Whenever we come across this term Yoga or hear about it, what is the first thing that comes to our minds? Some very difficult poses and complicated bodily movements right!
In modern age, Asana which means Hatha Yoga Poses; captures the imagination of people’s mind. But in the tradition of Yoga Asana occupies very little space.
Then the question arises what yoga is, if it is not primarily a discipline or tradition of asana?
To understand that we have to understand the meaning of the term yoga. Yoga, in fact is a generic term which literally means Union. We also have to understand that fundamentally metaphysics of yoga is spiritual and it is not just a tradition of practical tools and techniques, rather it is a way of life. Traditionally, Yoga is treated as a lifestyle.
Yoga simply denotes a path and a process which leads to an ultimate experience of self-actualization. To reach there, tradition of yoga presents us with various spiritual philosophies, methodologies which comprise of many different techniques and of course a recommended life-style which help establish harmony at various levels of human functioning.
Yoga is not a Religion
Some people may also have this misconception that Yoga is religious belief or system. On the contrary, Yoga is simply a philosophy which teaches us how to live a life with harmony, inner joy and fulfilment. And to attain this state of everlasting peace and harmony a lifestyle is recommended, which is comprised of following certain processes, instilling uplifting ethical values in life, living a healthy life-style and holding positive perspectives towards life events.
All of these different guiding principles of Yogic life, aim at just one thing; as how to help an individual lead a harmonious life. A life which is full of spontaneity, inner freedom and joy.
When you look at the development and evolution of Yogic tradition, you will find that evidences of yogic practices were found around 3000 BC. In ancient culture yogic methods and philosophy were practiced as a way of life by ancients. In Indian subcontinent, many different philosophies and cultures coexisted without having conflicts against each other. And each philosophy presented a very specific viewpoint or perspective towards reality and how to overcome human limitations and suffering. In essence collective consciousness of ancient Indian culture aimed at uplifting the quality of life through physical, mental, emotional and life-style education.
Branches of Yoga
Yoga is a path; a philosophy to harmonize the interactions and expressions of consciousness and energies in an individual. There are numerous methods and tools employed to reach a state of inner poise, balance and harmony. These interactions of energies and consciousness expresses on different layers of existence; creating various dimensions of human functioning and experiences.
In our lives we express our energies on the physical, mental, emotional, intellectual and behavioural planes. From the grossest level; it is physical body where both energy and consciousness interact on the planes of gross energies, vitality and senses. Then on subtler plane we have the expressions of mental energies.
Existence of emotional energies make us experience the emotional dimension of being. And then we do experience more subtle expressions of intellect in the form of clear, detached and refined perspective to life and events. The cumulative interactions of these various energies and consciousness present there result in the outcome of an uplifting behavioural patterns and interaction with the external environment.
Establishing harmony at various planes of human existence is the goal of various yogic paths. A traditional path or branch of yoga looks after existing energies or expressions of consciousness present in certain dimension of existence. Each of these paths prescribes distinct methods to harmonize a particular level of human existence.
For the purpose of understanding there are five distinct traditional branches of yoga which suit the different temperaments and help harmonize our beings. It is also to clarify before delving into this discussion that none of these levels of functioning exist in separation. There is definite interactions and interconnected amongst all of these planes of existence. This study will help the reader understand the subject matter and scope of these five traditional branches of yoga.
Hatha yoga uses the body as an instrument to expand and liberate the mind. Philosophy of Tantras is the metaphysical background of Hatha Yoga. People, who see Hatha yoga merely as a system of physical discipline, should know this is one of those philosophies in India which established a direct link between Body, Mind and Energies. And secondly the founding principles of Tantras upon which Hatha Yoga tradition is based, is purely monistic, which sees a direct relationships and interconnectedness in all the different fabrics of creation.
According to Tantras nothing exists in separation. All the different elements of manifestations have originated from the same source and essence of the same source of creation exists in all. The entire teaching of Tantras and Hatha Yoga focuses on tapping the essence or building blocks of creation; energy. Principles of Tantras propound that the creation is a pulsating or vibrant ‘Whole’ and very much alive.
Based on the principles of interconnectedness and interaction between various levels of function, Hatha Yoga uses Body as an instrument to harmonize the mind. It says the states of body affect the mind and vice versa. But unlike Raja yoga it uses body and not mind as an instrument. Therefore most of the techniques of Hatha yoga work on the body to get the intended results.
Practitioners of Hatha yoga should know that the ultimate purpose of Hatha yoga is not confined only up to body rather it works on expanding and releasing the energies of the mind-body complex. Practices of hatha yoga postures, breath-work (Pranayama), psycho-physical gestures (Mudra), psychic locks/contraction (Bandha) and cleansing practices, these all work together to harmonize the physical, mental and emotional energies of an individual. And in the due process one strives to liberate and expand the mind Results of all Hatha Yogic practices should take one to the state of elevated mind and awareness rather than getting identified/trapped within the field of body consciousness.
To establish harmony at the physical and energetic planes; tradition of Hatha Yoga also emphasises on leading a very healthy life-style which consist of having sattvic foods. A food which is light on our systems, easy to digest and majorly consist of fresh and organic components. This sattvic food is consisted primarily of fresh vegetables, legumes, fruits, seeds and medicinal herbs. The wisdom says that fresh foods have enriched pranic energy which help nourish the body and harmonises mental and emotional energies.
Tradition of Hatha Yoga follows the principles of Ayurveda, as far as one’s food and life-style are concerned. Just eating the food is not enough but the time you eat the food, how much you eat, what you eat, how you eat and mental attitude while you eat all these aspects are important. Even prevailing weather and climatic conditions are also considered. According to hatha Yoga and Ayurveda your foods change according to the changing weather. Following these principles one enjoys a state of health which is just a by-product of proper sync between you and the nature.
Raja Yoga, literally known as kingly yoga aims to tame the tendencies of the mind. Since mind is considered as the controller or master of all our behaviors and endeavor, Raja yoga is called kingly because with its help one learns to rule over the mind and its tendencies. Therefore its philosophy and practices make the entire orientation of its teaching very meditative and mindful.
The teachings in this yogic philosophy create very incisive insights into the nature and tendencies of the mind. This approach of teaching makes one watch and understand the mind from the standpoint of an observer. The principles and methods discussed in the manual of this branch are highly psychotherapeutic. Techniques of meditation emphasizing on developing meditative awareness in one’s day-to-day life have roots in Raja Yoga. The metaphysical background of Raja Yoga is Samkhya Philosophy which is one of the oldest existing philosophies in India.
Bhakti yoga is the path of harnessing and channeling emotional energies. In the process practitioner nurtures and develops refined and uplifting emotions, which later are directed towards divine self, deity or guru. In bhakti yoga, singing kirtan (a group devotional song), bhajan (solo devotional song) or even mantra chanting are used as tools to create and channel devotional energies towards divine principle. For the followers of bhakti yoga, it is one of the quickest ways to transcend ego and uniting with the higher self.
One quote of Ramana Maharshi on Bhakti yoga sums it up very nicely. When asked; what is bhakti yoga? He says; ‘to thinks of God. That means only one thought prevails to the exclusion of all other thoughts. That is of God which is the self or it is the self-surrender unto God; when he has taken you up nothing will assail you. The absence of thoughts is bhakti. It is also mukti (liberation).’
Gyana or Jnana Yoga
Jnana Yoga is the path of self-enquiry. This path of yoga seeks answers to the most fundamental queries to find truth and purpose to life. One of the most fundamental questions, a seeker contemplates upon in this path is; ‘who am I?’ Who am I’ is an enquiry which shapes the journey of a spiritual aspirant. In traditional yogic discipline, Jnana yoga discusses the fundamental questions pertaining to spiritual truths, nature of reality, existence of suffering, causes of suffering and yogic processes to eliminate suffering.’
In this path of Jnana yoga through listening (shravana), contemplation and meditation on pure essence i.e. self; knowledge is attained. There are methods recommended in this path to refine one’s intellect which helps cut through the layers of identification with ever changing field of reality.
Karma is translated as action. In this path or discipline of yoga one learns harmonize one’s attitude towards actions and fruits of actions. This branch of yoga teaches us how to let go of the attachments and egoistic desires associated with our actions and their outcomes.
Therefore, it involves behavioral components and ‘awareness in action’. It resets our ego driven actions and transforms them into selfless work and actions, which are more liberating and uplifting. Essentially path of karma yoga teaches to drop the attitude of doer ship and dedicating all actions to divine self. According to Swami Sivananda, having motive to serve without expectations, attitude of service, dedication in action and letting go the attachment towards the fruit of actions are the qualities one imbibe following the path of Karma Yoga.
Sushant is Meditation & Philosophy Teacher and Academic Director at Rishikesh Yogis. Sushant carries long years of experience teaching practical as well as philosophical aspects of Kundalini yoga, Kriya yoga, Hatha Yoga and Tantra philosophy.