With so many yoga styles floating around these days it can be confusing to understand how all of these styles fit together and what they share in common. Yoga is a system and a science of exploring what it means to be human, in this body, with this mind and connect to the divine that is within all of us.
Just like different tools are needed for different jobs, so different paths of yoga are prescribed for different people. Below are the four main paths outlined in the ancient India text the Bhagavad Gita. As you read this, think to yourself, which one of these paths fits best with my personality?
Bhakti Yoga: This is the yoga of devotion. Of complete surrender to whatever chosen deity or God we believe in. This is the path that is commonly practiced by the Hari Krishnas, you know, those guys you see on the streets in robes, singing, dancing, and chanting. It involves heart opening practices like mantras, and thinking about the wisdom stories, connecting with aspects of whatever you call Divine, with what makes you feel connected.
One of the things that seems important to me about bhakti is what Krishna says in the Gita: all the paths work, but the bhakti path is easier, because it gives you a form to focus on.
Within the bhakti tradition, you reflect on Kali, Krishna, Jesus, or whoever is your favorite form and as that reflection matures you let go of the separation, you take the deity into your body and you feel like you are Krishna or Kali.
In bhakti yoga losing yourself in the devotion brings deep happiness that leads toward wisdom, love, and clear seeing.
Raja Yoga: Outlined by the sage Patanjali in the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, translated as royal yoga, Raja consists of eight steps that ultimately lead to the enlightened state of samadhi.
Yama (abstinence) – non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-greed.
Beginning with the outside world, this step is a good recipe for how the yogi should prepare him/her self. It deals with the vital matters of our behavior, our attitudes, and how we are with others.
Niyama (observance) -purity, contentment, accepting but not causing pain, study of spiritual books, and self surrender to God
The second steps encourages us to treat our bodies as a temple that houses the spirit within. Keep it pure, clean. The same goes for speech and thought, keeping those clean and pure makes for a holy temple that becomes our vehicle for practicing yoga.
The downward dogs, the lounges, and the headstands, all fit into this category. In fact almost any Western style yoga class, no matter if its called shadow yoga, Iyengar, or Vinyasa, fits into this third step in the Raja Yoga tradition. Developed thousands of years ago, these poses are meant to cleanse and strengthen the body to prepare us for the later stages of yoga.
Pranayama (breath control)
Once the body has become strong and steady, what to do with this crazy monkey mind? To practice meditation we need not only a steady body but also a still mind and thus pranayama is used. There are dozens of different breathing techniques all with the purpose of purifying the mind.
Pratyhara (sense withdrawal)
As we get into this fifth stage, we are now ready to begin the journey inward and this means relinquishing our attachment to the world. In this stage we much let go of the need for others approval, and of societal norms. Here, the entire focus of our minds in every moment is set on observing the internal world that is within ourselves. This includes our bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts.