Which yoga do you practice?
I’ve been a student of Bhakti yoga for nearly forty years and ventured outside my tradition to study various Vedas and India’s six philosophical systems. Though my path is yoga, I wish we could drop the word “yoga” from the English dictionary and common usage: I dislike the way we Americans use the term incorrectly. All wordsmiths and dictionary editors: Don’t you agree that words should only be used with the correct meaning?
I looked up the word “yoga” in a few English dictionaries. The Random House Dictionary got two out of three definitions almost correct. The Collins Dictionary got one out of two partially correct, but at least they referenced the word’s origins, which points to the correct meaning. Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary gets an “F-”, for two incorrect definitions and no word origin. But I’d settle for a “D” on their report card because their first definition at least acknowledges yoga has a theistic philosophy behind it. The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy fails in their incomplete definition.
Partial knowledge of yoga by Westerners isn’t surprising, but gee, couldn’t we expect the dictionary to get it right? At least one of them! Nope, none of them understand the first thing about one yoga practice, much less that there are four.
The Yoga Paths
- Karma Yoga – selfless action dedicated to the divine
- Jnana Yoga – spiritual knowledge of divinity
- Bhakti Yoga – devotional action with spiritual knowledge
- Raj (Ashtanga) Yoga – meditation on the divine within.
The fourth yoga, Ashtanga, is a later addition to the yoga paths. In fact, not everyone includes it when defining yoga. Ashtanga yoga is an eight-step process (ashtanga means eight) that begins with physical exercises (the poses of America’s health regime). To achieve success, a person must practice Ashtanga Yoga alone and in a secluded place—all eight steps. The first step, postures, is as a transitional stage into the other seven steps, which quiet the senses and train the mind to focus. Eventually the practitioner enters the deepest states of meditation (samadhi) and can see God in the heart.
God in the Heart
American yogis often drop the “God in the heart” idea, though the aim of each of the four yogas is realizing the true self and achieving union with God. Oh, my gosh, yes. They’re all religious paths! Now is a good time to quote Dani Shapiro, a New York Times book reviewer who said (in good humor) of My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses, “Let the eye-rolling begin.” (I explore the tongue-in-cheek statement in Yoga Prejudice.)
The yoga in America drops seven of the eight steps of Raj Yoga (though Hatha Yoga, a sister yoga to Raj, includes another step: pranayam). What are we losing by dropping a major portion of the yoga?
And what about the other three yogas that are actually the core of the Yoga system of India?
It appears that what we’re left with is the use of postures and breath to promote physical and mental health and balance. Do we confuse this progressive mental and physical health with spirituality or spiritual awareness? I know many people who do.
If mental health and peace is your goal then yoga in America, or Tai Chi, aerobics, and other forms of bodily exercise combined with mental control techniques will serve you well. If you’d like spiritual awakening, and you want to look to the East, you’ll need more than a mat, proficiency in moving muscle and bones, and a positive mental outlook. You’ll need self-realization, not self-actualization.
Does it Matter Whether I’m Practicing an Authentic Path or Not?
Well it depends on your goal, and goals generally issue from a worldview. If we care to answer the question from the lens of the Yogas we’d come up with these broad perspectives.
- Worldview: There is a singular God and he has deputed universal-controllers, the demi-gods
- Goal: Please all of them (or as many as you can) through pious works to gain gifts in this life and the next
- Worldview: Divinity is impersonal, without form
- Goal: Merge into the One
- Worldview: God is personal, impersonal, and in the heart
- Goal: Exchange in personal loving relationship God and all others
Ashtanga (Raj) Yoga
- Worldview: God is in the heart
- Goal: Exchange in a personal loving relationship with God in the heart
Is your worldview or goal listed in one of the four Yogas? Good, then you’re really a yogi, with or without a mat and yoga clothes, and as a serious spiritual practitioner you probably agree with Mariana Caplan who points out that “if we aspire to deeply develop on a spiritual path, and really reach into the furthest possibilities of the development and integration of our consciousness, that without the sustained, long-term help of a very good teacher-or maybe a couple along the way-we’re probably not going to find our way. We’re going to need to immerse deeply in practice, in tradition, and most likely in very, very intelligent guidance along the way.”
Yogas will work self-actualization, but if that’s all you’re going for then you’re not using their full potential. If one or two steps of Ashtanga or Hatha—later introductions to yoga family—have brought so much benefit to millions of Americans, I propose that the other steps (and other Yogas) have much more to offer most people who dabble in yoga.
Are you still waiting for the kind of spiritual awakening that permanently shifts the trajectory of your life—your thinking, actions, satisfaction, character? Then consider using more than a mat—throw your heart into it.
If you take that figuratively: seriously practice one of the Yogas.
Or if you take it literally: practice Bhakti, which encompasses the worldview of all the yogas as well as the goals of all but Jnana, and is a wholesome, happy way to live.
Pranada Comtois is a writer, speaker, teacher, and founder of Little Ways of Being™. She shares the “Path of the Heart” in her blog, seminars, and workshops; volunteers as the Managing Editor for Bacopa Literary Review; is raising her precious three-year-old granddaughter; grabs any free time (like when?) to write poetry; is trying to find an agent for her nonfiction book, and enjoys kirtans with friends. Pranada believes women are natural spiritual leaders, the world needs more of us owning that power, and is passionate about assisting women exercising our full spiritual potential. You can find her on Facebook or Twitter as well as her website Little Ways of Being™.
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