The Four Paths of Yoga Explained: A Comprehensive Overview of Bhakti, Jnana, Raja and Karma Yoga

Yogi Ram
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The Four Paths of Yoga are rooted in yoga philosophy. Yoga means ‘union’ and is often explained as union of the individual soul with the super soul or as the union of the human with the divine. However, this definition is symbolic.

In its practice, yoga is about the union of the Self with reality, which can be also defined as self-realization. Yoga is the journey to realize our reality and become free from the illusion created by the material world around us (maya).
 

In its practice, yoga is about the union of the Self with reality, which can be also defined as self-realization.

 
Yoga is the journey from complete ignorance to complete enlightenment. Thus, the ultimate goal is self-realization through removal of the illusionary ego. This journey can be done through various ways.

Yoga philosophy explains four paths:

  • Bhakti Yoga
  • Jnana Yoga
  • Raja Yoga
  • Karma Yoga

 
These four paths of yoga are not necessarily separate from each other. All four paths of yoga can be practiced alone or in combination with each other. None of these paths is ‘better’ or ‘more noble’ than the other and they all lead to the same destination.

Read on for a breakdown of each of the four paths of yoga, along with examples on how to practice each path in your daily life.
 
 

Bhakti Yoga

Bhakti Yoga is the path of devotion – devotion to sattva (purity). In this path you devote yourself to a life of purity. By devoting yourself to a life of purity, you purify yourself and reach self-realization.

It is difficult to see and understand the path of purity.

The solution is to find a role model who is pure, which is why people often devote themselves to a deity or a master who is considered to be pure.

In case you cannot find a suitable model, it is advised to find a sattvic (pure) teacher or guide. This is where it can get tricky. If you choose a teacher who is manipulative and without pure intentions, you do not actually practice Bhakti Yoga and you will not progress on the path to self-realization.
 

 
 
However, despite popular belief, Bhakti Yoga is not the path of devotion to any kind of deity or master. Even though you follow the example of a master or teacher, you do so in order to devote yourself to the purity in them.

If you have found a powerful inspiration of sattva (purity), then Bhakti Yoga is a broadly accessible path toward more awareness.

And therefore, Bhakti Yoga is sometimes considered an easy path because all you must do is follow your sattvic guide to your best ability.

The practice of Bhakti Yoga often includes:

  • Mantra chanting: Mantras are positive uplifting phrases or words that impact your subconscious. They can also be the name or the glory of divine personalities
  • Satsang: Satsang is spending your time in spiritual company and learning about self-realization
  • Japa meditation: The practice of Japa means repeating the mantras as a form of meditation

 
Interested in making your own Japa mala for meditation? Here’s How to Make a DIY Japa Mala Necklace + Charge It With Intention

 
 

Jnana Yoga

Jnana Yoga (sometimes referred to as Gyana Yoga) can be described as the path of knowledge about the Self.

When following this path, you gain knowledge, analyze it and convert it into awareness. As your awareness goes up, your ego goes down and you move closer toward self-realization.

Jnana Yoga starts when we realize that what we know is not true. Only then the journey towards truth starts . . .

Even though Jnana Yoga is a very efficient path, it is not suitable for everyone. To be able to follow the path of Jnana Yoga, you must possess certain qualities.

The qualities needed for practicing Jnana Yoga are:

  • Curiosity: If you are not curious but believe easily without analyzing or questioning, Jnana Yoga may not be the best fit
  • Intellect: You must be able to analyze clearly and with detachment
  • Patience: Proper understanding takes time and repetition. Therefore, you must have patience for this path of yoga

 
 

In Jnana Yoga we convert information into knowledge and knowledge into awareness.

 
In order to discern potentially true information from illusionary information, a Jnana yogi follows the steps as outlined in ancient scriptures. When processing information, we intellectually analyze if it might be useful to lead us to the truth of the Self.

Only information that fulfills at least one of the conditions below should be considered worthy enough to analyze further:

 

  • Direct perception: You can consider what you perceive directly from your own five senses could be true
  • Cause and effect: When you see an effect, you consider there must be a cause for it and vice versa. That is an indication that the information can be true
  • Conclusion: When you observe a series of true facts then you consider that the assumption may be true
  • Proven facts: You also consider already proven facts to be true. You don’t try to reinvent the wheel

 

So, if you are intellectually inclined and eager to grow your awareness of the Self, Jnana Yoga is very powerful path as it can enlighten you in a very short time.
 
 

Raja Yoga

Raja Yoga is the path of control. In Sanskrit, Raja literally means “control.” It shouldn’t be confused with the other use of the word raja, which means “king.” By controlling yourself, you control your ego and become self-realized.

In Raja Yoga we control:

  • Our body
  • Our breath
  • Our senses
  • Our mind

 

Around 500 BC, the sage Maharishi Patanjali gave a brief introduction to Raja Yoga in his compilation Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Read: 20 Particularly Relevant Yoga Sutras Translated and Explained

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali pointed out the eight practices of Raja Yoga, also known as Ashtanga Yoga philosophy. He insisted that once a person is able to practice all of the eight parts successfully, they achieve the state of enlightenment.

The eight practices of Raja Yoga are:
1. Yama or codes of conduct for purification of intent
2. Niyama or commitments for purification of habits
3. Asana or physical postures for purification of the physical body
4. Pranayama or expansion of life force for purification of the energy body
5. Pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses for calming down the senses
6. Dharana or concentration to control the mind
7. Dhyana or meditation, to understand the Self
8. Samadhi or separation, to become free from illusion

The purpose of these eight practices is to help us purify our mind, physical body, energy body, gain mastery over senses, and become free from worldly illusions.

The path of Raja Yoga is actually the most difficult of the four paths of yoga, as it requires consistent control.
 

 
 

Karma Yoga

Often Karma Yoga is explained as free service or social service. But Karma Yoga is a path of fulfilling your duty without ego or attachment.

Duty (dharma) is the role we get. We get many roles in this life, for example the role of a parent, the role of a student, the role of a neighbor, the role of a partner, etc.

When you do your duty without ego and attachment, your ego dissolves and you reach self-realization. Even though it sounds simple, Karma Yoga is a difficult path.

The Bhagavad Gita is one of the foundational texts in Indian philosophy, and it revolves around the principle of karma.

The Bhagavad Gita describes the battle between the warrior Arjuna and his family. The Hindu god Krishna stands by Arjuna’s side. Arjuna is asking Krishna about why he should fight in the battle, why he should fight against his brothers and uncles.

A large part of the Bhagavad Gita is essentially about what is right and wrong in terms of each person’s karma or duty.
 

Krishna guides Arjuna that he should act based upon his dharma, instead of being led by his emotional bonds.

 
Krishna guides Arjuna through the battle, demonstrating that fighting is the right action, because Arjuna’s duty as a warrior is to fight for the good of larger society.

He should act based upon his dharma, instead of being led by his emotional bonds to family. He should fulfill his duties and thereby go beyond attachment and ego.

Interested in exploring the Bhagavad Gita more as it relates to you? Read: 3 *Seriously Relevant* Life Lessons We Can Learn From the Bhagavad Gita

Normally we do the duties we like, not the duties we must do. For example, we prefer to do our duties towards our children, but we conveniently ignore the duty towards our parents.

But when following the path of Karma Yoga, you must do all your duties. In order to do so, you need to know all the duties you have.

Once you have listed your duties you also need to prioritize them properly. Then you try to do your duty at your best capabilities without worrying about the result or other people’s opinion about you.

During my philosophy classes on this subject I often get very emotional questions about karma and Karma Yoga. People ask me if they must fulfill their duties toward their spouse, parents or others even if the situation is abusive or unhealthy.

When thinking about one’s duty, we must remember that our first and foremost duty is toward our own spiritual growth. If a situation or person is detrimental to our physical or mental well-being to such an extent that we can not cope with it in a constructive way, we might have to evaluate our duty toward them.
 
 

Bhakti, Jnana, Raja and Karma Yoga: The Takeaway On the Four Paths of Yoga

Depending on your character, circumstances and preferences, one path might come easier to you than another path.

But remember: the four paths of yoga aren’t actually separate but are like different sides of a dice. To go through a holistic spiritual development, to live a complete human life with all your capabilities, all four paths of yoga should be walked.
 

You can compare the paths of yoga to four different strands woven together to make the same rope. Each strand supports the others and is strengthened by the others.

 
When remembering the ultimate purpose and meaning of yoga – union of the Self with the reality of the Self – we realize there is really only one yoga, only one path.

You can compare the paths of yoga to four different strands woven together to make the same rope. Each strand supports the others and is strengthened by the others.

 

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Yogi Ram

Born and raised in India, Ram founded the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams in India & in the Netherlands in 2009. He has trained more than 4,000 yoga teachers from all around the world. He has co-authored the book Hatha Yoga for Teachers and Practitioners which is currently being translated and published in multiple languages.

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