There are so many types of yoga that we can practice, all coming from the mother country and her spiritual sadhus and seekers. From the famous author of Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, to the epic discussion of karma yoga between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, India has offered us countless ways to join the material and mundane with the divine. For any westerner believing that yoga is just a set of asana, or postures that make you look like an act in Cirque du Soleil, there is much to be gleaned form the teachings of India’s gurus.
There are such varied many styles of yoga, that you can literally spend an eternity trying to perfect just one. Photo from Flickr
Here is a brief overview of the spiritual sciences offered by India:
Karma yoga is the yoga of selfless service, or disciplined action. The Bhagavad Gita, written at least 5000 years ago, though different sources will argue about its true origination date, means ‘song of God.’ It is thought that Lord Krishna originally spoke the entire contents of the Gita. It can be found in the epic Mahabhrata penned by Vedavyasa. It consists of 100,000 rhyming quatrain couplets, so it is indeed an epic poetic composition. The person who wrote this book was considered an incarnate, divine saint.
Within the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna, the main character, “tasmad asaktah karyam karma samacara asakto hy acaran karma param apnoti purushah.” Which translates to mean, “. . .without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains supreme enlightenment.”
Karma yogis will shovel excrement, clean ashrams, cook for their neighbors and do any other type of work without consideration of the self. It is in this egoless state that the perversions and impressions of the illusory mind are tamed. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is a famous Karma yogi.
Bhakti yoga is the devotional aspect of yoga. Bhaj means ‘to share in’ or ‘to worship.’ It is the means of focusing one’s personal God with absolute devotion in order to sublimate the small self. Eventually though devotional practices one joins the self with the divine to experience absolute bliss. At this stage you experience what love truly is. This type of yoga developed post the Vedic civilizations, and within the era of Indian epic poetry, primarily in the region of Tamil Nadu, or South India. It later spread to all other regions of India, and to the rest of the world. The Bhagavata Purana is the text most often referred to by Bhakti yogis. It elaborates on Bhakti yoga as explained in the Bhagavad Gita, which calls Bhakti yoga a combination of karma yoga and Jnana yoga.
Bhakti yoga is explained utilizing nine paths. They are:
- Listening to the scriptures of Krishna and his companions (so any spiritually elevated material will do fine if you are not Hindu).
- Praising (usually done through singing or kirtan).
- Remembering or fixing the mind on the deity of choice, at the time of its creation, bhakti yogis would focus on Vishnu.
- Rendering service – also called karma yoga.
- Worshipping an image of the deity – this is where an alter to a guru or spiritual teacher may have developed.
- Paying homage to the guru or spiritual teacher.
- Servitude to the teacher.
Jnana yoga is for those who can’t seem to calm their busy intellects. Jnana or “Gyan” yoga (the ending ‘a’ is not pronounced in Sanskrit) aims to truly define reality. Have you ever looked around you, contemplated your friends and the job you work at every day, perhaps ruminated about the ways you spend your time, and thought – there has to be something more than this – something more universal? This is the question that Jnana yoga is trying to answer. Jnana yoga is use of the intellect to understand the Supreme Reality. Jnana yoga uses terms to describe the reality we know now and the more sublime reality we are trying to recall – a spiritual reality inherent within us already.
Using Viveka or the ability to discriminate, we can distinguish between that which is real and that which is unreal. Anything that is real is categorized in the eternal. All else is unreal. The temporal universe is the one we usually are concerned with on a daily basis, as we go to work or school, interact with friends and co-workers, etc. Vairagya refers to dispassion or the ability to dissociate oneself from all that is temporal. This does not mean that you shun your friends or job, but that you see these things as the fleeting, temporary experiences that they really are, and therefore do not become yoked to them. Jnana yoga tries to address the deep abiding question – who am I?
Adi Shankara of the 8th century is a wonderful example of a Jnana yogi. He was an Indian philosopher from Kerala. He consolidated and taught the Advaita Vedanta, or the philosophy of nondualism.
“The company of the good weans one away from false attachments; when attachment is lost, delusion ends; when delusion ends, the mind becomes unwavering and steady. An unwavering and steady mind is merited for Jeevan Mukti (liberation) even in this life.” ~ Adi Shankara
Mantra yoga is the utilization of the science of sound to elevate the consciousness. Mantras abound in almost every important Indian book of spiritual note. They are in the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads and many other texts. The Gayatri Mantra, for example is repeated many times in Vedic books. No one is exactly sure when and where mantra repetition began, but some suggest it was practiced before Vedic civilization prospered. There are literally millions of mantras one can choose from in order to concentrate the mind.
Om Bhur Bhuvah Svah
Tat savitur varen (i) yam
Bhargo devasya dhimahi
Dhiyo yo nah prac[h]odayat
Let us concentrate on the divine and let our thoughts be elevated by divine light, making darkness distant from us.
Further types of yoga include Hatha Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, Swara Yoga, Raja Yoga and Kundalini Yoga. There are specific practices that range from yogic postures to chanting to cleansing techniques and specific dietary requirements. Some types of yoga can still be seen practiced in their most ancient forms in India, without being watered down for other cultures that are not familiar with many of the references to the ancient texts which describe their practices. Moreover, you can visit different regions of India to find variances within the same style of yoga, all of which are exemplary methods at attaining an enlightened mind.