We once discussed that while Yoga is often associated with just physical postures, fitness, and flexibility, it’s actually also a deeply philosophical and spiritual practice with a rich history rooted in ancient India. While physical postures, or asanas reflect one aspect of yoga, there are various paths of yoga, each offering a distinct approach to self-awareness and growth. The ancient rishis knew that we’re all different, and so created the four paths: Bhakti, Jnana, Raja, and Karma yoga.
While they may seem different, they do all share the common goal of leading yogis and yoginis toward inner and spiritual peace, as well as a deep understanding of the self. Each path is a journey in itself, and we may be naturally drawn to one or more paths depending on our interests, temperaments, cultural contexts and so on. Ultimately, the practice of yoga (regardless of the chosen path) is a transformative and lifelong journey. Let’s explore!
1. Bhakti Yoga: The Path of Devotion
Remember all the chanting Liz Gilbert endeavoured through in Eat Pray Love? That was a Bhakti. Bhakti yoga is the path of devotion and love. It emphasises a deep, heartfelt connection with the universe, spirit a chosen deity and/or teacher. Devotees of Bhakti yoga express their love and devotion through prayer, chanting, singing, and acts of service. The key idea here is to surrender one’s ego, cultivating a pure and selfless love that dissolves illusions. This could even mean meditating on how much you love your dog, for a sense of calm and peace. Simply put, Bhakti reflects falling in love with the world and life itself.
Key practices of Bhakti yoga include:
- Prayer or meditation
- Singing devotional songs (kirtan) and chanting mantras
- Acts of selfless service (seva) to others
- Developing a deep sense of love and devotion.
Book recommendations: Meditation for the Love of It by Sally Kempton, Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, Awakening Shakti by Sally Kempton, The Essential Rumi by Coleman Barks
2. Jnana Yoga: The Path of Knowledge
For those more mentally-oriented, Jnana yoga is a path of knowledge and wisdom. It focuses on intellectual and philosophical inquiry, as Jnana yogis seek to understand the true nature of the self (Atman) and its connection to reality (Brahman). This path involves self-inquiry, introspection, and the study of sacred yogic texts, such as the Vedas and Upanishads.
Key practices of Jnana yoga include:
- Studying and reflecting on sacred scriptures and philosophical texts
- Contemplation and meditation on profound questions of existence
Book recommendations: Yoga and Ayurveda – Self-healing and Self-realization by David Frawley, Wheels of Life by Anodea Judith
3. Raja Yoga
Raja yoga, or the ‘royal path,’ is the yoga path of meditation and mental discipline, systematised by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. This path is one that could entail a silent retreat. Simply put, Raja yoga encourages yogis to gain mastery over their minds, emotions, and thoughts. It involves a systematic approach to meditation, concentration, and ethical principles (yamas and niyamas) to ‘purify the mind’ and reach a state of inner stillness.
Key practices can involve:
- Meditation and concentration techniques (dharana and dhyana)
- The practice of ethical guidelines (yamas and niyamas)
- Breathwork and regulation (pranayama)
Book recommendations: Peace of Mind by Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Living by Thich Nhat Hanh, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, The Sevenfold Journey by Anodea Judith
4. Karma Yoga: The Path of Selfless Action
Last but least of the yoga paths, Karma yoga is one of selfless action. This path encourages yogis to attain spiritual realisation through dedicated and selfless service to others. Practitioners of Karma yoga perform their actions without attachment to the results, recognising that their actions are offerings to a greater whole. This path emphasises the importance of performing one’s duty (dharma) with a sense of detachment and devotion. Sound familiar? Parenting can be considered a kind of Karma yoga!
Book recommendations: Heart Yoga by Karuna Erickson and Andrew Harvey, Awakening Shakti by Sally Kempton
Nisha is a freelance writer and Vedic astrologer, based in the magical Byron Hinterlands. As well as running her candle business, her life and loves involve: yoga, gardening and all things esoteric. You’ll find her out in nature, or curled up at home with a good book. Happy Buddha is one of her most treasured places on earth (and indeed where she met her fiancé!).