In classical terms, there are 4 paths- Karma Yoga (yoga of action), Bhakti yoga (yoga of devotion), Jnana yoga (yoga of wisdom) and Raja yoga (royal yoga).
Karma Yoga is the yoga of action. For me, it’s the most practical of all yoga schools. It stems from the idea that every desire should be fulfilled. The Universe is so generous that it gives us back whatever we desire or generate. Karma is the ripple we generate at the Universe with our thoughts, words, actions, and desires. In other words, you reap what you sow, what goes around comes around, and every action has a reaction in the universe. It’s a Universal rule. It’s that simple. For as long as we generate a ripple or a reaction in the Universe with our actions, words, or thoughts, we can’t escape from Samsara (rebirth), which means we need to come back to this life over and over again to fulfill what we’ve generated.
Ha ha, here it gets fun…There is a way to get around this Universal law! We can overcome Karma and end Samsara (rebirth) if we can manage not to create karma, and burn the ones we’ve generated so far, while still living in this world.
To me, Bhagavad Gita is the ultimate text that explains how to overcome generating these ripples, Karma.
The Bhagavad Gita is a conversation between Arjuna and Krishna at a battle field and begins with Arjuna throwing his weapons down because he doesn’t want to shed blood of his own relatives. He prefers death rather than killing his own family. Krishna explains to him how he should not give up action, rather fulfill action with a sense of service by being true to himself. Any action, he says, should be without any attachment to the result and an offering to Divine. It’s a rather radical way to encourage one to fight, until you realize by the end that the real fight is a fight with your own ego and your life is the real battlefield.
Krishna teaches Arjuna how to fulfill a life without Karma, by finding peace in every action by offering it up to the Divine, and overcoming traps like anger, worry, ignorance and more importantly one’s own ego. If an action is done with selfless devotion without any expectations and attachment, it doesn’t generate a ripple. It’s quiet a learning!
How can we apply this to real life and not generate karma, or a single ripple, in the Universe?
One way to practice this is to perform every action without expecting any particular outcome, without expectations of monetary benefit or praise, and perform everything as a service to humanity and a service to Divine. This way, we at least stop generating Karma.
There are different ways to burn old karma. The most effective way is to bring awareness to a sanskara (imprints left behind). There are rituals, like fire ceremony, that burns karma. Requesting grace of a guru thru meditation techniques is yet another way to clean old karma. Again what counts is the awareness and desire to neutralize our imprints.
The ultimate practice of Karma yoga is to fully materialize our Divine purpose on this earth, live in accordance with our true self, establish our purpose on Earth, to think, talk, act from a space of non-duality, meaning nothing to wish because we realize everything is perfect as is, nothing to regret because everything was meant to be, no anger, no worries, no expectations, nothing to give, nothing to receive, simply being content in the present moment.
and….Voila! No more Karma.
There were times when I was attracted to different yoga schools throughout my journey. My journey started with Raja Yoga, by observing yamas and niyamas, doing asanas and pranayama, and following the 8 limb path, like most people start their yoga journey in the West. But when I was introduced to other schools, I realized how intertwined they are. Now, if I don’t practice one of them, my own practice doesn’t feel full and complete. I can’t imagine not practicing Jnana yoga, studying scriptures, especially Vedanta which satisfies my analytical mind and soul at the same time. In the same way, I can’t imagine not practicing Karma yoga, doing selfless service either in the form of volunteering, fund raising or simply offering up fruits of my actions. However there is one path, Bhakti yoga, which holds the other 3 together for me. Without Bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, my practice would be dry and incomplete.
They say there are 9 different ways of practicing Bhakti yoga. In the East, Bhakti yoga is seen as a devotion to a Divine being, a god, goddess or a guru as the manifestation of Divine. In the West, it’s typically perceived more as devotion to whatever one feels like representing Divine. I was introduced to Bhakti Yoga through Kirtan, or devotional chanting. I was immediately hooked. To me, Kirtan feels like you’re at a stadium concert with your favorite band, but you’re actually on the stage with the band playing and singing your lungs out together. It’s that great! It’s like a flight for the soul, where you start soft and rise above slowly until you completely let go and crack open, without knowing you’re full with Divine and you slowly come back to self but always keep a piece of that experience with you. Ever since then, chanting has become a part of my practice, especially in my long commute to work every morning and evening.
I must say I was very lucky with the grace of a Guru and from time to time I still pinch myself how in the world I deserved this Grace. Only if one feels the call and if it resonates with you is Guru Yoga a practice to follow. It is definitely not for everyone, but it’s very rewarding.
Another important piece of my Bhakti yoga practice is my Altar. I have symbols or pictures of the Divine ones that resonate with me to remind me I’m not alone. I have objects of Divine beauty, a sea shell, or a rose pedal that reminds me the beauties of this world as Divine manifestations. Every time I sit on my altar, I commune with them before I start my meditation practice.
Everything, if done with devotion, can be a Bhakti yoga practice. In my personal practice I use yoga asanas as a way to show devotion. I throw myself, I throw my heart into my mat with devotion. Especially I practice Surya Namaskar, Sun Salutation, my core asana practice for devotion. It’s the intent that counts!
Kapalbhati is my favorite Bhakti yoga pranayama . Like I said, everything if done with devotion can be Bhakti yoga. In Kapalbhati, I visualize Light or a manifestation of Divine in the form of Guru or saint in my 3rd eye. I inhale towards the Divine, stop and merge for a second and I bring back a piece with me when I exhale.
After all, Bhakti yoga practice is to pretend to unite with Divine until you realize you’re the Divine itself.
Imagine you’re at a jewelry store and checking out hundreds of gold rings. Each gold ring has a different shape and size. Regardless of their shape and size; their essence is the same, they’re all gold. No matter what shape or size these the rings come, their essence doesn’t change. This is how a Jnana yogi would explain you this philosophy. Our true nature is Divine.
Imagine a see through empty glass. There is air inside, there is air outside. The air inside and outside is exactly the same. That’s how we forget our true essence, and think ourselves separate from Divine. The practice of Vendanta is to dissolve the glass to recognize your true self.
Jñāna yoga is the yoga of knowledge but it’s knowing beyond our intellect, it goes all the way to knowing with the core of our soul. Knowing what? Knowing the ultimate reality, our true nature, our essence; which is pure consciousness and bliss.
Vedanta is the philosophy identified with Jnana yoga and is one of the most difficult paths because it uses mind to negate itself to inquire its true nature. Veda means knowledge and Anta means end. Vedanta is said to be the philosophy which leads to the end of knowledge. It’s funny how it starts with knowledge and draws you into yourself to realize the only ultimate knowledge, is to know the self.
Adi Shankara is the great sage of Vedanta. He was a great philosopher, a poet who lived in the 8th century. He started his spiritual journey when he was 8, he traveled around India all the way to Himalayans 3 times by foot, he wrote many books, poems, commentaries and he died when he was only 32. He established the Swami order that is still used in India today. Sankaracharya’s philopophy or as it’s called Advaita (non-dualistic) philosophy advocates the oneness of individual soul and Brahman (cosmic soul). The rain, the water that flows into the river and the sand in the river that sustains it, all are one and only one. Everything is Divine, the Brahman.
I was first exposed to Sankaracharya , thru Dave Stringer’s beautiful voice. When I listened Nirvanashatakam during a Kirtan, I didn’t understand any of the words but he song touched me so deeply. It was the most inspiring song I’ve ever listened. I think sometimes even the vibration of words are enough to move you even though you don’t understand meaning. After the Kirtan when I read the lyrics, I couldn’t believe how simple yet profound this poem was. Then I started studying Vedanta texts by writings of Swami Dayananda, Swami Tadatmananda, Rasmesh Balsekar.
Here I’d like to share my favorite Adi Shankara poem, Nirvanashatakam.
i am not mind, intellect, ego or memory;
Not ears or tongues, or smell or sight; not ether, air, fire, water or earth.
i am not virtue or vice; pleasure or pain, not mantra, not sacred place,
Scripture or sacrifice; not the food, the eater or the act of eating.
i am beyond all things. i am everlasting, self-luminuos.
taintless, and pure; immovable, blissful and imperishable.
i am without thought, without forms, I am all pervasive, I am beyond all senses;
i am not detachment or salvation or anything that could be measured.
i am consciousness and bliss.
Shankaracharya (788-820 A.D.)
This poem also reflects one of the Vendata techniques, which is negation. The practitioner negates who he/she thinks is until he/she find the true self, the Divine-self.
Here is also my favorite Ramesh Balsekar video. I must admit, it’s little heavy but If you watch this and enjoy it and it resonates with you, probably there is a Jnana yogi in you. 🙂
and I welcome you to the wonderful world of Vedanta!
There are so many different ways to classify Yoga philosophy, and one way is to look at the different schools of Yoga. In classical terms, there are 4 paths- Karma Yoga (yoga of action), Bhakti yoga (yoga of devotion), Jnana yoga (yoga of wisdom) and Raja yoga (royal yoga).
Raja Yoga is the school of Yoga that we’re most familiar in the West. It’s also called Asthanga Yoga, or 8 limbed path. Thanks to Patanjali, a sage who lived around 100 BC, he compiled the ancient teachings, the Yoga Sutra’s, which are the foundations of Raja Yoga.
Raja Yoga provides practitioners a comprehensive, step by step approach to purify body and mind to achieve liberation.
The eight limbs of Raja yoga are:
• Yama – things that we should restraint
• Niyama – things that we should cultivate
• Asana – practice of yoga postures
• Pranayama – breathwork to bridge the body and mind
• Pratyahara – withdrawal of senses
• Dharana – concentration of mind
• Dhyana – meditation
• Samadhi – the state to realize true self, blissful and consciousness
Having such a clear path helped to satisfy my analytical mind when I first started my yoga practice. Shortly thereafter I realized how these steps are intertwined and in fact should be practiced together to master the mind. In fact it’s a mix and match! You can take one, any one of these steps, and apply it in conjuncture of another, except the last one, Samadhi. Like you can never tell a fruit will be ripened and fall down from the tree, you can’t tell when you will achieve Samadhi. It’s viewed as God’s Grace.
Likewise, the Yama and Niyamas, the moral codes are like threads, if you go deep down in one, you find yourself perfecting another. That’s how Mahatma Gandhi, by practicing Ahimsa, not only worked towards his liberation but liberated a whole country.
Yamas the “Don’t’s”.
Brahmacharya, moderation or self control.
Niyamas – The “Do’s”.
Swadhyaya, self-study and study of the sacred scriptures
Ishwara Pranidhana surrender to God
After all it’s about how we can take these yogic principles off the mat and integrate into our daily lifes.