The Five Types of Yoga

The Sage Patanjali. While his true identity and origins are subject to speculation, it is thought that if he lived, he did so between 2nd century and 4th century CE. Image: Patanjali Yogpeeth, Haridwar, India. Wikipedia.

Both the Seer and the seen – meaning the Person and things – are both Brahman; thus, in the knowledge of that, full realization and understanding is born. 

-Patanjali Yoga Sutras 4:22

Yoga, literally translated means “to yoke” or “to join”, and as a system of psychological development, its practices were defined sometime in the first to second century BC by Patanjali, considered as a naga incarnation of Vishnu.  Whether or not Patanjali was an actual being is subject to speculation, but the Yoga Sutras that he set to writing lay out for the student a very specific system of self-cultivation, which, if followed and if the individual is capable, is meant to draw the human through the fields of illusory thought processes and inaccurate perception to merger with the source of ultimate peace and restfulness, endless energetic support, and bliss. 

Yoga is not a philosophical system per se, rather it is a practical means of applying an existing philosophical approach, in this case, Samkhya philosophy.  The study of Samkhya philosophy does not presuppose the need for the student to have a teacher whereas yoga does; rather, it offers a means of understanding the world that can be arrived at through self-analysis and objective consideration of the world, concepts of God and the individual’s place in the scheme of things.  This type of approach emphasizes clear knowledge, or Jnana, and the premise is that by rightly understanding what is to be understood, one can arrive at a place of peace or release from the suffering caused by existence in the phenomenal realm. 

Yoga, rather than strictly approaching this phenomenal world in terms of philosophy, instead offers the individual a methodology, and specific means of cultivating the body, mind, and spirit in order to live a more harmonious life.  Yoga offers tools that can enhance the individual’s capacity for positive self-creation, and accessing one’s true nature, which is synonymous with the ultimate reality that lies beyond this physical world, and which must be discovered through a process of self-application.  Yoga, from the literal meaning of the word “to yoke”, implies a process of doing.  There is an active process that is implied in the journey from the self to the Self, and while a process is implied, it can be regarded as a negative process, for what needs to be done is to actually stop the “doing of things” that hold us back from true awareness or understanding of our actual nature.  As well as presupposing an action, also implicit in the word yoga is the concept of duality, for in joining or uniting, there is the individual self and that with which the self unites.  The source of the act of union is thus, the Higher Self, the Source of all creation, ultimate transcendent reality, or God.  Yoga is therefore the act of reaching or attaining that place of merger, and attaining a permanent identification with the ultimate state of eternal, unchanging presence. 

Patanjali also defines yoga as “citta vritti nirodha”, or the process by which we stop the fluctuations in the subconscious mind which operate on our consciousness through the creation of incorrect ego identification, deluded perception based on sensory data and mental processes based on sensory data, and also the perceptions that arise due to the sullied condition of the build up within the subconscious mind.   Patanjali outlines several obstacles to realizing Yoga, and these are:  ignorance, egoism, attachment, hatred and clinging to life. Any or all of these obstacles will block our capacity for Yoga by their action on the mind, as they set up conditions that cause intense difficulties for achieving any real knowledge or realization.   By following the steps outlined in the Yoga Sutras, one can overcome the effects of these obstacles that mainly exist in the subconscious mind.  By clearing the subconscious mind, we thereby clear the path to a crystalline state of consciousness that is no longer affected by incorrect thoughts, emotions and misapplication of data processing.  For peace to emerge, the process of arising from the subconscious mind must be ceased or blocked (nirodha).  When this process of yoga occurs, the ego is stilled and the pseudo reality that is generally considered our only reality is surpassed.   The personal self resumes identification with the ultimate, impersonal reality.  Patanjali does not claim that there is any merger with this Ultimate Source.  Rather, the peace arises through the very cessation of attachment and identification with the constant fluctuations of personality.  This supposes the acquisition of a skill set that takes us to a greater place of self-control, energetic capacity, expanded awareness and personal capability. 

There are five main types of yoga:  Raja, Bhakti, Jnana, Karma and Hatha Yoga.  Each of these five varieties is presented in order to accommodate the many different types of characters that will be expressed in the seekers. 

Raja Yoga is a complete yoga path, (the royal road) and is the path outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.   Through understanding and development of the eight-fold route (ashtanga) outlined in the Yoga Sutras, the seeker can ultimately, through right practice, and through focussing on all-round self-control and firm establishment in meditation, come to a place of right and final knowledge of Reality, and thereby, find release. This path is multi-level and involves a mix of approaches – intellectual, physical, emotional and subtle.  All other Yogas eventually lead to Raja Yoga.   Within the realm of Raja Yoga, one finds many different elements, such as the study of Hatha Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Laya Yoga, Mantra Yoga, and Kriya Yoga.  All of these practices work together to bring the seeker to a point of full involvement, and prepare for the final shift to a new level of consciousness. 

Bhakti Yoga is the yoga of devotion, and it involves the establishment of the relationship between the Lord and the devotee.  Through intense and complete devotion on the qualities of a personalized divinity, and concentration or meditation on the qualities of this God or Goddess, the devotee comes to a place of merger with the divinity, as when devotion is total, all that is understood or experienced is an expression of the God.  This is the sweetest form of yoga, as it is based in pure Love.

Jnana Yoga is the cultivation of clear knowledge, or ultimate knowledge.  Study of the Vedas, Upanishads and associated materials activate the higher mental functioning, and it is through the cultivation of the mind, the ultimate source of both suffering and release from suffering, that the student or seeker finds Reality. Jnana Yoga relies on the process of listening (sravana), reasoning (mananam), and suspension of personal experience (nididyasana).   By learning from the experience of others, studying the works of those who have gone before, the student comes to an understanding the workings of the mind, through trial and error, and extended experience and observation of the stages of mind function.  Once the mind and its ways are fully understood, the nature of Reality can be apprehended, and Jnana or true knowledge is gained.   This is not simply an intellectual process, but entails shifting away from the strict knowledge to gain an experiential understanding or awareness of the materials contemplated.  Thus knowledge no longer becomes the point of the Yoga, but the means to the end.

Karma Yoga is the yoga of action.  The Bhagavad Gita is the classic text of Karma Yoga, and through its study we can understand the condition of Yoga that can be found in undivided, attentive and dedicated action.  We are asked to immerse ourselves fully in our activity without regard for the potential outcome of these actions, acting strictly for the sake of the action, integrating and rising about self involvement and utilizing the Self as a tool or means of divine expression.  We are removed from the process of self-identification and Ego delusion by merger with the action, with the flow of events and with simple attention to the action itself becoming the point of Yoga. 

Hatha Yoga is cultivation of mastery over the bodily form, which when practiced with dedication, can lead us to the realization of ultimate Reality.  Through learning mastery over various asanas, or postures, the physical body is cultivated to a point where the flow of prana or universal energy becomes unimpeded or natural, and the connection between the physical, subtle and causal body becomes harmonized and strengthened.  Hatha Yoga is generally considered a precursor to greater immersion in other forms of yoga, such as Raja Yoga or Jnana Yoga, for it becomes clear to the student that cultivation of the physical, while valuable, is only one stage in a much greater realm of experience available to the seeker.