There are many different paths or systems of yoga, for example, mantra yoga, kundalini yoga, swara yoga, bhakti yoga, japa yoga, hatha yoga, etc. Each one leads to the same source, the same experience, just as different roads lead into a city or different rivers flow into the sea. All the paths of yoga aim at the elimination of the ego and lead to meditation. They can be broadly classified into five fundamental groups:
- Karma yoga – path of action or activity
- Bhakti yoga – path of devotion
- Jnana yoga – path of enquiry
- Raja yoga – path of introspection
- Hatha yoga – path of balancing the physical, mental and pranic layer in the body
It is good to practice a combination of all the five paths, with an emphasis and zeal on the path that best suits the personality type. These paths are all intimately connected and not separated in a rigid manner.
Karma Yoga, the yoga of action, is the path or system of yoga for developing awareness through activity. It is the performance of actions done with intense awareness, non-detachment from the action and non-attachment to the fruits of actions. It is not what is done, but the attitude and state of awareness in doing it. This intense, honesty-based action leads to reduction of the power of the ego and to more effective, efficient action and performance. The Bhagavad Gita says, “Yoga is efficiency in action.” Every action should be lived and pursued with the greatest intensity.
It is important to develop the ability to do the work, and at the same time be a witness to the actions. When one is no longer the doer, but merely the instrument to carry out the work, then the work becomes a spiritual practice done with the highest efficiency. Work becomes meditation when the doer, the actions, the object become one – this is the real karma yoga.
Bhakti Yoga, the path of devotion, appeals to those who have some form of belief or devotion. The bhakta channels his or her emotions towards devotion of the deity, guru, or other object. He is motivated by the power of love. Through prayer, worship, mantra chant, and songs of devotion, the bhakta loses his ego as he becomes totally absorbed with the object. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says, “A bhakta can worship me in any form; whatever form he chooses, I will justify and accept his devotion.”
Bhakti can be cultivated and there are many practices that will help one develop bhakti. But if you are not emotionally inclined, do not force yourself to follow this path.
When there is devotion towards an object, all the energy flows towards it, leading to one-pointedness of mind which comes from intense love and devotion. Intense bhakti will induce the joy of meditation.
Jnana Yoga is the path of enquiry, where one enquires into the absolute truth of who we are and what we are experiencing. It focuses on understanding the laws of existence. The jnani uses the powers of the mind to discriminate between the real and the unreal, the permanent and the transitory. One has to transcend logic and rational thinking to receive the answers in the form of revelations. The full realization of this truth brings enlightenment.
Raja Yoga is known as the royal road. Patanjali’s eight-limbed ashtanga yoga is also known as raja yoga. The eight limbs of ashtanga yoga are Yyama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyhara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. In this system, the physical and mental energies are turned into spiritual energies. It is the path of introspection where one becomes aware of and delves deep into the different realms of the mind – the conscious, subconscious, unconscious and superconscious with the purpose of becoming aware of the different aspects of the Being. The chief practice is meditation.
Hatha Yoga is science of purification of body and mind. In the classic yogic text, The Hatha Yoga Pradapika, Yogi Swatmarama begins by advising the practitioner to first purify the body. Then comes asana, pranayama and the practice of mudra and bandha. Self-control and discipline starts with the body. By preparing and disciplining the body first, instead of fighting with the mind, it will be possible to develop deep meditation leading to samadhi.
Hatha yoga balances body secretions, hormones, breath, brain waves, prana so that the mind becomes automatically harmonious and ready for meditation. When the body and mind are cleared of impurities, the energy blocks in the nadis will be released, allowing pranic energy to flow to the brain. When Kundalini energy ascends and reaches the sahasrara chakra or crown center, it is no more hatha yoga but yoga, the union of consciousness (shiva), with energy (shakti). Hatha yoga prepares one for the highest experience of raja yoga (samadhi). The ultimate goal of Hatha yoga is to bring about yoga.
In fact, hatha yoga is regarded as the first part of Raja Yoga. The practice of hatha yoga is the most effective way of transcending the intellect, which stands in the way of spiritual awakening, because it uses prana to activate the dormant areas of the brain and increase one’s mental and physical potential.
Though the ultimate goal of hatha yoga practice is to prepare the body and mind for the higher conscious states, it also plays an important role in promoting mental and physical health. Hatha yogi’s know that illness in the body and mind is a state of disharmony in the energy systems. It has been used successfully for thousands of years for the elimination of diseases and as a therapy for reversing cases of chronic ailments like high blood pressure, asthma, diabetes, rheumatism, hysteria, and back pain. The practices in Hatha Yoga consist of shatkarmas (cleansing), asanas, pranayama, mudras and bandhas which bring healing and balance to the mind and body.
Several reliable yogic literature texts provide us the foundation for the practice and philosophy of hatha yoga. The well-known texts are Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Goraksha Samhita, Gherand Samhita and Hatharatnavali. All these texts are said to have been written from the 6th – 15th century A.D. There are also some references to hatha yoga in the Upanishads and the Puranas as well as the Srimad Bhagavatam.
Yogi Swatmarama is remembered for his treatise, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a direct, practical and technical handbook of hatha yoga. In this book, he reminds us that all hatha yoga practices serve only for the attainment of raja yoga. The great sage Gorakhnath (Goraksha Samhita) told his disciples that hatha yoga is the science of the subtle body, the means through which the body’s energy can be balanced; it is also the way the dual nature of the mind can be balanced.