Four paths of yoga

Though the four paths of yoga seem to be completely different from each other, they lead to the same goal of self realization

Dr Vinod Kumar

The four paths of yoga have been in existence from the time yoga originated. However, in the past, only one of these paths was in focus at a given time. The Bhagavadgita discusses the four paths of yoga to an extent. Shankara focuses mainly on jnana yoga, Ramanuja has focused only on bhakti yoga. Patanjali’s yoga sutra mainly emphasized the importance of raja yoga. Karma yoga was not known till the 1890s, when Swami Vivekananda spoke extensivey about the four paths of yoga in his teachings worldwide.

Raja yoga – path of will power

According to Patanjali’s yoga sutra, yoga is practiced to gain mastery over the mind. There are two types of practices under raja yoga:

  • Bahiranga Yoga offers rules and regulations at the behavioral level (yama and niyama) as well as physical practices to gain better control over the body and the mind (asanas and pranayama).
  • Antaranga Yoga comprises of dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (consciousness – which deals directly with the mind).

Karma yoga – path of action

The Bhagvadgita remains the main source for the conceptual basis of karma yoga; it was later elaborated by Swami VivekanandaThis path emphasizes on performing actions with detachment, without worrying about the result.

Actions are categorized as:

  • Tamasik, if they are binding, deteriorating, violent and is a result of state of delusion and confusion
  • Rajasik, when performed with craving for desires, with egoism and a lot of effort
  • Sattvik, when it is free from attachment and done without love or hatred

The essence of karma yoga is to convert kamya karma (action with desires) into yogic karma by inculcating detachment and committing one's energy to unceasing work.

Bhakti yoga – path of worship

Bhakti yoga aims to help a person evolve emotional maturity, love for society and to spread the message of universal brotherhood and oneness. It helps in transformation of conditional and desirous form of love into true unconditonal love. Kama (desire), combined with tyaga (sacrifice) forms prema (love). Prema along with saranagati (surrender) results in bhakti.

The path of bhakti yoga results in satisfaction and calmness of mind. It is considered to be the easiest path among four, as the practice is not very rigorous.

Bhakti yoga is similar to the interpersonal relation between humans, but here the relation is between soul and supersoul (ultimate soul). Bhagvad purana provides us with nine forms of bhaktiSravan (listening), Kirtana (praising), Smarana (remembering), Pada-sevana (rendering service), Arcana (worshipping), Vandana (paying homage), Dasya (servitude), Sakhya (friendship), and Atma-nivedana (complete surrender of self).

Jnana yoga – path of knowledge

This path helps develop a logical mind with intuitive knowledge and immense awareness. There are three phases in jnana yoga:

  • Sravana, the first exposure to knowledge in any form (reading a book, listening to a lecture, watching a video).
  • Manana, revisiting the knowledge for further understanding.
  • Nididhyasana, the phase of experimentation.

In jnana yoga, the ultimate aim is to understand the reality of atma (soul) and the ability to differentiate it from body. A person truly established in the path of jnana yoga becomes free from all worldly desires and has contentment.

Though the four paths of yoga seem to be completely different from each other, they lead to the same goal of self realization, and the union of the individual and universal self.

By Dr Vinod Kumar, Junior Scientific Officer (Yoga and Psychiatry) at NIMHANS

White Swan Foundation