies in a large number of different pursuits, and therefore lack the intensity of purpose to pursue their enquiries until they gain the answers in the form of revelations. As such, most people should follow alternate forms of yoga to clean out their minds and develop their power of concentration. When they progress in yoga they can turn to the path of jnana yoga.

Raja Yoga

This is the path of introspection. It encompasses many other separate paths of yoga. It is the path in which one attempts to explore the different realms of the mind: conscious, subconscious, unconscious and beyond. The purpose is to become increasingly aware of these different aspects of being. Raja yoga progressively attempts to transcend the outer environment of the physical body, and direct the awareness to the inner environment. Each person has consciousness; either it can be directed outwards or it can be directed inwards. Either we can be conscious of the external surrounding or we can be conscious of the inner world. Usually our attention is on outer objects. If perception of the external is cut off, as is attempted in raja yoga, then the consciousness must be directed inwards. It has to go somewhere. When it goes inwards it starts to light up our inner existence and we begin to explore ourselves. We normally see only the surface of the ocean of the mind; we don’t see what is below. If we dive into the depths towards the seabed we would see the deeper aspect of the mind that are normally hidden from us. This is the aim of raja yoga in its many forms.

Kriya Yoga

Austerities ( Tapas), study of scriptures and self-surrender constitute Kriya Yoga or the Yoga of Purification Action.

Austerities (Tapas)

By Tapas, the mind, speech and senses are purified.   He whose speech and mind are pure and ever carefully guarded, obtains all the fruits of the practice of Yoga.  By the performance of Tapas, all afflictions and impurities can be destroyed.

What is Tapas?

That which purifies the impure mind is Tapas.  That which regenerates the lower animal nature and generates divine nature is Tapas.  That which cleanses the mind and destroys lust, anger, greed, etc., is Tapas. That which steadies the mind, and fixes it on the Eternal is Tapas.  That which arrests the outgoing tendencies, extroversion and produces introversion  is Tapas.  That which destroys egoism, and generates dispassion, discrimination and meditation is Tapas.  Tapas is spiritual discipline.

This is the third Anga of Niyama in Raja Yoga.  It is one of the three items of Kriya Yoga.  Tapas means austerity or practice of penance. Tapas is austerity, control of senses and meditation.  The aspirant is blazing like fire (Tapati). Their eyes are brilliant and the voice is powerful.

Mental Tapas

Mental Tapas is more powerful than physical Tapas.  He who bears heat and cold does physical Tapas.  He increases his power of endurance, but he may not be able to bear insult.  He will be easily upset by a harsh or unkind word.  He may take revenge and do tit for tat.  He has no control over the mind.  He has disciplined only his physical body.  To keep a balanced mind in all conditions of life, to bear insult, injury and persecutions, to be ever serene, contented and peaceful, to be cheerful in adverse conditions, to have fortitude in meeting danger, to have presence of mind and forbearance are all forms of mental Tapas.

Study of Scriptures

By study of scriptures comes the communication with the inner voice, or the voice of the soul.

Self Surrender

By self-surrender comes the attainment of higher consciousness.