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 jnana yoga, the yoga of wisdom; raja 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.
Jnana yoga is a path oriented towards realizing the eternal in its transcendent aspect. The emphasis of jnana yoga is on the discernment of pure awareness from nature and all temporal phenomenon. The jnana yogi seeks to uncover his true Self, the atman, 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 Sutra and some of the Upanishads.
The sadhana of the jnana yogi 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 jnana yoga is that it provides a strong focus on the goal of Self-realization. Because the jnana yogi 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, psychic powers) that plague aspirants on other paths. The disadvantage of jnana 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 jnana yogis 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.
Raja yoga, literally "kingly yoga," is that branch of yoga which focuses primarily on meditation. The goal of raja yoga is the attainment of samadhi, a state of God awareness accessible to the still, contemplating practitioner. The raja yogi seeks to quiet all aspects of his body and mind, and enter into a transcendent state beyond nature. Some schools define the highest samadhi 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 raja yoga, and his Yoga Sutras are the primary text of this discipline.
The advantage of raja yoga is that it is a very precise system which is accessible to anyone, regardless of current spiritual status. Raja 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 raja yoga and undertake practices which will eventually lead to the summit of samadhi. In addition, raja 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 raja yoga is that to truly climb its summit one would do well to live a rather isolated existence. Raja yoga requires great periods of time for meditation in a form which is best done in seclusion. It also demands extensive sadhanas 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 pranayama (breath and energy exercises), and asanas (physical exercises). Hatha yoga attempts to purify the nervous system and strengthen the body to such a degree that the hatha yogi attains a state of freedom from heat or cold, pain and pleasure, even hunger and thirst. Accomplished hatha yogis 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 Pradipika and the Gerhanda Samhita.
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 sadhana 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 raja 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 yogi must live in isolation from ordinary society and undertake radical practices requiring fasting and potentially dangerous austerities. His sadhanas 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 Gita.
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 Sri Krishna points out in the Bhagavad Gita, 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 work-aholism in the guise of spiritual endeavor. The world is always going to need healing. If one were to work at service 23 hours a day, when he laid his head down to rest on the 24th 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 Narada Bhakti Sutras and portions of the Bhagavad Gita 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
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.
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