“Here is, in truth, the whole secret of Yoga, the science of the soul. The active turnings, the strident vibrations, of selfishness, lust and hate are to be stilled by meditation, by letting heart and mind dwell in spiritual life, by lifting up the heart to the strong, silent life above, which rests in the stillness of eternal love, and needs no harsh vibration to convince it of true being.” ~ Patanjali
There is no one, all-encompassing definition of yoga.
But, most of us are familiar with “Yoga” being Sanskrit for “connection,” and with the idea that yoga is about cultivating a connection or union between the ego-self and a higher forms of consciousness.
In other words, we can say that we practice yoga to find greater harmony and balance in our lives, and seek a connection with something greater than what our senses alone invite, most probably because we have an intrinsic feeling, maybe from birth, that something is lacking, missing or incomplete.
“Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the ‘integrity that comes from being what you are.’” ~ Parker Palmer
Maybe we can say, then, that we practice yoga to become more fully who we are.
A state of union is an ideal, something we can all work for in various ways. We can experience union walking through a forest, gazing at the moon, or having an intimate moment with someone we love. In order to find more sustained states of peace and balance, we can turn to tools like meditation and the many practices that yoga offers (among which meditation is also key).
While there are many approaches to yoga, among them tantra, laya and kundalini, and then the even more widely known “styles” of yoga, such as Ashtanga, vinyasa, hatha and Iyengar, I want to focus on the four fundamental paths of yoga.
These four paths, outlined below, can be thought of as parts of a whole, and the one that pulls us the most can tell us a lot about who we are and how we are constituted, and can also tell us where there are gaps; working with the other paths can provide us with new challenges for growth.
What are the four paths of yoga?
Perhaps the most commonly known and practiced, Raja Yoga (the Yoga of Kings, or the Royal Road) is a detailed system of physical and mental control that highlights meditation, and then working with the body, breath and mind to overcome the limits and obstructions the body and mind impose on us. Raja Yoga encompasses Patanjali’s system of “Ashtanga,” or the eight limbs designed to bring us to absolute self-mastery and realization.
A person with a deep commitment to working with all aspects of being and a willingness to exert great effort to achieve self-control may be attracted to Raja Yoga, which is often first encountered through asana (posture) practice.
Karma Yoga is a path or way of service and action, and involves a heightened awareness of service for others as one engages in all aspects of daily life. Simply put, Karma Yoga is the mindful “doing” of things that are helpful to others, and involves working on bringing all levels of the self to activities that benefit others.
A person who enjoys being social, physical activity, working with the hands and body, and loves caring for and nurturing others may be best suited for this path of yoga.
Bhakti Yoga is a devotional path, where we use our faculties of universal love, compassion, empathy and emotion to put the self in the direct service of the divine. This path involves devotional prayer and chanting, and harboring continued and constant awareness of the divine.
A person who is naturally expressive and open with his or her emotions, and who embraces faith without hesitation might be best suited to this path.
Jnana Yoga can be thought of as the way of the intellect, of pursuing knowledge and wisdom, and cultivating our faculty of contemplation. More than acquiring information through books, it involves a deep going-within to examine the nature and truth of who we are by learning to distinguish our false senses of identity and letting them go.
A person who naturally loves intellectual pursuits and philosophy might be most drawn to this path.
How to choose the best personal path?
Should we pursue the path that fits snugly into our comfort zone, which will inspire a greater ease of practice and might motivate us the best, or should we actually embark on the path that inspires the most resistance in us, to inspire the most dramatic growth? This is an interesting challenge!
I believe it’s important to strike a balance between learning to embrace what is at first uncomfortable, and going so far into discomfort that the motivation to practice is completely cut off.
When starting on a path toward union, harmony and self-mastery, we can best serve ourselves by practicing and growing within the path that naturally attracts us the most. However, we should remember that each path is a part of a greater whole, and that we ultimately need to embrace aspects of each path along the way.
For one naturally intellectual person, for example, praying or chanting might be extremely uncomfortable, and this can be a great impetus for reflection and contemplation about the nature of his or her identity. For another naturally intellectual person, experimenting with devotional practices can be an instant awakening of sorts, maybe a long lost reminder, or a gateway into the psyche opening to reveal different levels of awareness.
We all owe it to ourselves to take the time to experiment with the paths of yoga, in order to find what revelations await us, so that we can arrive at a basis for practice that we are both happy and comfortable with, and that allows for challenges and personal evolution.
“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.” ~ Jack Kerouac