Yoga Philosophy: The Four Paths of Yoga (Hatha, Karma, Jnana, Bhakti)

Most people think of yoga as physical exercises. But this is only one side of the old Indian tradition, whose goal is Moksha: salvation from the circle of rebirths. Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga are as important as Hatha Yoga.

Origins and Goals of Yoga

Yoga means union – the union of body and soul, of soul and God. Yoga is already mentioned in the Upanishads, which were written about 700 years before Christ. It is also mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita (about 400 BC) as a method for liberation from the circle of rebirths.

The Yogasutra of Patanjali is one of the central texts. It was written about 2000 years ago. Patanjali gives the following definition: “Yoga is that inner state in which the soul-spiritual processes come to rest”.

Yoga in all its forms is therefore a spiritual practice that is thousands of years old. In order to reach the goal set by Patanjali, different paths have developed. The three classical ones are Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga. Later on, the body-centered Hatha Yoga, which is widely spread in the western world, was added.

Karma Yoga – the Path of Action

Many people imagine karma to be a kind of cosmic law that rewards good deeds and punishes evil ones. In fact, karma means nothing more than action. Every doing has a consequence – maybe in this life, maybe in the next.
Karma Yoga is then the path of action, of deeds. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna says:

“You [must] perform each action as an offering to God and be free from all attachment to the results.”

Karma Yoga is selfless action. The karma yogi renounces all worldly benefits that his action might bring him. Everything he does is a sacrifice that he offers to God. Therefore, a karma yogi is often not recognizable as such. Outwardly he may sweep the street or be a farmer – but inside he practices selfless Karma Yoga.

Karma – the succession of cause and effect – is the force that keeps the wheel of rebirths turning. In order to stop it and attain moksha, it is not enough to become inactive and do nothing – apart from the fact that it is impossible to do nothing. Instead, the yogi should act, but without attachment to his actions. In this way he frees himself from the cycle of rebirths, from samsara.

In this sense, karma yoga is everything we do.

Bhakti Yoga – the Path of Devotion

Bhakti Yoga is the path of love, of devotion to a personal God. The Bhakti path was already mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita, but flourished in medieval India.

The influence of Sufism is also worth mentioning. Sufism is the mystical current of Islam, and shares many concepts with Bhakti Yoga. Kabir, an Indian mystic from the 15th century who lived in Varanasi, is considered one of the most important Bhakti saints – and at the same time a Sufi saint. He combined Hinduism and Islam into one current, because he recognized Sufism and Bhakti are two streams that flow into the same sea. The sea is God, the river is love.

Bhakti can take many forms. Kirtan is the chanting of sacred mantras, with one singer or guru singing and the believers chanting after him. The silent or loud recitation of mantras by means of a prayer chain is called Japa.

The puja is also omnipresent in India: These religious ceremonies are performed every morning and every evening either privately in the household or publicly in temples. Portraits or statues of deities are worshiped – for example by offering them flowers or fire. The puja is one of the most important components of most Hindus’ religious life.

Ram Dass, a recently deceased American spiritual teacher, summed up Bhakti in these words:

“You just love until you and the Beloved become One.”

In other words, Bhakti Yoga is the union with God on the path of personal love for God.

Jnana Yoga – the Way of Wisdom

Another approach is that of Jnana Yoga. Its goal, like that of the other paths, is moksha. This is to be achieved by realizing the unity of Atman (soul) and Brahman. The Hindus call Brahman the infinite, transcendent reality. Brahman is the eternal source of all being.

One of the central tenets of Hinduism is: Tat Tvam Asi – You are That. In other words: You are Brahman, Atman is Brahman.
He or she who knows this – and really knows and experiences it – attains Moksha.

Jnana offers its desciples several spiritual tools to crack this nut of knowledge.
Learning from the one Guru is essential. This is followed by manana, the inner absorption of the acquired knowledge. The third stage is meditation. With this the student should transform theoretical knowledge into practical experience and experience the saying Tat Tvam Asi himself.

There are aids and instructions to facilitate the path of Jnana Yoga. Vairagya means the detachment from all worldly, material things. This serves to distinguish between Brahman (unchanging reality) and Maya (illusion).
Shad-sampad are the six virtues that a jnana practitioner should observe. These include faith and inner composure.

Jnana is considered the most difficult path. In the Bhagavad Gita, Jnana Yoga is described as more challenging than Bhakti and Karma Yoga. Ultimately, however, Jnana Yoga is just as valid a path as the other two.

Hatha Yoga – the Path of the Body

Hatha Yoga is actually not one of the three classical paths. It originated several centuries after Bhakti, Karma and Jnana Yoga, and is therefore not found in the ancient scriptures of Hinduism.

Hatha means something like “effort” or “strength”. It means physical effort, but not only: the mind should be strengthened, the body should be transformed into a temple where the soul, the spirit likes to dwell. While many Indian philosophies see the body as an obstacle on the religious path, Hatha takes the opposite position. Hatha Yoga is the path to God through the body.

Yoga in Rishikesh
Yoga studios in Rishikesh, India

In the last decades many types of Hatha Yoga have developed. Among the best known are Iyengar, Kundalini and Vinyasa. These days, in European and American cities you will also find such novel inventions as Yoga for digestion, for pregnant women and even Laughing Yoga. These types do not have much in common with ancient Indian philosophy. That they are so popular is simply because of their effectiveness, which they nevertheless have. This is the secret of the success that yoga celebrates in the West: Yoga is good for mind and soul. It’s fun – whether you know the philosophy behind it or not.

Raja Yoga – the Royal Path

The “Royal Yoga” combines the four aspects mentioned so far. Raja is considered the highest form of Yoga. Its goal is control, dominion over the mind – that is why it is “royal”.

This dominion is achieved through eight stages. These include ethical rules of conduct and self-discipline, as well as breath control and meditation. Hatha is seen as one way to achieve Raja Yoga.

Karma Yoga and Co.: Yoga in Changing Times

Today, we must probably distinguish between two types of yoga: Western and traditional Indian yoga. While the former is more popular than ever, it has little in common with the ancient Indian tradition. This does not mean that Hatha Yoga, as it is taught in western cities, is wrong. There are also good teachers in Europe and America, teachers who place equal emphasis on physical and mental progress. And those who practice yoga solely to get a six-pack or nice biceps,might, perhaps only by chance, nevertheless come across the broader dimensions of yoga.

But in India, a country that is undergoing rapid change, yoga is in good hands. There it has survived the centuries, numerous invasions and wars – and will also survive the technological, capitalist change that the country is currently undergoing.

For as long as people strive for God, there will be Yoga.

The Best Books on Yoga

Yoga is a practical path, a path of experience. Still, many books on Yoga have been written – from the ancient Bhagavad Gita to modern Yoga advisors. These are some of the bests books on Yoga philosophy:

  • Light on Yoga: The “Bible of modern Yoga”, written by one of the great Hatha Yoga masters of our age: B. K. S. Iyengar.
  • Bhagavad Gita: One of the most important texts on Hinduism, and the main source of ancient knowledge of Yoga.
  • The Gospel of Ramakrishna: Teachings and sayings of the famous mystic and Bhakti Yogi of the 19th century.
  • The Story of my Experiments with Truth: Autobiography of Mahatma (the “Great Soul”) Ghandi, who can be regarded as one of the most perfect Karma Yogis.
  • The Upanishads: Another classic Hindu scripture, and even older than the Gita, the Upanishads are a jewel of Hindu wisdom and philosophy.
  • The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: One of the texts that started it al. A great source on ancient Yogic wisdom, and the definite guide to Raja Yoga.
  • Yoga Anatomy: Many illustrated Yoga poses, in-depth information on the anatomy and science behind Hatha Yoga. Perfect for beginners and advanced practitioners alike!

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