Classical teachings list a number of basic categories of yoga, each suiting certain types of individuals according to their disposition:
- Karma Yoga – the way of selfless action. Mother Teresa was one such person practising Karma Yoga. Some devotees such as Hindu sadhus may spend years standing on one leg or sitting on the top of a pole in contemplation; or like Mother Teresa undertake unselfish work in the name of God. Doctors and nurses working selflessly in service of others are Karma Yogi’s. These methods do not require sitting still for many hours in meditation, but their waking hours may be spent in walking meditation or contemplation of God as they go about the duties. This is said to be a sure way of attaining enlightenment, but a path that takes a long period of time (generally a lifetime).
- Bhakti Yoga – the way of devotion. This is the more typical religious path of prayer, meditation and devotion to master/Guru or God. Chanting and mantra meditation are commonly practices, often for periods of many hours. Singing and chanting can calm the vagus nerve which has a soothing effect on the body. The Hari Krishna’s practise Bhakti Yoga. This is said to be a faster method than Karma Yoga, and devotees often come across as being very happy, almost high (singing and chanting can increase serotonin in the brain, which leads to the feeling of happiness). The guru-disciple relationship is very important, and it is critical for devotees that the master is genuine and benevolent. (There are, unfortunately, too many examples of self-acclaimed gurus in the world today, who have not always acted in the best interests of their disciples).
- Jnana Yoga – the way of knowledge. Any form of study, whether it be on religious or scientific subjects, has a similar end effect. That is why the highest form of university education is called a Doctor of Philosophy (lover of wisdom). Devotees spend time in meditation and in study, debating, copying scriptures, etc. Jnana teachers include Adi Shankara, Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta. This path is said to be fast and direct, but is best suited to those people who are very “intellectual“. Some of the texts written by these masters are “heavy going“.
You will probably have noticed that Karma Yoga is aligned to development of the physical body; Bhakti Yoga to the emotional body and Jnana Yoga to the mental body. Raja Yoga (sometimes also referred to as Kriya yoga) or the “royal way” is for the spiritual body and includes a balanced amount of Karma, Bhakti and Jnana techniques.
- Raja Yoga – the royal path is a combination of the above, or for practitioners of Patanjali’s eight-fold yoga path (see below). There are many schools teaching Raja Yoga (or Kriya yoga), and the methods vary widely. They tend to include Karma, Bhakti and Jnana Yoga practices with various schools emphasising some techniques over others. At one time it was said that a devotee would spend a lifetime pursuing Karma Yoga. The following lifetime they would follow Bhakti Yoga, then a further lifetime practising Jnana Yoga. Later, as human beings evolved in consciousness, through the practice of Raja Yoga a student could practise all three paths at once and achieve the same goal within one lifetime.
Related advanced yoga paths with techniques for developing the spiritual body include Ashtanga Yoga and Integral Yoga (of Sri Aurobindo). These are sometimes equated with Raja Yoga, and sometimes differentiated as methods in their own right. Note that the “balance” of Karma, Bhakti and Jnana practices vary between the different Raja/Kriya Yoga schools – find one that is most aligned to your own needs.
Raja and Kriya Yoga
I have grouped Raja and Kriya Yoga together on this page. Ashtanga Yoga is also very similar. Some authors may argue that they are different, but all are based on the eight-limb framework taught by Patanjali. I consider these all variations on the same theme.