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14.4: Pathways to Personal Growth - Schools of Yoga

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  • There are many schools of Yoga, and the styles depend somewhat on which translations and which authors you happen to read. In her discourse accompanying the translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Bailey refers to four types of Yoga that developed as humanity developed (1927). In chronological order they are Hatha-Yoga, Laya-Yoga, Bhakti-Yoga, and Raja-Yoga (also known as Kriya-Yoga, see Yogananda [1946]). Feuerstein (2003) adds three more to what he describes as the seven major branches of the tree of Hindu Yoga: Jnana-Yoga, Karma-Yoga, and Mantra-Yoga.

    The purpose of each of these schools of Yoga, in their own way, is to guide the individual toward the fulfillment of their life. This fulfillment is not necessarily enlightenment, or what we in the West may think of as heaven, but may instead be preparation for steadily improving lives over subsequent reincarnations. In accordance with the concept of karma, if we do our best to live this life as a good and faithful person, then in our future lives we will benefit from the seeds of good karma we have planted in this life. As humans we can achieve enlightenment in this life, but we are not doomed to eternal damnation if we don’t quite make it. So, Yoga offers us a hopeful guide toward being a good person, and teaches ways in which to continue our personal growth.

    Hatha-Yoga

    Hatha-Yoga is the Yoga of power, referring primarily to the Kundalini energy and prana (vital energy) within the body. The practices of Hatha-Yoga are intended to strengthen and prepare the body for controlling the life forces within. An important aspect is the practice of asanas, the postures that are often misidentified as being Hatha-Yoga itself. However, traditional Hatha-Yoga also involves celibacy, a vegetarian diet, breathing and concentration exercises (meditation), and cleansing the nasal passages and the alimentary canal.

    Laya-Yoga

    Laya-Yoga focuses on meditative absorption of the psyche or mind to the point of ecstatic realization, or samadhi. As an advancement from Hatha-Yoga, Laya-Yoga leaves behind the physical focus of Hatha-Yoga for a highly developed state of meditation in which one’s sense of self dissolves into transcendental self-realization (i.e., realization of the true self, the transcendental spirit).

    Bhakti-Yoga

    Bhakti-Yoga is the Yoga of devotion or love, in which the force of human emotion is channeled toward the Divine. This devotion develops along nine stages, the first being to listen to the names of God. The second is to chant praises in honor of the Lord, which is why chanting is so common in the practice of Yoga and Buddhism. The remaining stages involve a variety of practices or rituals. As simple as the first two stages may seem, together they have given rise to a special form of musical prayer: Kirtan, the practice of singing the many names of God (see the section on spiritual music below).

    Bakti-Yoga is more than just a simple devotion to atman (the Supreme Soul that is God). It is a deep, genuine searching for the Lord that begins, continues, and ends in love (Vivekananda, 1955a). The secret of Bhakti-Yoga is that the great sages of ancient India realized that passionate human emotions are not wrong in themselves, they are not to be avoided and repressed, but rather they should be carefully harnessed and turned toward a higher spiritual direction. This is the direction of God, and the true nature of Bhakti-Yoga. However, there can also be dark side to Bhakti-Yoga, among those who have not turned toward a higher direction. Individuals who become trapped in the lowest level of Bhakti-Yoga can become religious fanatics. The only way they see to truly love one ideal is to hate all others (Vivekananda, 1955a). Religious fanaticism has caused great torment throughout the history of the human race, but it should never be confused with the true ideals of religion or spirituality.

    Raja-Yoga or Kriya-Yoga

    Raja-Yoga, or Royal Yoga, combines the principles, though not necessarily the practices, of other forms of Yoga and thus supersedes them all (Bailey, 1927). Raja-Yoga is that which was originally taught by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. It is also known by the name Kriya-Yoga, and it is this term that Yogananda used when bringing Yoga to the United States in 1920. According to Yogananda, this form of Yoga is more than just a practice developed by a great man. Patanjali is believed to be one of the ancient avatars of India, making this form of Yoga a direct divine inspiration (Yogananda, 1946). Furthermore, this form of Yoga was lost to humanity for centuries, until another avatar named Babaji revealed it again to the Indian guru named Lahiri Mahasaya in 1861 (Yogananda, 1946). Of particular interest to Americans may be the fact that Babaji inspired Yogananda to come to America, through Babaji’s disciples Lahiri Mahasaya and Sri Yukteswar. Thus, Yoga came to the United States, as well as the rest of the Western world, at the behest of Babaji, a divine incarnation believed by many to be as significant as Gotama Buddha or Jesus Christ!

    Jnana-Yoga

    Jnana-Yoga is the Yoga of wisdom or knowledge. It is a rigorous discipline in which one uses the intellect to discern reality from maya. Maya is often misunderstood, and described as the cosmic delusion that our Self is this body in this life. However, Swami Vivekananda has offered an excellent explanation of what maya really is: simply a matter of fact statement about the nature of the world and of man (Vivekananda, 1955b). The philosophy from which our understanding of maya comes is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but it does challenge our basic understanding of everything we believe is real. There is no good without evil, no happiness without misery, no beauty without ugliness. Consequently, there will never be a perfect world, a world in which there is no suffering or death. Even the basic existence of the world must be considered in the context of no-existence. This strange and challenging philosophy is described by Vivekananda in the following passage:

    What, then, does the statement that the world exists mean? It really means that the world has no existence. What, again, does the statement that the world has no existence mean? It means that it has no absolute existence: it exists only in relation to my mind, to your mind, and to the mind of everyone else. We see this world with the five senses, but if we had another sense, we would see in it something more. If we had yet another sense, it would appear as something still different. It has, therefore, no real existence; it has no unchangeable, immovable, infinite existence. Nor can it be said to have non-existence, since it exists and we have to work in and through it. It is a mixture of existence and non-existence. (pg. 27-28).

    As you can see from this passage, Jnana-Yoga requires not only a keen intellect, but an open-minded willingness to embrace a different perspective. This perspective had a strong influence on the development of Chinese religion and philosophy, and similar concepts can be found in the famous Tao Te Ching of Lao Tsu, which provides the basis for Taoism (Lao Tsu, c. 600 B.C.).

    The question of whether or not we recognize the reality of our world is central to cognitive psychology. In cognitive therapy, it is taken for granted that an individual does not view their environment realistically, that automatic thoughts of a maladaptive nature turn each situation into another instance of the person’s typical problem. With the help of an objective therapist, the individual may come to realize the nature of their maladaptive thought processes, and learn to control and re-evaluate their thoughts and feelings, so that they can react appropriately to other people and to new situations. In a similar way, the principles of Yoga, under the guidance of a guru, can help us to understand our world and the role we play in determining our future (creating good or bad karma).

    Karma-Yoga

    Because we are inseparably compelled by the gunas (the three aspects of existence), existence involves action. Karma-Yoga teaches us to act without attachment to the consequences of our actions and without any expectations. But it is not enough to control our actions, we must understand why we are controlling our mind. As Krishna tells Arjuna in the third chapter of the Bhagavad Gita:

    He who controls his actions, but lets his mind dwell on sense-objects, is deluding himself and spoiling his search for the deepest truth. The superior man is he whose mind can control his senses; with no attachment to results, he engages in the yoga of action (pgs. 62-63).

    The practical values of Karma-Yoga are many. According to Vivekananda (1955a), the true character of a person can be seen by watching their actions. Those who work for work’s sake, just because good will come of it, and who have given up any sense of self or attachment to their works, has achieved the ideal of Karma-Yoga. As difficult as it may be to take control of one’s life, in other words to direct one’s own karma, it can be done. If we learn to look at our past and present bad circumstances simply as facts that have happened, it is really our own opinion that allows those circumstances to affect our self-image (Schied, 1986). If we can look past those negative circumstances, indeed even look for the positive aspects in all situations, we can begin to act in positive ways that will create good karma for our future.

    “In the end, these things matter most: How well did you love?

    How fully did you live? How deeply did you learn

    To let go?” – Kornfield, 1994

    Mantra-Yoga

    Mantra-Yoga is the Yoga of sound or vibration. The universe is believed to be in constant vibration. Om, the most sacred mantra, is believed to be the word representing the fundamental vibration of the universe. As such, meditating while chanting Om is believed to have almost magical transformative powers over the body and mind (Feuerstein, 2003). It is also common to chant short prayer phrases, such as Om Namah Shivaya (I bow to Shiva), the Hare Krishna mantra (the mahamantra, or great mantra), and Om Mani Padme Hum (a Tibetan Buddhist chant that has no direct translation). The CD Pilgrim Heart, by Krishna Das (2002), offers both insightful description and a modern musical presentation of some of these chants.

    Connections Across Cultures: Franchised Yoga Centers in America

    If you take a look at the magazine section of a major bookstore, you will find several magazines devoted to the practice of Yoga. In those magazines, you can find dozens of Yoga training centers and retreats. Many colleges and universities in America offer courses in Yoga. Yoga is very much a part of life for many Americans. But has it made its way into the mainstream? There is some interesting evidence to suggest that if it hasn’t yet, it will very soon. The days when Yoga centers were only individual operations, run by a small group of devoted yogis, appear to be over.

    In 2003, internet entrepreneurs George Lichter and Rob Wrubel (formerly with the search engine Ask Jeeves International) were looking to move into a new business venture. When the two men realized that both were practicing Yoga (primarily the physical aspects of Hatha-Yoga), they decided to create a chain of Yoga centers across America. Beginning with the purchase of an established yoga center in Los Angeles, they have plans to expand to a variety of major cities, and ultimately to smaller locations around the country. Although a business model may fit well with American capitalism, can such an approach fit with Yoga? They hope that by having the company focus on the business aspects of running a Yoga studio, the instructors can be freed to focus on teaching Yoga to their students.

    Many Americans still view Yoga as an odd curiosity and, primarily, as a form of exercise. Before I first began going to a Yoga retreat center I wondered if it would be too strange for me (even though I knew someone who had been going there for years). I had a wonderful time, and have returned there many times. But, like so many others, it is a retreat center all by itself. As Yoga centers based on the model of chain stores, with some consistency in terms of the services and environment they offer, spread across America, I think more people will take a chance on beginning to examine this curious path toward relaxation and peace of mind.