The ultimate goal of humankind, the aim and end of all…is but one – reunion with God, or what amounts to the same, with the divinity which is everyone’s true nature. But while the aim is one, the method of attaining may vary with the different temperaments of people. Both the goal and the methods employed for reaching it are called Yoga.
- Swami Vivēkānanda
The ancient yogic texts reveal the basis of our human suffering; it comes from the disconnection to our true Self, which we refer to as the Ātman, Purusha, or God. Our spiritual blindness to the Self leaves us left only with the world of māya, or illusion. According to yoga philosophy, the path to enlightenment is our reconnection with the divine Self.
Throughout the world, millions of people practice yoga as a spiritual path, and it is through yoga they connect with their highest Self. To focus only on fixed regimes of asana is not a fair representation of yoga. Yoga means “yoke,” or “joined together.” The word comes from the Sanskrit root word “yug,” or unify. A person who embraces yoga as a spiritual path consciously seeks to unify body, mind and soul.
Yoga philosophy gives us four paths to help us find this connection:
- Rāja yoga – the yoga of concentration and meditation
- Jnāna yoga – the yoga of knowledge and wisdom
- Bhakti yoga – the yoga of devotion
- Karma yoga – the yoga of selfless action
Each of these paths has its own distinct form of practice and meditation, and each seeker is generally inclined to one path more than the others. Karma yoga is suited for the active, bhakti yoga for the devotional, rāja yoga is the path of will, and jnāna yoga fits the intellectual. More about each of these paths can be found in the ‘ Yoga Philosophy’ section of this website.
Each seeker practices yoga based on his own particular natural tendencies. Therefore, if you aspire to yoga as a spiritual path, you must first seek to know yourself, understand yourself, and become aware of the qualities inherent within. A person is attracted to one type of yoga or another due to their innate predispositions.
We are each called on to decide for ourselves which yoga best matches up to our natural way. In order to do this, one may:
- Explore the various yoga paths by reading, asking questions, reviewing the trainings, customs and routines
- Try a path that appears to have the practices you would like to experience
- Manage your own expectations regarding progress on the path
- Persevere. The ancient yogis say that yoga must be practiced vigorously and fearlessly. Each path has its pitfalls, roadblocks and difficulties.
Vivēkānanda writes, “When, by analyzing his own mind, a man comes face to face, as it were, with something which is never destroyed, something which is, by its own nature, is eternally pure and perfect [the Self], he will no more be miserable, no more be unhappy. All misery comes from fear, from unsatisfied desire. When a man finds that he never dies, he has no more fear of death. When he knows he is perfect, he will have no more vain desires. And both these causes being absent, there will be no more misery, there will be perfect bliss, even in the body.”
In actuality, the goal of the four yogas, says Swami Adiswarananda, “is essentially the same. In karma yoga, the goal is freedom, which takes the form of God vision [through selfless acts.] In bhakti yoga, the goal is communion with God in the form of the Chosen Ideal of the seeker. In raja yoga, it is realization of the Self as Pure Consciousness, immortal and ever free. In jnana yoga, it is Self-knowledge that reveals the all pervading, ever blissful Self of the universe to be also the innermost Self of all beings.”
It is interesting to note that the obstacles on the path are the same for all yogas; ignorance, denial and illusion in its many insidious, ubiquitous forms. In karma yoga, the ego attaches to the desire for the results of action. In bhakti yoga, this unawareness creates a kind of selfish self-love, separating us from each other. Raja yoga obstacles are distractions and restlessness of the mind. Jnana yogis often find themselves blind to seeing the true Self.
In truth, each of the four yogas are completely interconnected. Swami Vivēkānanada notes that any yogi could establish themselves in one of the four paths or practice all of them, harmoniously, every day. Each of the four yogas has the same goal: to become free from the ties of the mind and realize our true identity, the one Self, eternally pure, eternally perfect, unchangeable and unchanged. According to all yogas, we are all one with pure consciousness.
Swami Vivēkānanada spoke of the harmony of the four yogas as like the flight of birds. “Three things are necessary for a bird to fly: the two wings, and the tail as a rudder for steering. Jnana is the one wing, bhakti the other, and raja yoga is the tail that maintains the balance. For those who cannot pursue all these three forms of worship together in harmony, and take up… bhakti alone [for example,] it is necessary always to remember that forms and ceremonials, though absolutely necessary for the progressing soul, have no other value than to lead us to that state in which we feel the most intense love of God.”
Each of us is never truly on one path rather than the other; if we seek the Truth, we are constantly experiencing and practicing some aspects of each of the yogas. In the yogic tradition, the aspirant may ask an illumined teacher to guide them; this teacher, or guru, can suggest to a seeker a path to try.
BKS Iyengar writes, “in the spiritual world, as in the physical world, one can climb a mountain from various directions. One way may be long, another short, one winding and difficult, another straightforward and easy, yet by all these paths it is possible to reach the summit. In the search for spiritual knowledge there are many methods, many avenues, and many ways to experience the hidden core of our being and direct the mind which is caught up in the web of the pleasures of the world, towards the very source of its existence, the Atman, or soul.”
- Swami Vivekananda, The Yogas and Other Works, 1996
- Swami Adiswarananda, The Four Yogas, 2006
- BKS Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga, 1998
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