Yoga and Its Four Paths

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This writeup has been taken from the paper: Pandey, A., & Navare, A. V. (2018). Paths of Yoga: Perspective for Workplace Spirituality. In The Palgrave Handbook of Workplace Spirituality and Fulfilment. Palgrave Macmillan Cham.


Predominantly, the term Yoga is interpreted as a particular way of doing physical exercises. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines Yoga as “a system of exercises for attaining bodily or mental control and wellbeing”[2]. Though the yogic postures and concentrative meditation as parts of the Aṣṭānga Yoga system explained in the Pataṃjali Yoga Sūtra is arguably the most commonly known and practiced form of yoga, the Bhagavad-Gītā, the most revered and popular text of Hindu traditional wisdom recognizes well over a dozen forms of yoga.[3] Essentially, the idea of “Yoga” as a contribution of Indic culture to the world cultural heritage is much wider and goes beyond mere physical exercises[4]. Indic traditional wisdom and literature on Yoga include paths oriented toward intellectual discernment, devotion, service, and Samādhi and each offers practices to mitigate suffering and aims at total personal transformation or attaining higher levels of consciousness[5][6]. These techniques are based on concepts and worldview that is centered on a shared vision of spirituality in different branches and sub-branches of Hindu traditional wisdom.

Etymologically, Yoga is derived from the root “yuj” that means to bind together. Yoga means binding one’s psychic power, balancing and enhancing them. The verbal root “yuj” also refers “to yoke” or “to harness”[1]. Even Yoga as union includes an element of yoking, for the lower Self cannot transcend into the higher Self without proper focusing of attention[3]. At present, Yoga is a generic name of a large set of varied spiritual practices aimed at a total formation through Self-realization. Understanding Yoga is central to understanding spirituality in the Hindu tradition[1].

Spirituality in Hindu Traditions: Few Basic Tenets

Hindu is a descriptive term for the people from the other side of river Sindhu and first used by Arabs in fifth century AD. The sense of life goes beyond the senses, and individual limitations are essentially the origin of religion. The idea of Hindu religion originated from Nature worship[1]. Nature is personified into Gods in many places in Vedas, the ultimate source of Hinduism[7]. Sanātana Dharma was the overarching term originally used for so many spiritual paths practiced in Hindu society in ancient India. That can be loosely translated as eternal truth. Frawley (1995) translates this term as “eternal tradition” and pointed out and summarized its characteristics like it is not limited to any scripture, messiah, church, community, or particular historical end, embraces a timeless self-renewing reality and divinity in all forms of nature and existence[8]. This description is not very different from the original meaning of religion and its nature explained by Hill et al[9].

Hindu tradition acknowledges the Prasthānatrayī as its three primary sources. The texts comprising the Prasthānatrayī are the Upaniṣada , the Bhagavad-Gītā, and the Brahmasūtra[1].

Notion of Self in Yoga Tradition

In all the Yoga traditions, human existence is accepted to be in the form of sheaths infolded in one which gets enfolded with increasing levels of awareness[1].

The outermost layer, sheath, or Kośa is called the annamayakośa, the sheath of material existence. It is his primitive identification with an ego encapsulated in his physical body (sthūla-śarīra, the gross body). The next three layer together constitute what is called the “subtle body” (sūkṣma-śarīra), and they are the sheath of vitality (prāṇamayakośa), the sheath of emotions ( manomayakośa), and the sheath of ratiocination ( vijñānamayakośa). The sheath of vitality roughly corresponds to the subjective vitality.

Spiritual traditions originated in India have linked vitality to mental, physical, and spiritual health and viewed it as something that can be actively nourished or depleted. The sheath of emotions and rationality or intellect corresponds to our root inclination – partly innate, partly acquired through socialization, creates a distinction between self and the social and natural environment, and engender dualities and distinctions. The innermost layer, the sheath of bliss ( ānandamayakośa), comprises the “causal body” ( karana śarīra), and it is experienced by everyone in the state of deep, dreamless sleep ( suṣuptī), as well as during certain forms of meditation. Dualities and distinctions are not completely destroyed at this level, but they are harmonized so completely that this state is experienced as the one of profound relaxation and bliss ( Ānanda). It is also called “causal body” because it is the ground and cause of all the other sheaths. Finally, this also is peeled away, the pure reality of the centre alone remains, absolute non-duality, ineffable, indescribable, Brahman-consciousness, underlying the five sheaths and the three bodies. This is what Vedanta suggests as the highest spiritual goal of human life. Variety and distinctions in paths of yoga can be attributed to their emphasis on different Kośas of the self which will be explained in the later part of the chapter.

Objective of Human Life

Four ends or broad aims of life (Puruṣārtha) are widely subscribed in the Hindu view of life. These are Dharma, Kāma, Artha, and Mokṣa. Dharma is righteousness, virtue, or religious duty. Kāma refers to fulfillment of our biological needs or sensual pleasures. Artha refers to fulfillment of our social needs including material gains, acquisition of wealth, and social recognition. Mokṣa means liberation from worldly bondage and union with ultimate reality[10].

Dr. Radhakrishnan (1927) mentions that these four aims highlight harmony of different dimensions in life: Kāma as the biological dimension, Artha as social dimension, and Mokṣa as the spiritual dimension. Dharma is the central axis around which life rotates[10]. Dr. Radhakrishnan further explains that if one pursues Kāma and Artha without Dharma the long-term result is suffering for the individual and others around them. The four supreme ends link up the realm of desires with the perspective of the eternal and bind together the kingdoms of earth and heaven. It is noticeable that not God or heaven but spiritual liberation or Self-realization is given highest value in Hindu tradition and in paths of yoga.

In his famous lecture on Practical Vedanta, Swami Vivekananda[7] ushered that the Vedantic perspective indicates that deepest spiritual realization cannot only happen in the depth of forests or caves, but by men in all possible conditions of life. The bifurcation between the human world of natural desires, social aims, and the spiritual life is not necessary or stark with its discipline and aspiration of spiritual liberation.

A verse of Īśāvāsyopaniṣada[11] is appropriate to explicate the role of ordinary vocation within ideals of human life which says that “in darkness are they who worship only the world, but in greater darkness they who worship the infinite alone.” The process of integration of the spiritual Sādhanā and ordinary vocations of life is mentioned in the Iṣa Upaniṣada, which says that always perform works here one should wish to live a hundred years. For any person, who is living such a life, there is no way other than this by which karmana (or deed) does not adhere to you[12]. Hindu wisdom tradition enumerates two principle paths of attaining liberation or spiritual freedom – the way of knowledge and the way of action. Renunciation or withdrawal from the fortunes and misfortunes that shape the outward side of our existence is the way of knowledge and suitable for Saṃnyāsī. However, those who cannot renounce the world are prescribed the path of action.

Dr. Radhakrishnan[13] points out that action is not incompatible with wisdom, though there is a general tendency to regard contemplation as superior to action. The importance of work is emphasized in this verse. The work must be done though with the notion that all is for the sake of the Lord or dedicated to Him. Day to day action becomes Sādhanā by merging the individual in the cosmic purpose. The Upaniṣada, the philosophical and experiential account of Hindu spirituality, says that it is not necessary to withdraw from active life to give oneself up to the contemplative. Besides, no one can come to contemplation without having exercised the works of active life.

Cosmic Purpose of Work: Hindu Perspective

The notion of Ṛṇa or pious obligations is befitting to be brought here to explain why and how the day to day action in life can attain spiritual significance and can even be considered as the ways and means of one’s Sādhana. A notion of “pious obligations” called Ṛṇas given in the ancient Indian wisdom tradition still remains a popular notion in Hinduism. The notion of Ṛṇa suggests that all human beings must discharge certain obligations. Among these obligations are Pitṛ-ṛṇa, Ṛṣi-ṛṇa, Deva-ṛṇa, and Bhūta-ṛṇa The notion of pancha-yajña further explicated in the notion of pious obligations in Taitarīya Araṇyaka and are prescribed for the householders. The five sacred duties are Deva-yajña to the Lord- Īśvara; Pitr - Yajna to the family and ancestors; Brahma-yajña to our Vedic culture; Manuṣya-yajña to our fellow human beings, and Bhūta-yajña to the Eco-system[1].


The first sacred obligation is called Deva-ṛṇa which denotes to what human beings owe to the Gods (devas), who control nature and its various phenomena. As all creation is nonseparate from Īśvara, the pancha-mahābhūta, the five great elements that comprise all creation, are worshiped as Īśvara. In the Vedic vision, Īśvara is both the intelligent and material cause of creation. Deva-yajña is an acknowledgment of the manifestation of Īśvara in the form of all creation and expressing our gratitude for all that is given to us. Offerings to the Gods (Deva-yajña) are made through spiritual ceremonies (Yajña) and prayers (Prārthanā) to express one’s gratitude for the great gifts of nature such as water, light, and air .


Pitṛ-yajña is bonding with and caring for the parents and forefathers. Parents are responsible for our birth and upbringing. Hindu tradition expects two ways of repaying this debt; first, by taking care of their parents in their old age, when they are infirm and need help to repay this debt and second, by raising family in Dharmic way. In the Vedic culture, our self-identity is not looked at solely from an individual standpoint but constantly defined according to the family and cultural background as well. The individual is considered independent and yet an essential and integral part of a larger family unit and community .


Brahma-yajña is men’s reverential contribution to preserve wisdom tradition and different streams of knowledge by the worship of the scriptures, obligation to the sages who have spoken and codified spiritual knowledge, the scholars who interpret that for us, and to the teachers who teach or train us in different fields of knowledge and spirituality. This Yajña also encompasses disseminating the acquired knowledge and skills, both in the realm of matter and spirit, to as many people as possible.


Manuṣya-yajña is serving fellow human being with the attitude of serving the God or divine. Dāna or “giving” is an important value to perform this Yajña. Dāna is not just the act of giving in the absence of an expectation of any return or reward. It is also the attitude of gratitude toward the person for giving. The tradition of giving Dakṣiṇā after Dāna is the mark of conveying gratitude to the person for accepting the Dāna .


This obligation is toward the all nonhuman forms of life. Human beings have a duty toward all nonhuman species because they contribute to the quality and sustenance of life. Bhūta-yajña is a sacrifice mainly to the plants, animals, and birds by protecting them or feeding them and a mark of reverence to nature steeped in Hindu culture where our pruthvi loka is addressed as mother earth.

Four Paths of Yoga

As mentioned in the introduction, Bhagavad-Gītā the most revered and popular text of Hindu traditional wisdom recognizes well over a dozen forms of yoga. Chiefly, Yoga includes paths oriented to intellectual discernment, devotion, service, and Samādhi, and each offers practices to mitigate suffering and aims at total personal transformation or attaining higher levels of consciousness[5][6]. Swami Vivekananda, the sage of modern India who first popularized the Hindu perspective of spirituality to the Western world in modern times, also gives fourfold classification which leads to unity of the self and the Self.

The scheme of panca kosa (or five sheaths) conceptualizes a person as an individual who thinks, feels, and acts. This model of personhood is important in understanding the major paths of spiritual pursuit or paths of Yoga in the Hindu tradition since the three major forms of yoga are based primarily on the processes of thinking, feeling, and volition. Jñāna Yoga denotes the path of knowledge, Bhakti Yoga denotes the path of devotion, and Karma Yoga denotes the path of action. In the next section, we first present these pathways to spiritual development emphasizing cognitive processes, emotion, and volition followed by a similar account of Ashtanga Yoga (also known as Pataṃjali’s Yoga), which focuses on controlling the mind as a composite of all these processes taken together.

Jñāna Yoga: The Path of Knowledge

The term jñāna denotes knowledge. This path of Yoga is about acquiring right knowledge of the ultimate truth, i.e., brahman[14]. In Indian traditional wisdom, the notion of Brahman is not different than the true self Ātman. It is not an alien to the self; perhaps, it is the true self. Various Upaniṣadas uphold that the seat of Brahman is the core of the true self. Śvetāśvetaropaniṣada, one of the principal Upaniṣada, considers human beings as children of immortal bliss:

śṛṇvantu biśve amṛtasya putrā | ā ye dhāmāni dibyāni tasthuḥ || ( Śvetāśvetaropaniṣada, 2.5)

Translation: May all the sons of the Immmortal listen, even those who have reached their heavenly abodes[15].

The never-changing, imperishable Brahman residing in the self is enveloped by layers of ignorance. Jñāna Yoga is a process to gain the right knowledge of “who am I” and sustaining the stage of being into oneness with the Self.

Jñāna Yoga requires aspirants to ask themselves one simple question “who am I?” The answers to this question may make a long list including name, physical body, social roles, relations with other people, thoughts, attitudes, values, etc. The next stage is the critical examination of these answers. Sri Aurobindo[16] suggests dhyāna to gain the knowledge of true self. Dhyāna includes the idea of meditation as well as contemplation. The first step in dhyāna is the concentration of the will against the obstacles of meditation (e.g., wandering of mind, sleep, impatience, etc.). The second step is increasing purity and calm of the inner consciousness (citta) from where thoughts and emotions arise. Achieving freedom from all disturbing reactions is necessary. The regular and disciplined practice of dhyāna helps practitioners to attain self-realization.

The insistence of this path is on intellect and its sharpness. The answer of question “who am I?” helps an individual to find out true self and attain self-realization .

Bhakti Yoga: The Path of Devotion

The word Bhakti is derived from Sanskrit root bhaj which means to serve. The true nature of Brahman is beyond the purview of senses and human cognition. It is attribute-less (nirguna) and form-less (nirakara). Thus, name, form, character, and qualities are attributed to the Supreme and such deity is worshiped. Hindu culture gives freedom to the individual to choose his or her own name and the form of the God. It is termed as iṣṭadevatā. Thus, one can find numerous forms of deities being worshipped by people in Hindu culture, making it pluralist. Bhakti is a profound experience which culminates all desires and fills the heart of the bhakt with love for God[3].

Bhakti Yoga is a search after the Lord, a search beginning, continuing, and ending in love[17]. Bhāgavatam delineates various ways of self-devotion. Some of them are chanting songs of the divine, remembering and repeating God’s name (nāmasmaraṇa), touching and saluting the feet of the God, offering flowers, food (naivedyaṃ), developing love with the Supreme, etc. The fundamental principle in Bhakti Yoga is complete faith (śraddhā) and unconditional love for the God[1].

Bhakti yoga is a discipline which can be practiced as an individual and through an institution. The tradition of devotees is prevalent since centuries and spread across the Indian terrain. Sant Basaveśvara (1105–1167), Sant Jñāneśvara (1272–1293), Sūradāsa (sixteenth century), Tulasīdāsa (1532–1624), Mīrābāī (1547–1614), and Sāībābā (1835–1918) are few examples of rich bhakti tradition in India. Bhakti discipline is practiced through social institutions or sect. The path of bhakti is recommended for people in general. It does not require any special skills or any qualification. It just demands complete surrender and devotion for the Divine. It emphasizes on the pure feelings of the devotee for her chosen deity ( iṣṭadevatā). Because of its simplistic and easily adoptable nature, numerous bhakti sects have flourished in Hinduism[1].

Karma Yoga: The Path of Action

Karma Yoga is a path of spiritual liberation by shifting the frame of reference of the day-to-day actions from self-centric behavior to Dharma-centric behavior.

When any action is being performed, the sense of doership (phalāśā) and attachment to a particular favorable outcome is created in the mind of doer[18]. Due to this bias, doer concentrates on an outcome and ignores the action[3]. Renunciation (tyāga) of the attachment to outcome like external reward or incentive allows an individual to remain anchored in the present action. As a result, person becomes more process-oriented than outcome-oriented[19]. Being centered on the duty-bound action naturally results in withdrawal from external reward of the action, which referred as “ Phalāśā Tyāga” is the central tenet of Karma Yoga.

Svadharma and Loksangrah are the two principle components of Karma Yoga[20]. The Dharma of an individual self (sva) is termed as Svadharma. It is constituted by two factors – profession of a person and phase of life (e.g., student, householder, retired person, etc.)[21]. When a person chooses an action according to her chosen profession and phase of life, the person can be said as following “ Svadharma.

Following one’s svadharma, a person starts appreciating the interconnectedness and interdependence among the self and the universal system. Subsequently, individual actions become more responsible and get directed toward maintenance of this system[3]. Gradually, the frame of reference behind the action becomes universe-centric. When individual develops the sense of interconnectedness and interdependence between self and nature, and performs actions with the purpose of contributing to larger social and natural environment, it is referred as “Lokasaṃgraha.Loka means society (people) and cosmic system (nature). Saṃgraha means to gather, protect, nourish, regulate, etc[18]. Lokasaṃgraha means binding people together, protecting them to achieve the welfare of the society and leading them on the path of self-realization. The notion of Lokasaṃgraha involves well-being of all people[22], welfare of society as whole and humanity [23][24], concern for social and natural environment[20] , unity of the world[3] and interconnectedness of the society[25] [26]

Aṣṭāṃga Yoga: The Most Popular Form of Yoga

In the present time at the international level, the most popular form of Yoga is one or other adaptation of Aṣṭāṃga Yoga as was systematized by Sage Pataṃjali during the second century C.E.[5]. This is known as Aṣṭāṃga Yoga referring to its eight limbs (Aṣṭa meaning eight in Sanskrit). The step-by-step process of Aṣṭāṃga Yoga is aimed at Samādhi by restraining the mind stuff (Chitta) from taking various forms:


Yoga is restraining the mind stuff (Chitta) from taking various forms (Vrttis)[7] Yoga is the control of the whirls of the mind (Translation by Feuerstein[28]).

These goals of Aṣṭāṃga Yoga overlap with some goals of other meditative traditions such as Buddhism[5] from which the variety of mindfulness practices are originated.

Pataṃjali’s Aṣṭāṃga yoga is the eight distinct and connected groups of practices aimed toward the regulation of mind and its afflictions and attaining Samādhi. In his Yoga-sūtra (Treatise on Yoga), these groups of practices are called the eight limbs and include social and personal observances (Yama and Niyama), physical postures (Āsana), regulation of vitality through breath (Prāṇāyāma), withdrawal of senses from external world (Pratyāhāra,), concentration (Dhāraṇā, effortful, focused attention), meditation (Dhyāna), and self-transcendence and ecstasy (Samādhi)[28]. Most of the Sādhakas start with physical postures (Āsana) and breathing exercises (Prāṇāyāma) in the present times. Different versions and the schools of Yoga popular at present are different in terms of their emphasis on different limbs and slight difference in methods of practices of different limbs of Aṣṭāṃga yoga. These have become one of the top 10 complementary approaches to health in the USA according to the National Institutes of Health along with usage of natural products, deep breathing, chiropractic, etc[1].

Paths of Yoga: Four Distinct Ways and Their Ideals

The aim of four paths of Yoga is the search for sacred. Pargament(2008)[29] explicate the term search for sacred as attempts of or identification, articulation, maintain, or transformation of the divine being or divine object, Ultimate Reality, or Ultimate Truth as perceived by the individual. The domain of the sacred includes what monotheistic religions call God, Hindus call Brahman, and Buddhist Nirvana. Since the time of the ancient Upaniṣadas, Brahman is viewed as the ultimate reality and is equated with the Ātman or the Self.

Most of the traditions of Yoga acknowledge what the seer of Māṅḍūkya Upaniṣada suggested that the Self is revealed in the experience of content-less pure consciousness which was called the Fourth State after the three common ones, namely wakeful, dream, and deep sleep. Hindu spirituality is the saga of discovery and description of various spiritual paths to attain such a state. Each individual is distinct by her aptitude, disposition, attitude, intellectual capabilities, etc. Paths of yoga appreciate these differences and offer solution suitable for spiritual endeavor. People who have intellectual capabilities and critical thinking ability are best suited to adopt jñāna mārga. It emphasizes on developing the intellectual understanding of Brahman. People who are more emotional in nature take up the path of devotion. Bhakti yoga is about creating an intimate relationship with the Divine. It requires purification of one’s mind and nurturing of love and affection for Supreme. Action-driven people get inclined to the path of action, i.e., Karma Yoga. It allows aspirants to attain spiritual ideal through performing one’s actions skillfully. Aṣṭāṃga Yoga encompasses all three aspects of trilogy to ultimately reach to the cessation of mental afflictions to experience the “pure consciousness” or the fourth state mentioned above.

Each path of Yoga brings about its own distinct mechanism. The ultimate destination of these discrete mechanisms is same, i.e., spiritual freedom. However, it would not be possible to segregate them into water tight compartments. There would always exist a combination of two or more paths when person is pursuing Sādhanā. One path of Yoga may be the principle one, but other paths of Yoga would also accompany it. It depends on the psyche and inclination of the aspirant. In Hindu society and culture, there is the distinct institutional category of the “sampradāyas”, which involve lineages of spiritual teachers and disciples. There are numerous sampradāyas with a large following and with histories that extend across centuries. Some of them, such as the Nātha Sampradāya, are specialized in Pataṃjali’s Dhyāna yoga. Others, like the Vārkarī Sampradāya, primarily involve the practice of Bhakti yoga.

(Also read this article in Hindi)


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