Yoga in the West is sometimes thought of as a series of postures, perhaps some deep breathing, and a diet of yogurt and tofu. But that’s only one small aspect of one particular kind of yoga in India. In a wider sense, yoga (from a Sanskrit word meaning “union”) can refer to any spiritual system or path that aims to harness the senses in the search for God, and any dedicated practitioner can be called a yogi. In the Hindu tradition, there are four major types of yoga:
Jnana yoga is the path of knowledge, leading to God through intellectual analysis and the ability to tell the difference between the limited self of apparent thoughts and feelings and the infinite Self that resides in the background and witnesses the actions of the limited self. This yoga relies on the mystical knowledge contained in the Upanishads.
Karma yoga is the path of work, of getting to God by doing good — but without attachment to the fruits of one’s work.
Bhakti yoga is the yoga of love and devotion as embodied in the Bhagavad Gita (devotion to Krishna), and probably has more adherents than all the other yogas. Its key practices include japa, the constant repetition of God’s names, and kirtan, or communal singing, chanting or dancing to honor God. The best known example of bhakti yoga in the West is theInternational Society of Krishna Consciousness, better known as the Hare Krishnas.
Raja yoga is the “royal” yoga, also called “eight-limbed” (ashtanga) yoga, as codified by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. That book outlines eight sets of techniques governing both external activities and, finally, the inner workings of the mind:
- yama: moral restraints against harming, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, and greed.
- niyama: disciplines of inner and outer purity, contentment, asceticism, study of sacred writings, and submission to God.
- asanas: the 84 postures known as hatha yoga that purify and prepare the body for higher states of consciousness.
- pranayama: control of vital energy flow through regulation of the breath.
- pratyahara: teaching senses to focus on the inner plane rather than external sense objects.
- dharana: focusing the mind on one thing — such as a candle flame or sacred image — to prepare to enter deep states of meditation.
- dhyana: absorption of the mind in the object of concentration, leading to the final stage.
- samadhi: total absorption in the object of concentration, which is ultimately God.