The practice of Yoga is a spiritual tradition in which millions of people worldwide have studied for many years. The word “Yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit root “yuj” meaning “to join” or “to yoke” (McCartney 2). Modern Yoga which is practiced in the West is mainly thought of as postures and exercises aimed at keeping the body fit. This type of Yoga, also known as Hatha Yoga, involves proper breathing and meditation. Besides Hatha Yoga, many other types exist not only to keep the body fit but also to keep the mind fit spiritually. This includes a variety of actions devoted to each individual practice of Yoga involving techniques such as meditation and concentration to train the mind. The concept of meditation involves a method by which a person is able to stop all the turnings (vrtti) of thought (citta) one has. By detaching oneself from all thoughts, there is a shift from an external focus of attention to an inner one (Feuerstein 1991:187). Orthodox Hinduism holds that Yoga is more than just postures and exercise; its real power is said to be in training the mind to achieve moksa. Moksa can be understood as spiritual liberation or an ultimate state of realization (Singh 150). With knowledge of the transcendental Reality, we can answer some basic questions of human existence: Who am I? Where do I go? Why am I here? What must I do? Hinduism ideals suggest that without answers to these questions, one is merely adrift (Feuerstein 2003:15). Through proper practice one is believed to be closer to God and knowledgeable of the true nature of reality.
The Bhagavad-Gita or “Song of God,” a sacred text of Hindu philosophy, seems to have a large influence on Yoga. Included in The Bhagavad Gita is a conversation that took place between Krsna and Arjuna on the battlefield in the epic The Mahabharata. There, Arjuna struggles over killing his family and friends. Krsna, being a great friend and mentor, consoles Arjuna with his transcendental teachings on human nature and the purpose of life. Among these teachings, Krsna outlines three Yogic paths. These are Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga.
Karma Yoga is the Yoga of action. This Yoga focuses on self-less deeds or sacrifice undertaken for the sake of the Supreme and to purify the heart. According to a famous practitioner, Sri Chinmoy, Karma Yoga does not focus on the result of actions or the thought of gain by performing particular actions (Sri Chinmoy 382). With this immunity to the reactive and negative consequences of actions, it is believed that one can better manage mental associations. In this sense, one is thought to be unselfish and can therefore achieve moksa. It is commonly stated that being a Karma Yogi is not an easy endeavour. The process of working without a sense of attachment is a difficult task. But it seems that with patience and determination, it becomes easier and more pleasant to do.
Karma itself teaches that nothing happens by accident. It is said that it is either the outcome of a previous cause or it is the cause of a later effect. This is also why Karma Yoga is sometimes referred to as “cause and effect” Yoga (McCartney 114). Humans are free to act as they like, but it is the responsibility the way in which they act that is theirs (Singh 73). It is within the laws of Karma that states that nothing happens to a man/woman except insofar as it is the result of his/her own deed (Singh 73). We can also see Karma Yoga being practiced whenever the action being performed is for the benefit of others. Therefore, performing any task that is not for your benefit, such as cleaning up in a temple, is believed to be a part of Karma Yoga. “He whose understanding is unattached everywhere, who has subdued his self and from whom desire has fled — he comes through renunciation to the supreme state transcending all work” (Radhakrishnan and Moore 161). For the Karma Yogi, work is primarily for service and not for means of economic survival or psychic gratification (Feuerstein 1991:81). It is commonly understood that Karma Yogis work to protect and nurture everyone, including nonhuman beings. It has been said that a Karma Yogi does not succumb to failure, nor does he/she gloat on success. Karma Yogis do not forget or ignore the world but rather live for the world. In this view, one can be understood to have an ongoing sense of worldly struggles, but is never totally overcome by them. Everyone is forced to act in some way by Nature, but he who can do this selflessly and without attachment can attain inner wholeness and be a true Karma Yogi (Feuerstein 1996:20).
It is believed that selfless action comes before both Bhakti Yoga (love) and Jnana Yoga (knowledge) (Feuerstein 1991:82). In this sense, it seems logical for anyone who is interested in practicing and learning ancient techniques of Yoga, to start with Karma Yoga so as to learn self-realization first.
Jnana Yoga is the Yoga of Knowledge. This knowledge is of the Self, the Nature of God, the Universe and their mutual relationships (McCartney 191). It is thought that with this knowledge, the true realization of Brahman can be achieved. The Jnana Yogi feels that it is through the mind that this goal will be attained. Yogic martyrs claim that fulfillment of the mind is of supreme importance. As McCartney recalls, a person can stand on a cliff and see blue waves rolling up the beach and hear large waves breaking upon the sands and be filled with pure exhilaration by the experience. We would also be able to see the same pictures through a camera, or hear the same sounds from a microphone. It is the presence of exhilaration that would be missing from the latter experience. This means that something exists in humans which is absent in mechanical processes (cameras and microphones).
It is commonly stated that Jnana Yoga is the abolition of the concept dualism, which eventually leads to ones realization of the unity of the individual self with the Supreme Self (Sri Swami Sivananda 137). It is the process that converts the simple acts of seeing and hearing into an experience that is “I,” or the absolute true self and knowledge. Jnana Yoga has been thought of as being the “shortest and steepest” path to God, and also the most difficult one (McCartney 193). The process of discrimination between real & unreal and eternal & temporal is not easy. It is a long and difficult path, but can be very rewarding. One example in discriminating between reality and illusions would be to look at a piece of cloth. Cloth is made of thread. In the beginning the piece of cloth was thread and in the end, all that would be left of the cloth is thread. So in the end, a Jnana Yogi would see cloth as an illusion and only the thread as being real. Jnana Yogis do not want to escape life or death because they know that there is no such escape. It seems there is only escape of such ignorance into Knowledge and Light (Sri Chinmoy 383). Before practicing and mastering Jnana Yoga one must be involved in the lessons of other Yogic paths. This is beneficial because the acts of selflessness and strength of body and mind should be achieved before Jnana Yoga can be understood.
One modern Hindu sage, Ramana Maharsi, demonstrates the Jnana Yoga path. He taught a certain form of self-inquiry, of self-pondering inquiry, where one focuses on the I-thought and its source. This technique of inquiry is also known as vicara. This an adamant search in pursuit of the question “Who am I?”
Bhakti Yoga is simply service in Love and Devotion to God. It is the practice of Karma Yoga that will lead a person directly to Bhakti Yoga. It is known as the Yoga of Love and Devotion because of ones surrender completely to God. The Bhakti worshipper (Bhakta) worships a personal God. There is no concern of the “Absolute” or Brahman as in the other Yogas discussed thus far. Bhakti Yoga is monotheistic in that one believes in one, single, universal, all-encompassing God. Mainly, this has been devoted to the worship of Siva or Visnu (McCartney 150). The Bhagavad Gita was the first Hindu text to depict the Bhakti Yoga path. Depicted in the Bhagavad Gita, Krsna is seen as the object of love and devotion, hence the rise of Bhakti Yoga.
In Bhakti Yoga, one practices meditation by imagining his/her God being right there with them and by sharing their deepest thoughts and feelings one can be brought closer to their God. The Bhakta has a large commitment because through prayer, worship and rituals, one is being surrendered solely to God. This can be seen by an outsider as devotion and love to one’s parent or lover. “Through all his senses he realizes it as if it were a sensuous delight; with his heart and soul he feels it as a spiritual intoxication of joy.” (Feuerstein 1996:22). There are many aspects which illustrate the Yoga of Devotion. The true devotee is passionate, patient, self-controlled, determined and treats friends and foes the same. This is a person who is dear to their God (Radhakrishnan and Moore 144).
Bhakti Yoga can be traced as far back as 300 B.C. and seen as one of the oldest forms of Yoga (McCartney 150). One assumption for its presence can be based on its simplicity and because of this, its attraction from “commoners” who may be untutored (McCartney 149). It is believed that Bhakti Yoga does not require a lot of intellectual skills or great amount of knowledge. All it requires is emotion as a loving state of mind and the urge to worship. Bhakta Yogis believe that meditation is of great importance. It is thought that through meditation one can “graduate” the stages of devotion to God. There are two stages. First, an elementary stage which is the love for and worship of a personal God (such as love existing in a relationship between parent and child). Second, is a pure devoted love that comes to exist. God is now worshipped as the all-knowing Absolute (McCartney 160). As a Bhakta, every act performed everyday is one of devotion, regardless of getting anything in return. This love is believed to be demonstrated in action. One can spend a life time thinking about loving thoughts, but if these thoughts are never expressed, it is thought that one will have never loved at all (Feuerstein 1991:86). Bhakti Yogis believe that love is not a temporary high that comes and goes, but one that needs to be nourished as an ongoing spiritual disposition (Feuerstein 1991:85). Even when one is sad, hurt, angry or bored, love needs to exist. It is in these moments of doubt when love is needed the most.
One well known spiritual teacher, Sri Swami Sivananda, stated that each Yoga is a fulfillment of the preceding one (Sri Swami Sivananda 1). Karma Yoga leads to Bhakti Yoga which brings Jnana Yoga (knowledge). So to understand Jnana Yoga, one must first be experienced with Bhakti Yoga and Jnana Yoga. It is thought that any practice or belief that is sincere will go straight to the Source. If you sincerely believe in something and practice it with good intentions, you will be rewarded.
Yoga is an extremely old and popular spiritual tradition. From a broad perspective, all types of Yoga seem to have the same purpose. This is for one to become less focused on the self and more focused on a “higher” Reality (Feuerstein 1996: 1). It is possible for anyone to practice Yoga regardless of age, sex, race or religious beliefs. Yoga is commonly known as a discipline rather than a therapy. Therapy is for those who are sick and unhealthy, discipline is needed even when one is healthy (Osho 21). Yoga has been said to be helpful in many ways including spiritual, physical and psychological. It is believed that by understanding and having total faith in what you practice be it Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga or Bhakti Yoga, one can be more in tune with oneself and the world around them.
Feuerstein, Georg (1991) Sacred Paths: Essays on Wisdom, Love and Mystical Realization. Burdett, NY: Larson Publications.
Feuerstein, Georg (1996) The Shambala Guide to Yoga. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
Feuerstein, Georg (2003) The Deeper Dimension of Yoga. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
McCartney, James (1969) Yoga: The Key to Life. Johannesburg: Rider & Company.
Osho (1976) The Path of Yoga: Commentaries of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. MS, India: Thomson Press.
Radhakrishnan, S., and C.A. Moore (eds.) (1989) A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Singh, Balbir (1981) Karma Yoga: The Discipline of Action. New Jersey: Humanities Press.
Sri Chinmoy (2000) The Wisdom of Sri Chinmoy. San Diego: The Blue Dove Foundation.
Sri Swami Sivananda (no date) Science of Yoga (vol.5). Pondicherry, India: Swami Krishnananda.
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Article written by Andrea Werewka (April 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.