The Paths of Yoga

By YogaLondon on 30 September 2010 | Video: How do you know you're ready to teach yoga?

In Yoga there are many paths that can be taken, each appealing to different temperaments. The number of paths and ways they are categorized varies enormously from source to source.

The main paths of Yoga which are still in practice today are:

  1. Raja Yoga – Royal Yoga
  2. Jnana Yoga – The Yoga of Knowledge
  3. Bhakti Yoga – The Yoga of Devotion
  4. Karma Yoga - The Yoga of Action
  5. Hatha Yoga – The Yoga of Force
  6. Mantra Yoga - The Yoga of Sound
  7. Tantra Yoga - The Yoga of Dissolution

Raja yoga is considered to encompass Hatha, Jnana, Bhakti and Karma yoga in its path, so it is sometimes referred to as Integral Yoga. Similarly Hatha, Tantra and Mantra yoga are sometimes grouped under the heading Kriya Yoga, The Yoga of Technique.

The Wheel of Yoga

Although the paths are very different they all grow from the same moral code and lead to the same goal, enlightenment. When we look at these paths together they are known as the Wheel of Yoga.

Imagine in the mind a bicycle wheel. The tyre that forms the outer part of the wheel is symbolic of the Yamas and Niyamas (ethical and moral pronciples of living). These are the basis of all of the paths of yoga. The very centre of the wheel is Samadhi (enlightenment). This is the end goal, which all of the paths are leading. The various paths of yoga are symbolised in the spokes that lead from the outer tyre to the inner hub.


Royal Yoga The dualist metaphysics of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras aim to lead the practitioner from the illusion of the mind to liberation through the eight limbs of yoga. The Eight limbs of Raja Yoga are:

  1. Yama - The five restraints (code of conduct)
  2. Niyama - The five observances (positive behaviours)
  3. Asana – Physical yoga postures
  4. Pranayama - Control of prana
  5. Pratyahara - Withdrawal of the senses
  6. Dharana - Concentration
  7. Dhyana - Meditation
  8. Samadhi - Super-conscious state/ Liberation


Yoga of Forceful Effort Hatha Yoga is by far the most popular yoga technique of modern times. It developed out Tantra yoga during the medieval era and translates as the Yoga of Forceful Effort. Based on two Tantric texts (the Gheranda-Samhita and the Hath Yoga Pradapika) it utilises not only physical yoga poses (asana) but also breath control, sensory inhibition, concentration and meditation. In addition it outlines six preliminary cleansing practices (Shat Karmas) as vital preparation for the body.


Yoga of Knowledge The Yoga of Knowledge is in theory a very simple and direct path however in practice proves to be difficult. It's like seeing a mountain and deciding to go straight up to the peak rather than to follow the winding path.

Jnana Yoga is often mistaken as a path of studying scriptures, but it is not referring to that type of knowledge. In fact it could be better translated as the Yoga of Knowing.

Through deep meditation the practitioner drops away all external attachments and all thoughts. They keep peeling away layers until they are unable to strip away anything more. At this point they will have discovered their True Self (Atman).

In order to follow this direct path the practitioner must be extremely disciplined and have complete control over their energy (Prana) and their senses. This requires the practitioner to renounce 'worldly' life and live with strict control over their diet and day to day activities. It is a path of complete renunciation and as such is the reserve of those who devote their lives solely to a spiritual path (sanyasin/renunciates).

According to Jnana Yoga there are four ways of becoming liberated:
  1. Discernment
  2. Renunciation
  3. The urge for Liberation
  4. The six accomplishments (tranquility, sense restraint, cessation, endurance, faith and mental collectedness)

For those wishing to participate in worldly life - family, work, etc - it can still be useful to utilise the Jnana techniques of meditation and rational thinking.


Yoga of Devotion This is the path of love and devotion. The subject, by immersing themselves so completely with devotion for their chosen object, merges into it. The subject and object become one - which is the Ultimate Truth (Brahman-Atman).

Bhakti Yoga is very open, and the object of the love and devotion can be anything or anyone. Hinduism offers a number of 'objects' for that affection including Vishnu, Shiva or the avatar Krishna; but it could just as easily be a deity from any other religion. The bhakti or devotion could also be directed towards formless 'objects' such as Love.

According to Bhakti Yoga there are nine forms of devotion:
  1. Listening to devotional songs and scriptures can arouse feelings of devotion and love in the listeners.
  2. Chanting and Mantra
  3. Constant thought of the ‘object’ of devotion
  4. Worshipping the feet of the Guru
  5. Ritualistic worship
  6. Prostration
  7. Self-less Service
  8. Friendship with the ‘object’ of devotion
  9. Self-offering

Although these are prescribed practices their performance should be done quite spontaneously, inspired by the devotion that the practitioner feels.


Yoga of Selfless Action The Bhagavad Gita is the first text to speak directly about Karma Yoga. In this Yoga of Selfless Service every action is turned into a spiritual act, and is a form of sacrifice. Any action or work done by the practitioner is done without any thought of reward, incentive or attachment to any outcome.

Through the selfless work the practitioner looses their own identity and all that remains is the ‘action’. It is the process of completely dissolving the ego or sense of self.

Karma Yoga is closely tied in with the concept of reincarnation, and running through it is the idea that no effort is ever lost. Mahatma Ghandi was a famous example of a modern day Karma Yogi.


Yoga of Repetition Mantras can be thought of as asana for the mind. The use and repetition of mantra helps focus the mind and develops sense withdrawal (pratyahara). A practitioner is usually given a personalized mantra by their guru. If the student does not have a guru from whom they can receive a mantra, they may choose a universal mantra (such as Om).

The three methods of reciting mantras are audible, whispered and mental. The mantra is usually repeated with the aid of a Mala or rosary of 108 beads. Each time the practitioner repeats the mantra they move along one bead.

This path of yoga has very strong links with Bhakti Yoga and is an integral part of Tantra Yoga.


Yoga of Technology Central to Tantra Yoga is the concept of Kundalini-Shakti. The focus is on the subtle body, prana, chakras and awakening Kundalini energy. This path uses mantra, yantra (geometric designs), visualization and devotional worship as its main techniques.

One of the most striking aspects of Tantra is that it does not view the body or world as an illusion. Instead it sees them as manifestations of Ultimate Reality, and as such must be treated as sacred. Both the body and the universe as a whole should be treated as divine, and nurtured as such.

As a philosophy Tantra peaked in popularity in 1200 CE. The teachings formed a new approach which was created for people living in the Kali Yuga (dark ages: a time of moral and spiritual decline in which we still live today).