Finding the Path. The Main Paths of Yoga
Updated: Sep 7
For anyone just stepping into a Yoga mat for the first time, finding a style that feels comfortable, yet is challenging enough to push us in the right direction can be something of a tiny little ordeal.
For one thing, there are as many studios, Yoga styles, and teachers as there are methods, which means that, making sense of what style and class to opt for at the beginning of our yogic journey can be daunting. This is probably one of the reasons why most of us end up choosing a class that somehow fits around our work/life schedule ––whatever that may be–– or simply join those our friends and colleagues already go to because, let's be honest, it's really hard to choose when you basically have no clue!
Choosing a style or teacher this way is much more frequent than one would think and it's also often the reason why we end up joining classes that don't really work for us, with teachers with whom we hardly connect, or where the actual purpose and philosophical underpinnings of whatever it is that we practice remains a mystery to us. We assume that what we practice is 'Yoga,' yet rarely receive any explanation as to what we do, why we do it, or why we do it the way we do it. Hence, we leave each class thinking we've done Yoga, but being in a sort of grey zone as to whether any other style of Yoga for that matter would be a better fit for us.
We thought that a post outlining the five main yogic paths and their specificities might come in handy, if only to simplify things a little at the beginning and help newbies choose a style that really caters to their needs.
The Main Paths of Yoga
According to classical scriptures, then, there are four or five main different paths available to any serious Yoga student ––that is, to anyone interested in truly getting to practice something more than mere physical poses. These four or five different paths are those of Jnana, Bhakti, Karma, Kriya (and Raja) Yoga respectively and they exist in order to address the changing needs of different types of students, because people have differing contexts, needs, and personalities. As mentioned more than once in our blog entries, when it comes to Yoga, there isn't really any 'one method fits all,' and trial and error, specially at the beginning, remains the best method of all.
These different yogic routes should be thought of more like 'inclinations,' inasmuch as they outline ways of engaging with the practice of Yoga that are somewhat adaptable and flexible to our different moods and life stages. Hence, we speak of a path of Yoga for those who, for example, are inclined to philosophizing and like getting to the heart of things in a somewhat head-first kind of style; or of a path for those inclined to connecting with the divine and getting to the heart of things via the heart of things; or a path for the more technical-and-detail-oriented, who kind of get off of being very precise and dexterous at whatever it is that they practice; or a path for those with a penchant for selfless service, who could use being of assistance to others to learn to experience life from the heart; or else, a path for those who are a bit more eclectic and prefer to mix things up. These paths are at the heart of all modern-day derived forms of Yoga, whether we speak of Kundalini, Hatha Yoga, Ashtanga, etc.
Jnana Yoga: the Yoga of Observation and Wisdom
Perhaps one of the paths that's more rarely offered or contemplated by western mainstream studios, Jnana Yoga (or the Yoga of wisdom) is the path that most directly addresses Yoga's ultimate prerogative: the quest for inner knowledge and inner truth, one observation at a time. Though the word 'wisdom' is the western equivalent of the Sanskrit term 'Jnana,' the type of knowledge or wisdom that Jnana Yoga pursues is not our usual mental 'know-how,' nor exclusively the territory of the mind. In fact, it's more accurate to assume that the type of wisdom Jnana is after does not concern the outer mind at all ––that part of the mind concerned with the world of the senses. Instead, the wisdom Jnana is after is obtained by careful observation of that which is 'truest' with one's inner eye ––aka, via a profound unravelling process where our abilities for subtle discernment and subtle absorption are slowly honed down.
A typical Jnana excercise, for instance, would have us ponder on the nature of a concept, idea, question, feeling, or parable long enough so that, once exhausted the resources of our rational mind, pure perception beyond the mind would allow us to realise that concept's true, essential nature. That is, the reality of a given concept would be revealed to us beyond any illusions or fallacies. We'd manage to reach into that concept's soul or heart. If this sounds slightly complicated, that's cause it is, which is the reason why Jnana is really not for the faint-hearted. It requires almost complete control of the senses and pranas so that our focus will be strong enough to reach into the essence of what we have at hand. For careful observation is to Jnana what the breath is to asana: they go hand in hand.
Vichara or Yogic Self-Inquiry is one of Jnana's main go-to methods. Styles like Hatha Yoga or Kundalini Yoga use some aspects of Jnana as part of their methodology, if only to a limited extent, and mainly as complements to other practices. Thus, if you're someone who could see himself reaching deep into the heart of things to find the union within and practice Jnana, you could give Hatha Yoga a go to get acquainted with some of this path's methods, or else find a good Jnana Yoga program or teacher somewhere in India where this path of Yoga is more readily available. Reading the works of great Jnanis like Jiddu Krishnamurti or Sri Ramana Maharshi, for example, is also a great way to get started.
The Path of Bhakti
Since we covered this particular path at some length in one of our previous entries, we'd just mention here that devotion towards anything we do in life always goes a long way! Our notion of what devotion looks and feels like, however, will largely depend on our own idea of the divine, on our personal experience with showing and displaying love for ourselves and others, and on our personal interpretation of what 'surrendering to what we love' feels like. Nevertheless, in gross terms, one could argue that the path of Bhakti Yoga or the path of ultimate devotion encompasses the realization of the divine both around and within us. That is, that all life is sacred, and thus, that any us/them, me/you, subject/object barriers are merely intellectual illusions, conventions, unreal. Thus understood, Bhakti would then speak of a new way of engaging with our practice and with life in general, one that ultimately springs from the heart.
Styles like (Tantric) Hatha Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, or Integral Yoga (which is sometimes also called by some manuals Raja Yoga) borrow from certain aspects of Bhakti, and most western studios today incorporate weekly Kirtans or Bhajans (mantra singing circles) which are one of Bhakti's most characteristic elements. So, if you're the type of person that enjoys connecting to others heart-to-heart, sharing or singing in groups, being in touch with your emotions, or engaging in practices and activities with a strong social and group component to them, then Bhakti is your path. For further details as to what devotion for devotion looks and feels like, please refer to our earlier post.
The Path of Selfless Action: Karma Yoga
Rarely encompassed by modern-day studio-based forms of Yoga, Karma Yoga remains one of this discipline's most important paths and resources. Humbling, yet uplifting, Karma Yoga (or the Yoga of action) is recommended for any student of Yoga regardless of level or inclination because of its selfless orientation and its ability to nurture helpful 'action' towards others in general ––be they humans, animals, plants, or the planet at large. It creates positive karmic patters that can uplift even the worse of us!
In a way, Karma Yoga is closely related to Bhakti. It requires a certain level of selfless devotion to our actions in order to purify our spirit of any egoistic and selfish tendencies and connect us to the divine ––to the divine existing beyond 'us.' In Asia, and particularly in India, Karma Yoga is very much alive, being a compulsory part of life in most ashrams (often referred to as Seva). When taken to the modern-day studio set-up, it can encompass things such as viewing our practice, our career, role, or our teaching as a form of service to humanity, showing up for others in class or in life, volunteering or helping to different degrees in different facets of life, and basically selflessly opening ourselves to being of service to others without expecting recognition or reward. The idea is to allow more space for life to happen in and from the heart. As the slogan puts it, just be nice!
The Path of Kriya Yoga
For those who enjoy having clear bounaries, a certain sense of progression, clear techniques and methods, and a reasonable number of 'rules,' the path of Kriya is the path. Concerned with the movement of energy at different levels (particularly with inner or subtle movements of energy), Kriya Yoga encompasses a wide range of physical, respiratory, and mental techniques meant to purify our minds and bodies so as to prepare them for meditation.
In a way, Kriya Yoga requires a certain measure of discipline and commitment not unlike that required for Karma Yoga, a measure of self-study and self-investigation as with Jnana Yoga, and something of a measure of Bhakti to eventually surrender to the divine. Still, unlike any of these other paths, it is more gradual or progressive, taking us from one level to the next, from gross to subtle, little by little, thus making it a great path for most modern-day students who find it somewhat awkward to speak of metaphysical concepts from the start. It eases our understanding of things beyond the confines of the rational mind peu-a-peu and gives us precise steps to follow.
Tantric forms of Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Anusara Yoga, Integral Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, or Sivananda Yoga, for example, all take after the path of Kriya, each to a different degree, and are therefore very suitable places to start off from for those giving Yoga a try for the first time.
The Path of Raja Yoga
Now, some scriptures refer to Raja Yoga as a separate path, yet others mention that Raja Yoga (or the Royal Path) encompasses all modern-day forms of Yoga. To complicate things even further, now some schools of Integral Yoga argue their methods derive fully from Raja Yoga... We don't really want to get caught up on a categorical battle, so suffice it to say that Raja characterises itself for its attention to all aspects of yoga, from physical poses, to breathing, concentration, absorption of the mind, and ultimately meditation. Hence, if you are looking to working on all of these, Tantric forms of Hatha Yoga, for example, would give you the chance to do so.
In general, the idea is to try a few of the styles out there until we find one that resonates, remembering that, sometimes, what we need the most is not that which feels most comfortable but what seems closer to what we normally try to avoid! Asking questions as to the foundation of our practice, the reasons why things are done in a particular way, or ways to dive deeper into our practice will help us discern whether the style we practice is the right one for us.