Yoga is generally understood as a process of unification. This unification is multifaceted. In one dimension, it is a unification of the various systems that exist within the human being including the emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual systems. In total there are believed to be five different systems within human life. These are typically referred to as the koshas which are the physical, energetic, mental, subtle, and bliss sheaths. In our current understanding of yoga, we are working to unify these five bodies or layers of the human being. Another process of unification occurs between of the individual consciousness and the universal consciousness.
This unification is often referred to as Samadhi and is one of the primary transformations that occur within the practice of yoga. Observing this from a different angle, Samadhi is a transformation of perception in which disillusionments about the world are reformed so that the truth behind reality can be seen in its purest of form. Yoga, as a system, has developed into various branches through which people pursue the evolution and unification of the elements within their being. Each branch retains its own unique set of ideas and philosophies which defined the process and eventual obtainment of complete unification.
There is no right or wrong system of yoga as the each possesses their own distinct characteristics that accommodate the needs of various characteristics and personalities that exist among human beings. Each system is designed to accommodate a different personality type, and yoga has developed into a broad reaching system that can be practiced by nearly anyone who is interested in pursuing a spiritual life. A practice like Jnana yoga is ideal for someone who is philosophically minded whereas the practice of bhakti yoga is good for someone who is emotionally perceptive and inclined towards a sense of devotion. In this article we will be reviewing the more mainstream practices of yoga which are derived from the tradition of yogic spirituality. These traditions of yoga are as young as 500 years and as old as several thousand. While there are many modern practices of yoga which have been defined by various teachers, the systems we will be discussing are traditional systems which have been in existence throughout many generations.
Bhakti Yoga The first system we will discuss it is Bhakti yoga. Bhakti yoga is a practice in which the spiritual practitioner focuses on developing a state of devotion within the mind and the heart. In bhakti yoga a strong sense of faith is needed as one is expected to submit themselves to God through a process of self surrendering. The practices and techniques of bhakti yoga are therefore designed to help surrendered the ego and embrace with love the thought of the creator. The more common practices of bhakti yoga are kirtan (chanting/song), japa (mantra repetition), and meditation on the divine.
Usually the practice of bhakti yoga is advised to be practiced by those who are well connected to their emotions and also receptive of more subtle feelings within themselves and others. Emphatic love defines the practice of bhakti yoga as the practitioner devotes their whole being towards the spiritual divine. A belief in God or a higher being is vital to the practice, and without it, it is near to impossible to practice bhakti yoga. The devotion that is practiced by the bhakti Yogi is not one of slavery towards the divine. Rather, it is a relationship that is filled with love, friendship, and companionship. In bhakti yoga people view God as a friend, a lover, a father, or mother. It is through this relationship that bhakti yoga is practiced. There are many aspects of devotion for the bhakti yogi; there are many forms of God that are worshiped in yoga including Shiva, Vishnu, Brahman, Parvatti, etc. Aside from the metaphysical forms of God, a guru or teacher can also be worshiped within the practice. The primary purpose of this practice is to help in relinquishing the ego and unifying the individual being with the universal.
Karma Yoga Karma is an aspect of human life that is responsible for our thoughts, feelings, and actions. It is believed in yoga that Karma keeps the cycle of rebirth in motion as past actions and events force us to take another life in the world to balance out the inequalities that we have imposed within our spirit and the universe. Once accumulated Karmic merit is balanced or destroyed then cycle of birth and death is stopped and the spirit is return to its origins within the universal divine. The practice of Karma yoga directly addresses this primary aspect of life, works to abolish the effects of Karma with disciplined action that formulates a separation between the individual and the effects of Karma. This separation occurs through a process of disassociation in which the individual separates themselves from the benefits or losses from their actions within the world.
The practice of Karma yoga is typically based around one’s Dharma or duties within the world. Dharma is determined by the actions of the individual in the past, including both the past of the current life as well as the past of previous lives. In some respects, Dharma is the most effective way for an individual to use their time on earth for spiritual progress as it is based upon the realistic capacities and potential of the individual. One of the main components of Dharma is acting in the world without thought of the benefits or losses of one’s actions. The practitioner lives and acts within the world without any expectations or imposed impressions of how the future should unfold. The mind is focused on selfless service and working for the benefit of the greater good as opposed to the independent needs of the individual. In Karma yoga the practice is gradual as the individual slowly relinquishes the bonds of karma and liberates the spirit from the confines of egocentric thought processes.
Although a Karma yogi may practice techniques such as the asanas, breathing practices, and meditations, the primary focus of their spiritual practice is service and actions with the focus of selflessness and humbleness. The first mention of Karma yoga is within the Bhagavad-Gita in a dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna. In this dialogue, Krishna informs Arjuna that he can merge his consciousness with Krishna’s when he surrenders his actions to the divine (which in this case is Krishna). Krishna encourages Arjuna to act and follow out his duty without worry or consideration of the benefits or losses of his actions. He informs Arjuna that acting in the name of Krishna (or divine) will provide him with the liberation that he has set forth to achieve.
Kundalini Yoga Kundalini yoga is a practice of yoga which originated from the practice of tantra yoga. Historically speaking, tantra yoga is believed to be one of the oldest forms of spirituality which is still in practice today. One of the key components of tantra yoga is the incorporation of kundalini which is considered to be the primordial force existence within each human being. The practice of Kundalini yoga was formed to control and harness the potential of the kundalini energy within the body. Unlike the other systems of yoga, kundalini yoga can be a highly unstable practice of yoga as the release of kundalini energy can lead to extreme psychological and physical disorders if not controlled in the proper manner.
Therefore, the practice of kundalini yoga is a highly advanced system which is usually only practiced by those who are well advanced in the practices of spirituality. One of the primary prerequisites of kundalini yoga is a strong mind and a healthy body without which the release of kundalini energy can be damaging or even fatal. Even a specific term in psychology known as kundalini syndrome has been developed for those who have gone into dementia because of the improper release of kundalini energy. In kundalini yoga the techniques presented are designed to help awaken the kundalini energy. Aside from its definition as the primordial energy, kundalini is also known as the serpent energy. Prior to its awakening, the kundalini energy rests at the base of the spine in the form of a spiraled coil similar to that of a serpent. When released, the kundalini energy shoots up through the spine, making its way towards the crown of the head. Depending upon the purification of the energy channels along the spinal column known as chakras, the kundalini will either reach its final destination and the head or will be stuck within one of the chakras. Usually kundalini yoga starts by purifying all the chakras. This purification helps to maintain a balance flow of prana within the body. It is believed that a balance flow of prana within the body leads to a sound state of mind and body. Once the body, mind, and pranic channels are purified, the practitioner of kundalini yoga works to release the kundalini energy. The purification process an essential quality of the practice as it helps to ensure a smooth flow of kundalini energy through the chakra system.
For both the purification of the chakras as well as the release of kundalini energy a wide variety of techniques are implemented. These include yoga asanas (postures), pranayamas (breathing practices), meditations, and mudra (gestures) specifically designed to help regulate the pranic energy and awaken kundalini. Unlike some of the other systems of yoga, kundalini yoga should never be practiced through self training. It is vital that one who is interested in practicing kundalini yoga finds an adept practitioner and teacher of this system of yoga to guide them through the process. Without such guidance, it is likely that severe physical and mental disorders will arise as kundalini energy is a highly potent element within the human body that is not meant to be tempered with unless the body, mind, and pranic channels are fully purified. There are countless tales of individuals who released kundalini yoga prematurely and found themselves in a disoriented and neurotic state. There are many books published on kundalini yoga and those who have experienced kundalini energy always advise to have a highly knowledgeable and observant teacher to guide a practitioner through the system of kundalini yoga.
Hatha Yoga The word hatha has several meanings. Typically it is divided up into two individual words, ha and tha. The meaning of these words can be interpreted as the sun and the moon. It can also be said that these two words are Beeja Mantras or primordial sounds that are responsible for composing matter. At the same time, ha represents the pranic body while tha is that of the mental body. Whichever interpretation one chooses to believe or follow, an essential component of hatha yoga is a balancing of the polarities of energy within the body (ida and pingala) as well as a purification of the mind and the body.
Most people, in a modern context, consider hatha yoga to be a practice of the physical body. While this is not incorrect, hatha yoga includes many more philosophies and techniques that address more subtle aspects of the human system. One of the essential components of hatha yoga is the element of purification. In hatha yoga purification occurs within the many aspects of the human being; there is a purification of the physical, mental, and energetic, and emotional bodies. It is believed that once all of the bodies are purified than spiritual advancement towards self liberation can occur. Unlike Raja yoga, which we will discuss later, hatha yoga does not outline a prerequisite of moral values before conducting the techniques of yoga. Rather, hatha yoga begins with the yoga postures or asanas and the energetic purification techniques of pranayama. Once a considerable understanding of these two practices is attained, more advanced techniques including Shatkarmas (body cleansing), Pranayamas (nadhi cleansing), Mudras (energy channeling), Bundhas (energy locks), and other techniques which lead towards Samadhi (self-realization) can be practiced.
Similar to most practices of yoga, hatha yoga maintains the belief that techniques such as meditation and concentration should only be practiced after the body and the mind having purified. Without such preparation it is useless to practice meditation as no benefit will be received from the practice. Hatha yoga originated from a number of texts all of which were written between 500-1500 A.D. In comparison to the other forms of yoga we are discussing, hatha yoga is the youngest of them all with its major text the Hatha Yoga Pradipika being finalized in the 16th century.
Hatha yoga could be considered to be a preliminary practice to more advanced systems of yoga, however it possesses within itself the capability to lead towards spiritual liberation. A more modest system of yoga, hatha yoga can be practiced by most people and does not require a well established mind and body to begin the practice. Therefore, it is a practice used by many who wish to use yoga as an aid towards spiritual freedom.
Raja Yoga Raja yoga is considered the Royal path and is literally translated as royal union from Sanskrit. The system of Raja yoga is derived from the teachings of Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras which were written between 100 and 300 A.D. Some may also refer to this system of yoga has Ashtanga Yoga, however Raja yoga has been the traditional terminology used for the practice of yoga guided by Ptanjali’s Yoga Sutras and some distinctions separate the two from one another. Here, we are primarily concerned with the traditional system of Raja yoga which has been practiced in India since the origins of the Sutras. Raja yoga is a path of intuition and also psychic perception. Therefore these two facilities are needed in order for spiritual growth to occur. Some spiritual masters like Swami Tureyananda believe that Raja yoga is practiced after one has obtained substantial transformation through preliminary practices of yoga.
Even still some other teachers believe that the practice of Raja yoga is commenced after preliminary states of Samadhi are experienced. Therefore, Raja yoga is not a practice for the vast majority of people. In the yoga sutras, Patanjali lightly outlines the prerequisites for the more advanced techniques of yoga. The vast majority of the yoga sutras are devoted to understanding and controlling the mind including its four components of Chitta, Buddhi, Manas and Ahamkara. Considerable attention is given to how the mind works and operates as well as the various levels and dimensions that exist within the mind. The remainder of the text discusses the stages through which one experience along the path towards self-realization, and attention is given to all the various pitfalls that can arise along the way. The system of Raja yoga is generally outlined in defined within the “8 limbed path.” These limbs include:
- Yama- code of conduct and self restraint
- Niyama- religious observances, devotion to ones practice, and discipline
- Asana- formation of a stable seat for both the mind and the body
- Pranayama- regulation of breath which leads to a unification and balance between the body and the mind
- Pratyahara- withdrawal of the sensory organs of perception from the external environment including all five senses (six if you include the mind)
- Dharana- concentration
- Dhyana- meditation
- Samadhi- self realization, or a super conscious state of being.
Together these eight limbs form the practice and systematic approach of Raja Yoga. Like kundalini yoga, Raja yoga requires a significant amount of guidance and direction without which many problems and ultimate failure will arise. It is therefore essential that one who is interested in practicing Raja yoga finds a teacher or guru who has perfected the system and has achieved a true state of self-realization.
Jnana Yoga The practice of Jana yoga is easily understood within the two words ‘Jana’ and ‘Yoga’ which together mean ‘Union through Wisdom.’ the practice of Jana yoga is a very practical system for the Western mind which usually approaches things through the intellect and rational deduction. While ultimately these two aspects are abandoned later in the path, Jana yoga begins with intellectual inquiry and rational observation. While Jana yoga encourages a belief in God or the supreme, it does not necessitate the belief and therefore it can even be used by those who are rational atheists. The techniques used in Jana yoga are primarily concerned with a process of deduction in which one observes all aspects of life.
A process of self inquiry and questioning is undertaken as the practitioner gradually removes the illusions and misperceptions of the mind as they work towards the truth of their most basic nature. The practice of Jana yoga can be understood within the simple Sanskrit phrase “Neti, Neti,” which is openly translated as not this, not that. In Jana yoga one removes the various layers of the onion of their mind until they reached the core which is no-thingness or unmanifested. Jana yoga has four major guidelines which helped to lead to the practitioner towards self-realization. As Jana yoga is primarily a system of inquiry, it does not require techniques such as pranayama and asanas in order to achieve self-realization. The four guidelines of the Jana Yogi include: Viveka- Discrimination (between truth and not truth); Vairagya- Dispassion (from attachment world and the mind/body); Shad-sampat- Six Virtues (tranquility, dama (sensory control), uparati (renunciation), titiksha (endurance), shraddha (faith), and samadhana (concentration)); and Mumukshutva- longing for liberation.