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The Branches of Yoga

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The Branches of Yoga

by Prem Prakash

There are several branches of Yoga traditionally cited as valid approaches to the goal of Self-realization. Yoga, in its fullest sense, however, is not so much a tree with different branches, as it is a comprehensive spiritual art that takes into account the varied needs of different individuals, and even the same individual at different times. As Sri Krishna Prem so eloquently stated, Yoga is not a synthesis of all the separate branches of the tradition; it is the prior and undivided whole of which the branches represent partial formations.

In this essay I would like to briefly explore the primary branches of Yoga and point out their advantages and pitfalls. My hope is this will assist the seeker in understanding how Yoga is a comprehensive art and science with many facets. The branches of Yoga which I will discuss are Jnāna-Yoga, the Yoga of wisdom; Rāja-Yoga, the Yoga of meditation; Hatha-Yoga, the Yoga of physical processes; Karma-Yoga, the Yoga of service; and Bhakti-Yoga, the Yoga of devotion.

Jnāna-Yoga is a path oriented towards realizing the eternal in its transcendent aspect. The emphasis of Jnāna-Yoga is on the discernment of pure awareness from nature and all temporal phenomenon. The jnāna-yogin seeks to uncover his true Self, the ātman, in its state separate from body or mind. He believes that anything which undergoes change is not his Self, and should be transcended. Shankara and Ramana Maharshi are two of the best known exponents of this path, and the principal texts are the Brahma-Sūtra and some of the Upanishads.

The sādhana of the jnāna-yogin consists in the practice of applying the maxim neti neti, "not this, not this," to anything which is not eternal. By denying what is transient, he hopes to abide in the eternal. He seeks not so much to grow towards a spiritual goal, but to transcend all modifications of nature, that which has the potential for growth or decay.

The advantage of Jnāna-Yoga is that it provides a strong focus on the goal of Self-realization. Because the jnāna-yogin seeks the transcendent, he can remain detached from the emotional traumas, physical problems, and the desire for the fruits of Yoga practice (such as siddhis or paranormal powers) that plague aspirants on other paths. The disadvantage of Jnāna-Yoga is that it can easily draw the aspirant into a deluded mental condition. It is easy for the inexperienced aspirant to confuse the elevated state of transcendence of body and mind with his own psychological condition of dissociation from body and personality. The former is a state of enlightenment, the latter is closer to autism. Immature jnāna-yogins often fail to recognize that God has two aspects: eternal stillness and eternal activity.

By falling down on one side of the fence, by focusing solely on being, they fail to realize the joy of doing, the aspect of God in activity. Rāja-Yoga, literally "kingly Yoga," is that branch of Yoga which focuses primarily on meditation. The goal of Rāja-Yoga is the attainment of samadhi, a state of God awareness accessible to the still, contemplating practitioner. The rāja-yogin seeks to quiet all aspects of his body and mind, and enter into a transcendent state beyond nature. Some schools define the highest samādhi as taking place when the breath has stopped, obviously necessitating that the body be in an immobile posture. Patanjali is generally recognized as the foremost exponent of Rāja-Yoga, and his Yoga-Sūtra are the primary text of this discipline.

The advantage of Rāja-Yoga is that it is a very precise system which is accessible to anyone, regardless of current spiritual status. Rāja-Yoga is a science, in which each stage of accomplishment brings an increasing degree of peace and wisdom. Any beginner can grab hold of the ladder of Rāja-Yoga and undertake practices which will eventually lead to the summit of samādhi. In addition, Rāja-Yoga has been so well explored that its system has been mapped very clearly, making it possible for the aspirant to work within a contextual framework in which he can understand his accomplishments and obstacles.

The disadvantage of Rāja-Yoga is that to truly climb its summit one would do well to live a rather isolated existence. Rāja-Yoga requires great periods of time for meditation in a form which is best done in seclusion. It also demands extensive sādhanas for which the contemporary aspirant likely does not have the time.

Hatha-Yoga is a branch of Yoga that requires the aspirant to devote colossal amounts of time to physical processes, such as prānāyāma (breath and energy exercises), and āsanas (physical exercises). Hatha-Yoga attempts to purify the nervous system and strengthen the body to such a degree that the hatha-yogin attains a state of freedom from heat or cold, pain and pleasure, even hunger and thirst. Accomplished hatha-yogin can remain without food or water for periods of time unreachable by the untrained human being. The Hatha-Yoga tradition also claims that its adherents can attain great siddhis, such as the ability to walk on water or fly in the air. Two of the most renowned texts of this tradition are the Hatha-Yoga-Pradīpikā and the Gheranda-Samhitā.

The advantage of Hatha-Yoga practice is that it transforms the ordinary human body into a powerful vessel capable of great vitality and long life. In this way, the aspirant is not delayed in his sādhana by illness or physical discomfort. In addition, by extending the period of life the aspirant will, in theory, have enough time to complete his course of spiritual practice. Some schools even seek to create a physical, or super-physical body capable of corporeal immortality.

The disadvantage of Hatha-Yoga practice is, like Rāja-Yoga, a matter of quantity rather than quality. Hatha-Yoga can certainly bring a person to enlightenment, but its demands are unsuited to all but those who are ready to commit themselves to severe discipline. The true hatha-yogin must live in isolation from ordinary society and undertake radical practices requiring fasting and potentially dangerous austerities. His sādhanas will take most of his day and night, leaving little time for other activities. If the Hatha-Yoga tradition is still being practiced in its authentic form, it is taking place in remote regions of wild areas, inaccessible to the curious or mildly determined.

Karma-Yoga is the Yoga of service to others and to God. It is a suitable orientation for those of an active nature, those who wish to work for the manifestation of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. The main thrust of the practice is the renunciation of fruits of action. That is, activities are undertaken for their own sake, the results being left to God. Activities are assumed for the benefit of the greater good, without concern for personal benefit. The path of Karma-Yoga is described in detail in the Bhagavad-Gītā.

The advantage of Karma-Yoga is that it transforms activity from selfish, goal based-action that results in binding karma, to selfless, ego-free action which produces no karma. In addition, Karma-Yoga is suitable for everyone. As Shri Krishna points out in the Bhagavad-Gītā, no one is free from action for even a moment. Life in a body is based on action, and even the most reclusive hermit is constantly involved in some form of activity, no matter how subtle. The applicability of Karma-Yoga for the busy modern person, whose responsibilities certainly exceed those of the hermit, is thus apparent.

The disadvantage of Karma-Yoga is that it can quickly become a slippery slope of workaholism in the guise of spiritual endeavor. The world is always going to need healing. If one were to work at service twenty-three hours a day, when he laid his head down to rest on the twenty-fourth hour there would still exist a multitude of uncompleted tasks and projects. Shankara's objection to Karma-Yoga was that no amount of activity can produce spiritual growth because spiritual growth is the result of wisdom born of inner stillness. If this stillness is lost to an outer focus, regardless of good intentions, then Karma-Yoga becomes a force of positive social action, but nothing more profound.

Bhakti-Yoga is the path of love and devotion. Traditionally, this has involved the use of external props and external relationships. Rites, rituals and ceremonies comprise the props, and adoration of gurus and an external Supreme Being are the focus of the relationships. The beauty of Bhakti-Yoga is that it is so accessible to anyone, regardless of spiritual development, because the aspirant is free to establish a relationship with God in any form that he finds attractive. In addition, it satisfies the primal craving inherent in the soul of all beings — the desire for love. Bhakti-Yoga satisfies this urge within a spiritual context, permitting love and devotion to be cultivated and directed in a healthy manner. The Nārada's Bhakti-Sūtra and portions of the Bhagavad-Gītā outline this path.

The disadvantage of Bhakti-Yoga is that it can become an escape from the rigors of the deep self-examination required for spiritual growth. Devotion can all too easily deteriorate to a dreamy sentimentalism if it is not balanced with honest introspection. In addition, an overly emotional dependence on anything outside of oneself, regardless of how apparently "divine," prevents one from reaching the state of spiritual maturity. This has been the problem in those sects in which "grace" from the guru is supposed to be the fuel which drives the rocket of the disciples growth. Gurus who claim to do the work the disciples must do for themselves are misleading their followers.

As we examine the different branches of Yoga we can see how they each have their pluses and drawbacks. Too often, proponents of one system espouse propaganda about the superiority of their system, confusing aspirants. The wise aspirant will draw from the different approaches that which suits his temperament and personal life situation. In the same way that every individual has unique needs related to diet, sleep, and exercise, so does each have a unique spiritual path that is for his steps alone. It is my opinion that an aspirant should feel free to utilize whatever practices assist him in quieting his mind, opening his heart, and making him better able to serve others.

© Copyright 1999 by Prem Prakash. All rights reserved

Prem Prakash
Prem Prakash is an American by birth who has been a practicing yogi since 1979.
In 1990 he was given permission to teach others by Baba Hari Dass. Since 1991 he has served as Director of the Green Mountain School of Yoga in Middlebury, Vermont.
He is the author of The Yoga of Spiritual Devotion: A Modern Translation of the Narada Bhakti Sutras (Inner Traditions International, 1998).

Yoga Research & Education Center

For more information, we suggest visiting:

Modern Yoga versus Ancient Yoga
Six Schools of Indian Philosophy


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