For most of us, our interest in yoga began from the same place: an asana class. We took a yoga class at our gym or the local studio and we were hooked. The movement, the music, the bare feet: it all feels so great! And yoga is everywhere – yoga clothes at sporting goods stores, yoga quotes circulating on Facebook and Pinterest, and midriff-baring yoga-practicing celebrities on the cover of just about every magazine in the checkout aisle at the grocery store.
Soon we began to understand that yoga is more than colorful Lululemon pants and beautiful women on the cover of Yoga Journal. There is an earthy, spiritual side of yoga that goes so much deeper than the hype. The first asana class is just one way to tap into the amazing energy yoga can bring.
Four Paths of Yoga
According to the yogis, there are four paths of yoga that one can follow to reach the one ultimate goal. If asana class is your bliss, great! There is so much benefit from a regular physical practice. Cultivating a healthy body, strong mind, and a way of living that promotes peace and mindfulness is the way of the yogi. But how do you get there? Let’s take a look at the different paths, and you can decide which option works best for you given your temperament and approach to life.
1. Karma Yoga
Also known as the yoga of action, karma yoga constitutes actively doing in order to achieve the ultimate goal. This is where you perform physical, worldly work in a selfless way to better the people and environment around you. Karma yoga can be a job that you do for money, or to volunteer your time with. It can be as simple as helping a neighbor with a task, or as complex as raising children until they are grown. The work can be done at home, school, or at a job.
The key to Karma Yoga is that your duties are performed without egoist expectations, personal gain, or worldly riches. It is okay to earn money doing Karma Yoga, as long as the money is used in a wise, selfless way. I like to think of my daily tasks as performing Karma Yoga. My 5:30 a.m. alarm is set with the title “karma yoga” in order to remind me that I am waking up early to help others. I get my kids up and ready for school, then head to my job.
On the days when I don’t feel like going to work or having a positive attitude about my job, I remind myself that I work in order to provide for my children and raise my family. The work I do outside of the home also involves helping others, so this is a constant reminder that I am doing good in the lives of the patients I see and care for.
Thinking of my day-to-day actions as Karma Yoga helps me to see the bigger picture, maintain enthusiasm, and be happy with my tasks.
There are many Ashrams which offer Karma Yoga studies. This is an opportunity for you to remove yourself from your personal and professional duties, and focus on labor and tasks at the Ashram. Sometimes being away from our responsibilities and comforts is necessary to forget worldly desires and focus on selfless service. I have found this to be a remarkable, life-changing, and humbling experience. Taking the concept of Karma Yoga a step further would be to take on the role of a spiritual activist. Think Dalai Lama or B.K.S Iyengar.
2. Bhakti Yoga
Bhakti Yoga is the path of devotion, or love. This path is best for individuals who are artistic and emotional in nature. They connect with others by showing love and compassion. Kirtan, prayer, and worship are examples of ways to dedicate your life to yoga through the path of Bhakti. I like to think of the famous singer/songwriter Moby as being a Bhakti Yogi devotee. Other famous figures are Narayan Jyoti and Mother Theresa.
3. Raja Yoga
Raja Yoga is less about touchy-feely spirituality and devotion, and more about facts, science, self-study, and the mind. The Raja Yoga practitioner will spend time in mantra repetition and meditation. The practice of pranayama is also strong. These practices help gain control of the physical body through mental discipline. When we can better understand our thoughts and mind, we can gain control over prana and the physical body in order to reach enlightenment.
4. Jnana Yoga
This is the most difficult path of yoga. Jnana Yoga is also known as the yoga of knowledge. It is intended for those with strong intellect, self-discipline, and control of the will and mind. Jnana Yogis will study Vedic Scriptures, like the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, to stimulate thinking and self-inquiry.
This path is best followed after the other paths (Karma, Bhakti, and Raja) have been practiced and are well-understood. Only then can the Jnana Yogi move along towards spiritual awakening. As you can see, the paths of yoga differ from one another. They appeal to a yogi’s human traits and lifestyle. No one path is the “right” path. The way can be straight and narrow like a highway or treacherous and curvy like a mountain trail.
Take the path that is right for you, following detours where appropriate. It may take many lifetimes, but as long as the yogi remains adherent and mindful, the ultimate goal will be achieved.
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