The 5 Traditional Paths of Yoga
The word yoga can mean a lot of different things.
In contemporary times, especially in the West, we often associate yoga with physical poses like down dog, arm balances, inversions and super bendy pretzel-like positions.
But, in reality, yoga is so much more than just physical postures.
In this podcast, we will explore “The 5 Traditional Paths of Yoga.”
Hope you enjoy this inspiring episode!
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[The following is the full transcript of this episode of “The BE ULTIMATE Podcast.” Please note that this is direct from Travis speaking unscripted and unedited.]
Welcome to “The Five Traditional Paths of Yoga!”
So we’re going to dive into something that I often teach in our 200-hour yoga teacher training. Which is really to provide context as to what yoga is.
And I think about yoga before I went to my first class, and just the stigma that I had about yoga. I went to this class with this phenomenal teacher named Govindas. I can’t imagine my life without this individual. His class was amazing, because it really shattered this crazy illusion as to what I thought yoga was. I think that I felt like it was something that wasn’t accessible to most people. That it was about bending your body into these uncomfortable positions. And wearing weird clothing. And if you’re a guy, like having a long beard. And just all sorts of weird stuff.
But the reality is, is that it couldn’t have been more accessible. And I was fortunate to, again, get to practice with a great phenomenal teacher. But the class was amazing on all levels. It was physical. It was strong. It was tough. But you also had permission to find the place in the poses that really felt right for you. And the way that it was delivered was strong, but also it was balanced with sensitivity. It was powerful, but there was also a certain element of gentleness to it.
At the end of the class, our teacher Govindas, he sang for about five minutes or so. A shavasana lullaby with old Sanskrit mantras. And that really, really just took me to a whole other level. The physical practice was amazing. But the spiritual components that were brought into it is something that I’ll never forget. And still inspires me to this day.
I was also fortunate to get to go to India. I’ve now been to India three times. But my first visit was with Govindas and his wife Radha. We did a yoga retreat in Goa. And after our 10-day retreat in Goa, we went to Vrindavan, which is in the northern part of India. A couple of hours outside of Delhi.
And Vrindavan is one of these pilgrimage cities, these ancient cities that people go to. And Vrindavan is said to be the place where Krishna – the lord of love – taught his practices. And there’s a lot of stories about Krishna in Vrindavan and the areas around Vrindavan. And the thing that really struck me when I went there and really many different places of India was I never saw anybody in a downward facing dog. I never saw anybody doing physical yoga.
But yet, this is where yoga came from. It came from India. India was the motherland of all things yoga.
What I learned is, is that yoga in India, and yoga to millions of people has very little – if nothing – to do with physical postures. And so much more to do with other things. Which we’re going to explore it, unpack now within this video about the five traditional paths of yoga.
Before we get into those five different paths, it’s helpful to know what yoga is. Because this word yoga means so many different things to so many different people. And it’s really this multifaceted multi-dimensional word.
In its purest sense, when we look at the Sanskrit word of yoga, the root word of yoga, is yuj.
Yuj means ‘to yoke’ or ‘to unite.’
Now, there’s a lot of debate sometimes and controversy out there if yoga is religious or not. And certain people that have very rigid religious beliefs are very anti-yoga, because they’re concerned that it might conflict with their religion.
Well, the answer to that really is, is that it depends. If yoga means to yoke or to unite, it depends on what you’re yoking or uniting yourself to. For some people, this might mean yoking or uniting your breath with body movements. And this is where we create a flow state of yoga, or a power yoga, or vinyasa yoga. Where we’re moving with the rhythm of breath. For some people, it may mean uniting your mind with your breath. So you’re focusing on your breath. So it becomes more of a meditation. And then for some people, is yoga religious? Yeah. For some people it is. They may be uniting themselves to Krishna. But you could also unite yourself to Christ consciousness, or to the energy of Buddha or Muhammad. You can unite yourself to whatever it is that you want to unite yourself to.
So in that sense, yoga is universal. You get to choose what you’re connecting your energies to.
1) Raja Yoga
Now, the first traditional path of yoga is what we call Raja Yoga.
Raja means the classical yoga. Raja Yoga dates back about 5,000 years. Another definition or meaning for the word Raja is royal yoga.
And the reason why it’s called the royal yoga is because for thousands of years, these sages and these yogis that would live in the mountains or the forests, they would do these yoga practices. And they spent and dedicated their whole entire lives to these practices. And naturally, they were able to achieve states and do things that the normal people couldn’t do. On some level they became superhuman, super conscious. And the word about these enlightened masters would travel back to the royal family, to these kingdoms. And they would want it. They wanted to gain these superpowers too. So they would summon these yogis to come and teach them the practices. And this is how it began to proliferate throughout the royal family. So that’s how we get a royal yoga connection.
Raja Yoga also means the science of the mind. And around 200 CE, after thousands of years of Raja Yoga existing, a sage came along. A sage by the name of Patanjali. And Patanjali systematized all these teachings that had been passed down orally from generation to generation. And Patanjali created what’s called the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Sutra means thread. So it’s a real simple statement. And it doesn’t have any fluff around it. It’s concise. It’s straight to the point. And it’s these universal teachings. Transcendent of religious belief. Just real pure statements.
These Yoga Sutras contain the science of the mind, or this roadmap called the eight limbs of yoga. The eight limbs of yoga, again, is this map to spiritual awakening, enlightenment, and realization.
Now, Patanjali defines yoga as being “yoga chitta vritti nirodhah.”
So what does yoga chitta vritti nirodhah mean?
Well, we know that yoga means union or oneness. Chitta means mind or consciousness. Vritti means wave or fluctuation. And nirodhah means the removal of.
So according to Patanjali, yoga is the removal of the waves inside the mind.
And a lot of these waves are kicked up by relentless desires. Or by, our own negative thought patterns. We kick up these waves inside of our mind. We disturb the peace, the oneness, the serenity inside of our mind. And therefore, our mind becomes like a stormy ocean instead of a really still, placid lake on a windless day.
Yoga is removing the things that disturb the peace inside of our mind according to Patanjali.
You’ll notice, he says nothing about anything physical. No physical poses at all. It’s all about the mind. And I love also in the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali, one of the biggest tools that I’ve taken from the scriptures is the concept of pratipaksha bhavana. And what that means is to spin a negative thought into a positive thought. And of course nowadays, a lot of personal growth, personal development the whole movement you could say is really based upon that concept of mastering the mind, and mastering thoughts. That the thoughts that we think ultimately go to trigger a domino effect. That leads to creating this reality that we’re living in. It all traces back to our thoughts. So Raja Yoga is all about the science of the mind, which is achieved through the practices of meditation.
2) Jnana Yoga
Now, number two is what we call Jnana Yoga.
Jnana means knowledge. So this is the yoga of knowledge, the yoga of wisdom.
Jnana Yoga also dates back thousands of years. It comes from the Vedas. The Vedas are sacred scriptures from India.
Jnana Yoga also sometimes means the yoga of self-realization. So what that means is that we realize who we really are on a deeper level is not this separate form disconnected from other people, from the world, from nature, from the universe. That that’s just an illusion of what we call Maya. Maya is the illusion of separation. Your senses tell you that you’re separate from everything. But we know from what the ancient yogis taught, many of the great wisdom traditions taught, and what modern-day science is also showing us, is that on a deeper fundamental level, the true nature of reality is that all things are connected. Subatomically, everything is just a field or an ocean of energy.
So we realize that we’re actually connected into the very fabric. That we’re woven into the very tapestry of all things everywhere. So we achieve this through philosophical reflection, contemplation, deep thinking, which of course is becoming less prevalent these days. We’re so distracted by news, and media, technology, our phones. That a lot of us we’re not taking time for deep thinking — where we’re stepping away from this onslaught of stimuli.
In addition to philosophical reflection, we can also achieve Jnana Yoga through self-study. So we go and study ancient scriptures. We go and read the classical texts. This has the knowledge encoded within it that can help us awaken and become realized. And then lastly, just like Raja Yoga, we can find Jnana Yoga through the practices of meditation.
Now, an example, as for a modern-day Jnana yogi would be Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein dedicated his whole entire life to studying science, and figuring out the laws of the universe. How does the universe really work. And he would use his mind. He would lock himself up into these rooms for days on end and he would just focus and focus. And study and study. And write out all these different equations. And through that deep penetrating focus and concentration, these hidden laws of the universe became revealed to Einstein, and therefore to the rest of the world.
“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures in the whole of nature in its beauty.”
This quote speaks to widening our circle beyond our own limited self, our own limited ego and identity in connecting to that field of oneness.
3) Karma Yoga
Karma means the yoga of action. Karma Yoga is really about the yoga practice of life. How are you functioning within all aspects of your life?
When we tap into the path of Karma Yoga, ultimately what we’re doing is harnessing our thoughts, speech and actions in a way that is of service to others.
So it’s about being selfless instead of being selfish. I just read a study recently that said that people that often suffer from depression use three words. “I, me, myself.” Those three words are about your own self. When you’re always just thinking about yourself, yourself, yourself, you’re going to get depressed. Because naturally as human beings we’re meant to connect to others. We’re meant to give to others. And when we give to others, it pulls us out of ourselves. It pulls us out of our misery. It awakens something deeper within us.
Life is like a garden. That’s how you know this knowledge the yogis speak of is so true. Because it exists in nature.
When you plant seeds of benevolence in your life, you create a benevolent garden.
And on the other side of coin, when you plant seeds of malevolence, you’re going to create a malevolent garden.
You reap what you sow.
What kind of seeds are you planting? And if you’re doing, and acting, and speaking in a way that’s harmful, and negative, and nasty, and violent, and critical, and judgmental, and divisive, then you’re going to create suffering for yourself.
This is what karma is. And we all have the capacity and the ability to choose what kind of seeds that we’re going to plant in the garden of our life.
What kind of life and world are we going to create?
Now, an example of a great modern-day karma yogi would be Mother Teresa.
“Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.”
Mother Teresa dedicated her whole entire life of being of service, of being selfless, never selfish. And she inspired millions of people. And will inspire people for generations and generations to come because of that.
And I think about a story.
This man in New Jersey who lived in one of the bad areas in New Jersey. And one day in the afternoon he looked in his mail and he got a stimulus check from the government for several hundred dollars. And instead of spending that money on personal selfish things, like a new TV, or alcohol, he went to his local hardware store and he bought a bunch of supplies. Because right across from where he lived was this open area. Where all these drug dealers, prostitutes, criminals would hang out. And very bravely and courageously he went over there with trash bags, and a lawnmower, and a rake, and he began to clean up this place. And by the time he finished, they said that it was as immaculate as the White House garden. He completely transformed this area. And because of that the bad people went away and the good people started to go and be attracted to it. And then it inspired other areas in his neighborhood.
Now, he didn’t necessarily do this for himself, for his own personal gains. He took his money, and he went, and he used it to be of service.
And I know a lot of people right now, because of the challenges that we’re going through in country of the United States but also globally in the world, people sometimes feel helpless because of all the challenges that are taking place. And this story illustrates the power that we all carry. We can all have the resources to go, and in some way give back to our communities to make our communities a better place. And then that sends a ripple out beyond just our own close circle of people. As Einstein said, “We widen the circle.”
4) Bhakti Yoga
Bhakti Yoga is the yoga of devotion, or the yoga of love.
“Love is the strongest medicine.”
-Neem Karoli Baba
Neem Karoli Baba was a saint. That people like Krishna Das, and Jai Uttal, and Ram Dass, and Bhagavan Das, a lot of these people, they discovered Neem Karoli Baba in India. And because of that, they were inspired to start Bhakti Yoga through the practice of kirtan.
Kirtan is call-and-response chanting and it’s meant to open up the heart, and to connect us to a higher power, to the divine.
So a lot of the modern-day kirtan movement that maybe you’ve experienced or heard in yoga studios and yoga classes has come through this lineage of Neem Karoli Baba.
When I went to Vrindavan, with Govindas on that first trip to India we stayed at Neem Karoli Baba’s ashram in Vrindavan. And we’re the only westerners there. We are surrounded by all these sadhus. And it was the real deal.
So Bhakti Yoga is the path of heart and Vrindavan is one of the ultimate places to go and experience Bhakti Yoga. Everywhere you go, there’s temples and ashrams, kirtan, and chanting. It’s happening all the time. They’re blasting it through these loudspeakers and these sounds are vibrating throughout the entire space of Vrindavan. You cannot get away from it. It’s going on 24 hours a day.
To be in the spirit of Bhakti Yoga is really to devote ourselves, our limited self, the individual self to a greater self. Hopefully you’re starting to notice this common theme. That even though these are different paths of yoga, ultimately they’re all speaking to same a thing. And that is to transcend our limited itself, the small self, and to connect to the bigger self. To connect to God. God, the divine, however you want to call it.
Now, in addition to kirtan and music, we can also express Bhakti Yoga through dance, art, and poetry. You think about somebody like Rumi or Hafiz. And these poets that write amazing poetry and it’s all an offering to a higher power. When we do that, we open up our hearts. Our hearts become less tight, constricted, and much, much more vast and expansive.
5) Hatha Yoga
Hatha Yoga is the physical yoga. Sometimes Hatha Yoga translates into sun and moon.
One of my teachers, Annie Carpenter, she used to say Hatha Yoga means to strike with force. And I really like that definition too. Because what we do at a physical yoga class, it’s almost like a blacksmith putting iron into the fire. We get the metal in the fire. We warm it up, heat it up, and then we start to mold it and bend it into all these different positions. And this is like what we do in a power yoga class. We get the body really warm, and then we start bending the body, and moving the body in all these different directions.
Hatha Yoga is about balancing these opposing, but also complementary forces of nature. In Taoism, these two forces are called yin and yang. And some branches of yoga, this is called Shiva and Shakti. So the male and the female energy. That we want to balance those because this is how we create real strength and wholeness. Is finding this energy between those two coming together and working together instead of working against each other.
Now, Hatha Yoga is the new kid on the block. Which if you think about it, a lot of times when we think about yoga, we think about physical poses. But Hatha Yoga really just began in the 10th-century CE. And when it began, it was created as a way to serve meditation and breath work or pranayama.
Around 1350 CE, we have a text that’s created called the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. And this is a book that starts to break down and it systematizes more about what Hatha Yoga is. And in this book, there are only 15 postures. And out of those 15 postures, 8 are seated, 7 are non seated poses. So in the beginning, only 15 poses. Not a big library of postures. Most are seated. Because remember, Hatha Yoga was created to support meditation.
Then in the 1600s, we have another text that’s created called the Gheranda Samhita. And in the Gheranda Samhita, there’s now 32 poses. We’ve gone from 15 to 32. So we’ve more than doubled the library of poses. Out of that 32 postures, two-thirds are strong poses, and one-third are seated. So you can see, we’re moving in a direction where there are less seated postures, and there are more physically demanding and rigorous postures.
Then in the early 1900s, we have the Godfather of Modern-day Yoga, Krishnamacharya, who comes along. And Krishnamacharya was this amazing yogi. He studied in the Himalayans. And he studied all things yoga. And then after his studies, he started to go teach. And he became world-renowned and very famous. Because he was able to heal people of chronic illness. He was able to help a lot of people, including many prominent members of royal families.
Krishnamacharya had some of the most prolific students that went on to become amazing teachers who created their own systems, like Iyengar. Pattabhi Jois, who created Ashtanga Yoga. Desikachar, who was Krishnamacharya’s son, who created yoga therapy. And then one of my teachers, Srivatsa Ramaswami, who studied with Krishnamacharya longer than anybody else. And Ramaswami teaches what’s called Vinyasa Krama, which is the pure style of yoga that Krishnamacharya also taught.
“Hatha Yoga teaches us to use the body as the bow, asana as the arrow, and the soul as the target.”
So we’re using these physical postures as a way to tap into that deep dimension of soul or spirit.
Now, Hatha Yoga includes all forms of physical yoga. So any style of physical yoga falls underneath the category of Hatha Yoga. This could be Power Yoga, Vinyasa Yoga, yin, restorative, gentle, Bikram, whatever it is that’s physical is a part of Hatha Yoga.
This is the style of yoga that now we think about is associated most with yoga, right? Is physical postures.
But remember, the physical postures are the new kid on the block. The physical postures were also created as a way to serve the science of the mind, of the meditation. The awakening of the heart. And for many of us, we’ve lost perspective, right? We don’t even know the roots of where this stuff comes from.
So this is why – along with my wife Lauren – we created this style of yoga called Holistic Yoga Flow. Which is really about honoring all the traditional paths of yoga. Raja Yoga, the science of the mind. Jnana Yoga, the yoga of knowledge. Karma Yoga, the yoga of action. Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion, the yoga of love. And Hatha Yoga, the physical yoga. When we teach, we strive to bring all these different paths into our style of yoga as a way to honor, to respect where all of this stuff has come from. But at the same time, being open to evolving yoga into new places, new paradigms.
Keep in mind, the goal of all yoga, which ever path that you’re on, is the exact same. And that goal is oneness. It’s all about transcending the limitations of your five senses, your ego, your identity, your small self. So that you understand, and you experience who you truly are on a deep level.
The five paths of yoga are like different paths going up to the same summit, the same peak. And one path may be appropriate for one type of person. One path may be appropriate for another type of person. Just like a religion, or not having a religion. Everybody’s different. Everybody has their own paths. And if I’m on this path, I’m respecting somebody who’s walking on another path. It’s all good. Good for you, we’re all heading to the same place.
Can you imagine if the whole entire world had that mindset? To respect each other, to respect our different points of views and perspectives. Because in the end, we’re all going to the same place. So let’s love each other on the journey, on the path.
“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bounds. Your mind transcends limitations. Your consciousness expands in every direction. And you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive. And you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”
All right. Let’s finish now with the ultimate prayer.
“May we bring strength where there’s weakness.
May we bringing courage where there is fear.
May we bring compassion where there is suffering.
And may we bring light where there is darkness.
May we be ultimate!”
All right, thank you guys for tuning in. Have a beautiful rest of your day. And see you next time here at The BE ULTIMATE podcast.