Yoga is a Sanskrit word meaning yoke or a joining together. In Hinduism this has the sense of harnessing oneself to God, seeking union. Since any path to knowledge of God can be called yoga, there are in Hinduism many names for the different yogic paths that accommodate the basic makeup of individual seekers.
Hatha Yoga places its emphasis on the body/physical side of existence and the close interrelationship between body and mind.
Hatha is derived from the roots Ha (sun) and Tha (moon) and is the equalization and stabilization of the “sun breath” which flows through the right nostril and the “moon breath” which flows through the left nostril.
Asanas are the physical postures that stimulate the glands, body and nervous system. Pranayama is breath regulation that aims at mastery over the vital forces of the mind and body.
Regular practice of Hatha Yoga contributes to more vibrant health, increased muscle tone, youthfulness and longevity. Other benefits include brain stimulation, increased blood flow, increased oxygen intake and more emotional calm. Just “going through the motions” of doing the postures is not enough. Moment-by-moment awareness of present experience, including breathing, is essential, even when you are not explicitly practicing pranayama.
Raja Yoga (Royal Yoga) is aimed at focusing and disciplining the mind through meditative techniques. Raja yoga involves control over the body posture and breathing. It goes on to concentration, which is the focusing of all mental energies on one object, one central idea or one relevant truth, and then watching/noticing when the attention drifts away and bringing it back. Through this we reduce our tendency toward “monkey mind,” with our attention darting here and there and everywhere, and develop the ability to direct and focus our attention, and to know where our attention is.
One objective is to develop the capacity to be aware of your thoughts, actions and emotions as you are thinking, doing and feeling them. This is sometimes called cultivating the “witness,” a point of awareness within you from which you perceive all things as you do them. It is also sometimes referred to as “two pointed attention,” in which one point of your attention is involved in your activity and the other point notices that this is what you are and what you are doing. Gurdjieff used this same concept in his practice called “self-remembering;” it is also related to the “awareness continuum” of Gestalt Therapy.
Raja yoga includes the ethical disciplines of nonviolence, truthfulness, simple living, austerity, enduring hardship, self-purification and the devoted study of spiritually uplifting books (although a strong focus on the latter would be considered Jnana yoga.)
Benefits from the path of Raja Yoga include stronger powers of concentration, mental focus, calmness, balance, will power and detachment from sources of unhappiness related to wanting or having status or material goods.
Bhakti Yoga has two central dimensions. It is the yoga of love and devotion, of identification with your spiritual connection and dedicating oneself to a particular god, guru or teacher and cultivating loving-kindness in one’s heart. It is also a yoga of practices, such as chanting or dancing, that are designed to lead to states of ecstatic bliss.
Dyasa is to experience a perfect feeling of security and happiness in the service of the Divine. Mystics long for the Divine Child to be born in their inner consciousness. The yoga of love seeks to turn this spirit of service and self-sacrifice to God, who is the ultimate protector and provider for all living creatures, or to the service of God’s incarnation in one the form of a particular god or goddess.
A goal of Bhakti yoga as taught and practiced in India is to see God in everything and everyone. In the West, where a conception of God as transcendent but not immanent is widespread, loving devotion to Jesus and Mary would be a form of Bhakti yoga. The key is that, once that loving devotion is experienced, the person makes it a part of his or her own being and expresses that attitude in his or her actions, thoughts, and feelings toward others. Counting on God, the Divine Being or Spirit as one’s eternal friend, philosopher and guide is called sakya.
In India the divine is thought of as having masculine and feminine qualities equally. The yoga of love involves spiritual transformation of the erotic impulse.
A true Bhakti tends to have a sunny disposition and a strong sense that the world is good and all is as it should be. The states of bliss-consciousness which are a result of the ecstatic practices tend to be highly enjoyable. The practice of Bhakti tends to lead toward an attitude of humility, forgiveness and letting go of the feeling of egotistical self-importance, making life meaningful.
Karma yoga is the yoga of action. It is dedicated to carrying out actions and projects that will improve the lives of others and help them on their paths toward liberation and enlightenment. It strives to avoid all actions that will cause unnecessary suffering or harm to others and other living beings.
The doctrine of Karma, perhaps articulated most eloquently by the Jains, says, “What goes around comes around.” Each of our actions has consequences for others and for ourselves. The karma yogi tries to make these actions as positive as possible. Karma yoga is sometimes associated with the monkey-god Hanuman who is dedicated to “selfless service.”
Karma yoga is selfless action in the best interests of others and society, (such as feeding the hungry, nursing the sick), performed out of genuine love. This path is selfless dedication to the welfare of others on the basis of one’s free self-development, in a way that is true to one’s own inclinations and abilities. In this view, the foremost duty of each individual is to develop his or her own latent possibilities, so that these will be available to both self and other. At its best, it is selfless dedication to the welfare of other people and beings on the basis of one’s own self-development.
True Karma Yoga involves an attitude of fundamental equality between me and those whom I am helping. We meet as one person to another, on the same ground. Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King are examples of well-known Karma Yogis. They combined good work with a spiritual dimension.
Karma yoga involves learning to do the best possible in a spirit of nonattachment. (I do all I can, and then what happens happens, and so be it.) It can involve integrating accomplishment for the benefit of others with the discipline of spiritual development.
Jnana Yoga, the yoga of knowledge and wisdom, has much in common with ancient Greek philosophy, which attempted to discover truth largely through the power of reason. Jnana yoga is scholarly and conceptual, attempting to find paths to self-knowledge and spiritual realization through the power of the intellect.
Jnana Yoga is not purely scholarly, however, for it applies intellectual disciplines to the cultivation of personal qualities. This side of it might reasonably be likened to contemplative meditation, and shares some qualities with Raja yoga.
Essential aspects of Jnana yoga are:
Discrimination: Understanding which can tell the real from the unreal. This involves non-attachment to the ephemeral values of life and cultivation of the eternal values.
Non-attachment: Using the intellect to break away from attachment to the material world
Self-Discipline: Using the intellect to cultivate calmness, restraint, renunciation, forbearance and faith;
Longing for Freedom: The desire for liberation leads to self-discipline which breaks attachments to our conditioned ideas of who we are and what we need. Blind conformity to social norms and customs is abandoned.
Meditation: Meditation can transform intellectual understanding and philosophic knowledge into non-dualistic realization and spiritual wisdom.
Benefits of the path of Jnana Yoga: Leads to great depth of spiritual insight. Facilitates communicating insights and understandings to others.
(This article was adapted from material developed by the University of California, Sonoma.)