August 2020: The Paths to Yoga

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Week 1

Welcome to August, ya’ll!

Last month, we explored the surface of what yoga is and some aspects about how this practice began. We’ll dive deeper into each area as the months roll on, so please feel free to go back at any time as a reference point for further discussions.

This month, we’ll be looking at the main branches of yoga (in relation to the Bhagavad Gita) and begin to draw a connection from ancient text to modern day practices. Since the 90’s, yoga has exploded in the U.S., and the beauty of where today’s practice comes from tends to get lost within much of Western teachings (my own, included). The practitioners that have been coming to class the last few weeks have truly enjoyed the education, and that is my intention for these pieces: education! The history is fascinating and there is so much free and reasonably priced information out there.

Now, I’m not a scholar or expert in yoga philosophy or history, and as the months roll on, it might be difficult for me to trace back some information accurately. With that said, Off the Mat is absolutely an open dialogue. I’ll have my own questions from time to time and would be grateful if you know an answer or have something to add.

Anywho, back to this week’s lesson.

We know that yoga is union; liberation; moksha. If yoga is the destination, how do we get there?

We begin to see paths to yoga show up in texts such as the Upanishads and most notably, The Bhagavad Gita, written somewhere around the second century, BCE. From the Ancient History Encyclopedia: “The Gita is a dialogue between the warrior-prince Arjuna and the god Krishna who is serving as his charioteer at the Battle of Kurukshetra fought between Arjuna’s family and allies (the Pandavas) and those of the prince Duryodhana and his family (the Kauravas) and their allies. This dialogue is recited by the Kauravan counselor Sanjaya to his blind king Dhritarashtra (both far from the battleground) as Krishna has given Sanjaya mystical sight so he will be able to see and report the battle to the king.”

Most of this dialogue takes place right before the intended battle, as Arjuna confides in Krishna of his refusal to fight with his family or take a part in bloodshed, a decision many of us would make in his place. Krishna uses the teachings to point to Arjuna’s dharma (cosmic law; our life’s purpose) and to hone in on the importance of Arjuna’s place in this war. He doesn’t tell him what to do: he gives Arjuna the tools to make a decision himself. This is one of the many lessons the Gita teaches us; we all have a purpose in this lifetime and there will always be moments and decisions that are less than comfortable to experience and make. We are to use the teachings as a guide to approaching our dharma with conviction and the greater Truths in our heart; more specifically, allowing the love of the Universe to be with us with every move, thought, and experience.

Krishna shares the paths to yoga with Arjuna to guide him through this difficult time. He discusses four main paths: jnana, bhakti, karma, and raja, which Eknath Easwaran briefly describes in the introduction to his book, The Bhagavad Gita:

In jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge, aspirants use their will and discrimination to disidentify themselves from the body, mind, and senses until they know they are nothing but the Self.

The followers of bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, achieve the same goal by identifying themselves completely with the Lord in love; by and large, this is the path taken by most of the mystics in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

In karma yoga, the yoga of selfless action, the aspirants dissolve their identification with body and mind by identifying with the whole of life, forgetting the finite self in the service of others.

And the followers of raja yoga [also known as dhyana yoga], the yoga of meditation, discipline the mind and senses until the mind-process is suspended in a healing stillness and they merge with the Self.”

This article discusses how these four paths are interconnected, with a very useful chart pointing out various slokas (couplets of Sanskrit verses) that have more than two branches of yoga within them. The author goes on to discuss Swami Vivekananda’s argument that these paths can be practiced in isolation or in combination; an argument that differs from traditional views.

While researching the timeline of the Gita, I stumbled upon this article written by Roshi Chakrabarty, entitled, Transformation of Hinduism, origins of the Bhagavad Gita, and how it doesn’t tell just one truth. This is an absolutely must-read for a thorough outline of how Hinduism and the Gita have changed and been challenged over time, and complements the information shared last month. The author touches on the subjectivity of Hindu philosophy and how it has always been open for interpretation, from the perspectives of householder vs. hermit, to translations from language to language, to simply the design of Sanatana Dharma itself: “In Hinduism, knowledge is looked at differently — every individual has a slice of the truth and when all the versions and perspective of truth come together, we find a limitless truth.” 

I’ll end this week with a few videos that I felt were helpful for diving a bit deeper into jnana, bhakti, karma, and raja yoga.

The first is a short video about jnana yoga and what requirements a student needs to meet to follow this path.

Next is a lecture led by Ram Dass on the path of bhakti yoga, as interpreted during his time spent studying with Neem Karoli Baba. It’s a long talk, but Ram Dass has a way of captivating my attention for extended periods of time, so maybe he’ll captivate yours too!

The third video is an audio chapter from Swami Vivekananda’s book, Karma Yoga, translated to English. This is a lovely introduction to karma.

Finally, I’ll leave this short video about raja yoga and the characteristics of a practitioner.

Reflection: Where do you see your journey interwoven within these four paths? Choose one path and learn as much as you can about it this week. Try to find sources that are from an Eastern point of view, and see if you can find any in relation to the teachings of the Gita.

References: Easwaran, E. (2007). Bhagavad Gita. Nilgiri Press

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I hope you can see by now that the history of yoga is vast. At times, it seems like the texts are endless! This is what makes the teachings so fascinating. I chose to particularly focus on the four branches of yoga mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita because (1) the Gita is most notable with Western practitioners (myself included) and (2) in a way, it tends to lead us to modern day yoga.

Beyond the Gita’s four paths, there has been mention of several others. The Upanishads make mention of this, with some overlap to where we’re headed this month. This article from Classic Studies On Yoga illustrates this perfectly.

I want to spend some time this week talking about raja yoga, the yoga of meditation, as it relates to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (briefly mentioned in Week 1 of July). Patanjali expands upon raja yoga through the compilation of 196 sutras (or 195, depending on version). We spoke about the first sutra (again, in Week 1 of July), but it’s really the second sutra that unfolds the rest: yogascittavrittinirodhah: yoga is the cessation of the modifications, or fluctuations, of the mind*. In The Heart of Yoga, Desikachar expands upon this sutra by saying, “Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions” (Desikachar, 1999).

Within these sutras, we are introduced to Patanjali’s explanation of Ashtanga Yoga, or the Eight Limbs of Yoga:

From the Chopra Treatment Center:

Yamas: The Yamas are guidelines to help us treat others as we would like to be treated.

Niyamas: The Niyamas are our own rituals and practices. They are those activities that help us nurture the body, mind, and spirit.

Asana*: Asana practice is what we typically see in a yoga studio; it is the practice of yoga postures, which help keep our bodies – the vehicles for our minds and spirits – healthy, flexible, and strong.

Pranayama: Pranayama exercises are breathing techniques that bring energy and calmness to the mind, body, and spirit.

Pratyahara: The practice of Pratyahara centers on turning our attention inward, away from the outside world.

Dharana: Dharana is concentration, and this practice helps us move away from our thoughts as we enter meditation.

Dhyana: Dhyana is finding stillness through meditation.

Samadhi: Samadhi is translated as transcendence, when we understand and experience the true Self and feel totally connected with the whole of the Universe.”

I’ve seen some debate on whether or not the limbs are supposed to be practiced in order. A majority of the teachers I have studied with believe there should be some sort of order, and it seems to make a lot of sense, especially when we think about the last 4 limbs. How are we to withdraw the senses when our breath is shallow and body is in pain?

Spend the next few minutes watching this video by Yog Rakesh Ranjan. It’s a quick and clear explanation of the yamas and niyamas and I love how he begins by weeding out the confusion of Ashtanga Vinyasa and Ashtanga Yoga. K. Pattabhi Jois’ heart pumping style is more appropriately referred to as Ashtanga Vinyasa. It is said to be based on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, but it’s important to note that it is a style and interpretation, and not the eight limb path itself.

Here’s another video, a talk by Geeta Iyengar, on the eight limbs according to Patanjali and includes a high level overview of each.

Now, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is not a cookbook. He didn’t give much direction on how to move through each limb, especially since the last three cannot be taught. These last three limbs are stages of meditation; much like sleep, we cannot try to meditate. We can certainly practice techniques to help build a bridge to meditation, but it’s simply a state of mind; a state of being.

Furthermore, Patanjali certainly didn’t provide any poses to help practitioners find their way into sthira and sukha, or effort and ease. This is where Hatha Yoga comes in. More on that next week.

Reflection: The yamas and niyamas can sometimes seem like very obvious practices, but when we reflect much deeper, many of us can find disconnects between what we should be practicing and what we actually do. Learn a bit more about yamas and niyamas and see if you can find any connections within your own life that call for action and growth.


Desikachar, T. K. (1999). The heart of yoga: Developing a personal practice. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International.

*There’s a lot of debate over the meaning of nirodhah, that we just don’t have the time to get into this week! I chose to keep the word cessation, as we may be able to interpret that as both a stoppage or a stillness. If you’re interested in hearing the debate, check out this Podcast from J. Brown Yoga, where two scholars go head to head on this issue. Secondly, the Chopra Center describes asana as what we see in studios today, however this isn’t entirely correct when connecting to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Patanjali didn’t even describe asana in the text. In fact, asana was a description of sitting down to meditate. These postures came later. Let me know if you have any insight on this. I’m still learning too, ya’ll!

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We’re coming to the end of this month’s lesson and as a reminder, this is a high level overview of the teachings, with much room for interpretation. We’ll get into detail as time moves on, but I wanted to start by zooming out before we zoom in. 

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras introduces us to asana, but what is asana referring to in the text and what does it have to do with modern day yoga?

Patanjali only expands upon asana within 3 sutras, and even then, there isn’t much direction. One translation (and there are many) from T.K.V. Desikachar interprets the three sutras as:

“2.46 sthirasukhamasanam: Asana must have the dual qualities of alertness and relaxation. 

2.47: prayatnasaithilyanantasamapattibhyam: These qualities can be achieved by recognizing and observing the reactions of the body and the breath to the various postures that comprise asana practice. Once known, these reactions can be controlled step-by-step. 

2.48 tato dvandvanabhighatah: When these principles are correctly followed, asana practice will help a person endure and even minimize the external influences on the body such as age, climate, diet, and work” (Desikachar, 1999).

As one of my teachers always says, “Patanjali only wanted you to sit down and meditate. That’s all he meant by asana.”

If Patanjali used asana to refer to a meditative seat, where did all of the other postures come from? Cue Hatha Yoga.

I’ll preface this next section by saying I am not a philosophical expert, but I’ll do my best here and come back to it after more study or critiques.

According to my training, studies in philosophy, and a few other sources I’ve found thus far, the practices within Hatha Yoga came about around the same time as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Though the teachings themselves are said to date back thousands of years, Hatha Yoga is most notably taught from the text, Haṭha Yoga Pradipika, written by Nath Yogi Swatmarama somewhere around the 14th and 15th century A.D.

Hatha Yoga is typically translated as sun (ha) and moon (tha), but it’s a bit deeper than that. Hatha actually means effort; forceful, and “technically refers to an approach to Yoga which begins with exertion or physical effort. Traditionally, we would start with conspicuous effort (i.e., the poses), then work toward more subtle practices, (breathwork, muscular and energetic “locks” designed to guide the flow of energy, etc.), before finally moving to the more internal level of meditation” (The Living Yoga Blog). Hatha Yoga aims to balance the energies within us so that we may find our way to pure awareness; to higher levels of consciousness.

The practice emphasizes the importance of diet, cleansing, mudras, pranayama, and meditation. It is here that we finally see 15 asanas appear in text. Most of these asanas were seated, and rightfully so, as humans moved a lot more back then and balanced their energies as such. For a detailed description of these asanas, check out these articles: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3

I’ve recently added some of the cleansing practices into my morning routine as preparation for asana, pranayama, and meditation, and it has enhanced my experience tremendously. I highly recommend learning more about neti and kapalbhati if you can’t wait to learn more before I write about them!

I’ll leave you this month with a wonderful video about the heart of Hatha Yoga. Each speaker shares their insight based on the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda and their subsequent deep practice of Ananda Yoga. Ananda Yoga is a style of Hatha Yoga created by one of Yogananda’s disciples, Kriyananda. We’ll talk a bit more about Yogananda and some of the other influential teachers who brought yoga to the West next month.

Reflection: Watch this video about sthira and sukha by Leslie Kaminoff, a revered yoga anatomy teacher and student of Desikachar. Choose an asana and practice being within it for 2-3 minutes each day. Explore this idea of sthira and sukha and see if you can truly listen to your body and pursue this beautiful balance. Journal your thoughts, feelings, and progress.

Resources and References:

Desikachar, T. K. (1999). The heart of yoga: Developing a personal practice. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International.

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