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The Traditional Yoga Paths – Ways to Enlightenment

Mythe practitioner In the West we mostly understand Yoga as Hatha Yoga, which means the physical exercises that bring our body into harmony. But yoga is much more than a few asanas (physical exercises). Read here what yoga is.

Yoga (‘yog’ Sanskrit for Unity) is a path to enlightenment, becoming one, merging with the source. A yogi wants to find enlightenment through yoga. As you say, several roads lead to Rome, some counts for yoga. There are different ways to get to the destination. The four traditional ways of yoga are Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga and Raja Yoga. Each of these paths provides different methods to reach the goal, which is always the same: enlightenment. There are no clear boundaries between these four ways, so most yogis mix them up.


The source of the yoga paths

The four yoga paths have existed since the birth of yoga. The philosophy of Yoga originated in India 3000 – 4000 years ago. First the knowledge was passed on orally from teacher to student and later it was writing down. All four paths are mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita (presumably written between the 5th and 2nd century BC), Shankara (Indian philosopher of the 8th century) focuses on Jnana Yoga, Ramanuja (Hindu theologian of the 11th and 12th century) focuses on Bhakti Yoga and in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (400 BC) the importance of Raja Yoga is discussed.


The four traditional paths of yoga

  1. Karma Yoga – Selfless Servicekarma Yoga 300x300 - The Traditional Yoga Paths - Ways to Enlightenment

‘Karma’ is Sanskrit for “action”. The path of karma yoga is to perform every act consciously. Not what we do counts, but how we do it. Every action should come from the heart and be for the benefit of all. Karma yogis do nothing to receive the rewards of it, be it financial, social or spiritual. Serving selflessly without expectation – that is Karma Yoga. A deep fulfillment comes with it. Famous Karma Yoginis of our time are Mother Theresa or Florence Nightingale.

Karma Yoga in everyday life

Karma Yoga can be integrated very well in everyday life. You do not even have to join a charitable organization. Simply carry out your actions without egoistic intentions. For example, do the dishes without waiting for praise. If you want to go one step further, you can choose a regular activity that will help others: walks for the local dog shelter, visit to a retirement home, sponsorship for a child or pet, free babysitting, shopping for the older single neighbor … Karma Yoga knows no limits.


  1. Bhakti Yoga – Loving Devotionbhakti Yoga 300x300 - The Traditional Yoga Paths - Ways to Enlightenment

Bhakti Yoga is the yoga of devotion. The loving devotion can be towards the divine, but also towards everyday items or beings. A true Bhakti yogi sees the divine in everything – every flower, every stone and every human being. This devotion goes hand in hand with the feeling of gratitude to be part of the adventure life. Practices of Bhakti Yoga are rituals, song, mantras, poetry, kirtan, dance – everything, which we can use to express our zest for life and our devotion to the divine creation. One of the best-known Bhakti yogis in India is Lord Hanuman. The Hindu deity was a devotee of God Rama.

Bhakti Yoga in everyday life

We can easily integrate Bhakti Yoga into our everyday lives by valuing the little things. Even events that seem negative to us can be brought into positive light with the help of Bhakti Yoga. We are part of a great experiment that we call life. Every experience we make helps us grow, bringing us closer to the divine within us.


  1. Jnana Yoga – Knowledge

    Jnana Yoga 300x300 - The Traditional Yoga Paths - Ways to Enlightenment

Jnana Yoga is the yoga of knowledge and deep wisdom. It explores the intricacies of the human spirit with the help of the rational mind. The focus lies on the question: Who am I? A Jnana Yogi achieves extensive knowledge through the study of philosophical writings (for example, Bhagavad Gita), which he then practically implements and thus obtains deep insights. This process initiates a process of self-awareness that teaches the Jnana Yogi to distinguish reality from unreality. Philosophers can be considered Jnana yogis.

Jnana Yoga in everyday life

In everyday life we can do Jnana Yoga by reading philosophical books, meditating and discussing our findings with others. Any scripture that gives us an ‘Ah-experience’ (a miniature enlightenment) can be used for Jnana Yoga. This includes self-help books. One should only make sure that no dogma is preached.


  1. Raja Yoga – Mind ControlRaja Yoga 300x300 - The Traditional Yoga Paths - Ways to Enlightenment

In Raja Yoga, the king’s road of yoga (raj ‘sanskrit for king), the focus is on the human psyche. A Raja Yogi works with his subconscious mind, conscious mind and intuition. Nowadays, most people understand Raja Yoga as meditation, but that is not entirely true. Meditation is the last limb of Raja Yoga, which you achieve once you have mastered all the other limbs.

The eight stages of Raja Yoga

  1. Yama (Ethnic attitude towards the environment: non-violence, truthfulness, nonstealing, continence, noncovetousness)
  2. Niyama (Ethnic attitude towards ourselves: purity, contentment, self-discipline, self-study, surrender to the Divine)
  3. Asana (physical exercises)
  4. Pranayama (breathing exercises)
  5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses: withdrawal from negative influences and opening up towards positive influences for inner growth)
  6. Dharana (concentration)
  7. Dhyana (meditation)
  8. Samadhi (enlightenment)

Raja Yoga in everyday life

To integrate Raja Yoga into our daily lives, we can begin to act ethnically. This includes non-violence (no meat, no quarrels), modesty and purity. The next step is asanas and pranayama. We would recommend to attend a yoga class. Wrong physical exercises and breathing exercises can cause great damage in the long run. Beginners should therefore only practice under the guidance of a teacher. The fifth step is Pratyahara, the withdrawal of the senses, which is difficult to explain because you need to experience it to understand it. Roughly, Pratyahara means controlling our cravings and withdrawing things from our daily life that are not good for us. Then we can turn towards concentration and meditation.


More yoga paths

Hatha Yoga – Body Control

The most popular yoga path is Hatha Yoga. Asanas (body exercises), pranayama (breathing exercises), mudras (hand gestures), bandhas (neuromuscular locks), shatkriyas (cleansing techniques) and relaxation techniques help to harmonize the body and to prepare it for long periods of meditation. Hatha Yoga is closely related to Raja Yoga. Without Raja Yoga no Hatha Yoga. Without Hatha Yoga no Raja Yoga. Hatha Yoga is the mother of numerous yoga styles such as Vinyasa Yoga, Iyengar Yoga or Yin Yoga. We will describe the different styles of yoga in an extra blog entry.

Hatha (‘ha’ Sanskrit for moon, ‘tha’ Sanskrit for sun) means ‘force’ and we can understand it as unity of duality. Thus, Hatha Yoga harmonizes opposing tendencies (male / female) in body and mind.

Learn more about Hatha Yoga in our 200h Hatha Yoga teacher training.


Kriya Yoga – Action

Kriya Yoga, a form of Raja Yoga, tries to reconcile mind and breath. The mind affects the breath. Breathing affects the mind. Therefore, breath control is equated with self-control and mastering the breath with restraint. People believe that Kriya Yoga develops the body, the mind and the soul alike. The techniques of Kriya Yoga are very simple and everyone can easily integrate it into the everyday life. Like other yoga paths, Kriya Yoga works directly with prana (the life energy) and opens the energy channels. It has a great influence on our emotions, energies and mood and should therefore be learned with the help of a teacher, a guru.


Tantra Yoga – Study of the Universe

Tantra (Sanskrit for tissue, connection) is a path of yoga that sees the universe as an interplay of consciousness and energy. With the help of Tantra Yoga, the practitioner breaks the boundaries of the physical realm and looks beyond the curtain of the materialistic world. It is a way to increase consciousness through energies. There are two different ways. The outer, left way and much more difficult way leads through sexual contact. Many misunderstand this way. It is recommended only to highly-developed yogis who have long renounced sexual desire. The inner, right way uses asanas, pranayama, and meditative visualizations to increase awareness.


Mantra Yoga – Power of Sound

The Sanskrit word mantra means ‘liberation of the mind’. Mantras are syllables, words or phrases that are repeated aloud or mentally. Mantra Yoga is a kind of concentration – the practitioner quiets the mind with a mantra. Every sound has a special vibration. By reciting, we take that vibration or energy into our body and mind. You can call Mantra Yoga also Japa Yoga. Japa is the repeated recitation of a mantra.

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