If you’ve been around this blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m a big advocate of practicing your yoga in whatever way works best for you.
For some people yoga poses are boring or not easily adaptable to injuries and illness. In those cases, meditation may be better suited to a particular lifestyle or circumstance.
In the West, we mistakenly assume that yoga=pretzel poses. This, however, is far from the truth. There are, in actuality, 4 kinds of yoga that encompass a broad spectrum of activities.
The Eight Components of Yoga
Classical Yoga, as outlined by the sage Patanjali some thousands of years ago is comprised of a path consisting of 8 steps.
Those steps are:
- Yama (personal conduct)
- Niyama (self-discipline)
- Asnana (poses)
- Pranayama (breathing exercises)
- Pratyahara (going inside)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (meditation)
- Samadhi (enlightenment)
The chronology of the path is somewhat fluid, with the exception of the eighth step, which seems to be highly elusive to only the most devout practitioner, and sometimes, depending on your personal beliefs, it even takes lifetimes to achieve this feat of enlightenment.
Regardless, the highlight of this list is the fact that asana (poses) is third on the list, hardly the most important. Yet, asana is also one of the most highly accessible entry points onto the path, and thus, most of us start our yoga journey there.
The suitcases these yogic compartments fit within
With enlightenment being the ultimate goal, there are different overarching ways to attain this state, and, surprisingly or not surprisingly, poses don’t really come into play much.
In fact, the only reason the physical postures are a part of yoga at all is because ancient sages used exercises to open up their hips and warm up their body in preparation to sit for long hours at a time in meditation. The poses were a means to an end, the end being meditation rather then any sort of physical fitness. Over time, the modern, Western, business-minded man combined some of these stretching exercises with gymnastics to give you what we now know today as yoga.
The four different paths of yoga are known as
- Jnana (Wisdom)
- Bhakti (Love)
- Karma (Service)
- Raja (Meditation)
Yoga poses technically fall underneath the path of Raja yoga, so we’ll start there.
Meditation: It’s kinda a big deal
Really, it’s almost like working backwards. As I mentioned above, the poses were originally intended to prepare the body for long periods of meditation (Raja Yoga). Thus, today’s physical practice performed in studios is a stepping stone in the general direction of enlightenment, but hardly the end-all-be-all.
If you’re familiar with Paramahansa Yogananda and the Self-Realization Fellowship or Transcendental Meditation, these all fall under the path of Raja Yoga. These yogis, in truth, rarely practice poses, as they are much more concerned with their sitting practice (although they would be happier with their sitting if they practiced the poses, thus the catch-22).
There’s a path for you too, seeker
Jnana Yoga is a path filled with knowledge. This can be both self-knowledge and worldly knowledge to help you better understand yourself and your place in the world amongst everyone and everything else (which is all one and the same anyway). This path is much more concerned with learning, self-study, reading, writing/journaling, contemplation, and education. I personally feel very drawn to this particular path as I am a student first and foremost always and my love for learning is overzealous.
Love is all there is
Bhakti Yoga is a path of devotion. You see this particular way of living in many other religions as well, such as the orthodox versions of Catholicism and Judaism. Devotion to a higher being in all actions is the Bhakti way of living. In the “yoga world” in particular, bhakti practices include call-and-response chanting, mala beads, bliss practices and a level of mindfulness in action that is geared toward love of all beings.
Even though I completely disagree that yoga is a religion (it really depends on how you define religion and how you define yoga at the end of the day), Bhakti yoga may be the closest yoga gets to a “religion” (but it’s not – just closer-ish).
The Karma Sutra (not the ice cream)
Finally, you’ve probably heard the word Karma before. What goes around, comes around right? Karma Yoga is the path of service. Karma yogis believe that all good deeds are worth doing, not because they’ll be repaid in kind, but because doing good is the way to be. This path of yoga is the ultimate in learning the skill of detachment to the outcome.
Which path is the right path?
All of them. While there is no one path better then the other, there are some paths more suited to others based on our own life situations and tendencies. Most likely, many of us will relate to two or more of the paths at the same time.
When you hear me offer up myriad ways of practicing yoga, I want you to know that you have many, many options. I’m not just making things up and being nice 🙂
Consider what yoga path speaks most to you.
Acknowledge the things you already do in your life that may be yogic acts and you didn’t even know it!
Decide how you want to practice your yoga, what ways you are able to practice, and then be open to the possibility of practicing without the poses some days.
If life gets busy and you do a good deed for your neighbor, without expectation for your neighbor to return the favor, that’s Karma Yoga.
If you smile and appreciate the beauty of a brilliant sunset over water, that’s Bhakti Yoga.
If you spend some time journaling, you’re practicing Jnana Yoga.
And if you take some time to meditate, you’re practicing Raja Yoga.
Choose what works for you on any given day, and go with it.
It’s that simple (and hard…).
Interested to learn more about the 4 paths of yoga? Sign up for my newsletter below and receive a free download of my book “The Unconventional Beginner’s Guide to Yoga” where I talk more about basic yoga philosophy.