The 4 Paths of Yoga

A man doing yoga on the beach

Vedanta tells us that there are five causes of suffering:

1. Not knowing who we are

2. Attachment: Clinging to things that are impermanent and having expectations

3. Aversion: Trying to avoid things that are not real

4. Identifying with the ego and creating separate realities

5. Fear of death

Fortunately, Vedanta also gives us the solutions to overcome them. It tells us that by correcting the first cause and remembering who we really are, all others will cease to concern us.

Yoga (the union of body, mind, soul, and spirit) is rediscovering who we are and returning to a life of joy, bliss, and freedom. Vedanta, recognizing that we each have different personalities and preferences, offers us four Paths of Yoga, or sets of spiritual practices, to help us reach this goal. 

In life we can act, we can think, we can feel, or we can do nothing. To act is Karma Yoga, to think is Gyana Yoga, to feel (love) is Bhakti Yoga, and to do nothing completely is Samadhi—the final step of Raja Yoga and goal of all Yoga. 

Let’s look at each of the Paths of Yoga and see how we can incorporate them into our lives. 

1. Bhakti Yoga

Bhakti is the yoga of devotion, ultimately to the Divine, but it can initially be a guru, your family, a friend, or anything that creates strong emotional ties.

In today’s world with so much chaos and confusion, it is said that Bhakti is the easiest of the paths. It can be practiced by anyone—regardless of mental or physical abilities—and doesn't involve extensive yogic practices. 

Bhakti is the path of love which removes jealousy, hatred, lust, anger, egoism, pride, and arrogance. It replaces those feelings with feelings of joy, divine ecstasy, bliss, peace, and wisdom. The first line of a Fleetwood Mac song says, “Drowning in a sea of love, where everyone would love to drown.” This is Bhakti—drowning in love.  

Vedanta says there is a fine thread made of Pure Love (Prem), which connects your heart with the Divine. This thread is the essence of Bhakti. It’s been lying dormant in your heart since the beginning of creation, hidden by layers of ignorance and suffering. However, no matter what you do or where you go, this thread, our Divine connection, can never be broken. This is what creates the deep yearning of your Soul for joy and bliss.

To be in love with someone or something creates separation. Bhakti is to be love—to be intoxicated with Divine Love. It is the Unity of being in love with Love Itself. Vedanta says, put the emphasis where it belongs—on the Divine Self within each person we encounter. 

The Bhakti Yogi

  • Asks what is it that I long for at the deepest level of my Being?
  • Is pure in thoughts, words, and actions
  • Looks for the Divinity in the ordinary
  • Honors and respects all life
  • Purifies the heart through devotion
  • Sings, dances, chants, and listens to Divine verses
  • Surrenders by being open to everything
  • Acts as a servant, friend, or mother to the Divine in everyone

People often say they don’t have enough time for their spiritual practice because of family commitments. Bhakti is to make serving your family your practice.

With Bhakti, all attachments end except the all-absorbing love for God—this is the only attachment that frees rather than limits. Once the Divine is re-established in the temple of your heart, Its Love will serve you for eternity. Bhakti is the journey to finally “rest in God.”

2. Karma Yoga

Karma means “action,” and Karma Yoga is performing action without attachment to the outcome. It is the path of selfless service (Seva). You cease to identify with the ego and all action is seen as an offering to the Divine. 

The heart is purified so egoism, hatred, jealousy, selfishness, and similar negative qualities vanish, creating space for humility, pure love, sympathy, tolerance, and compassion.

Karma Yoga is “doing the right thing,”—the process of achieving perfection in action. It means following one’s dharma (true purpose) and acceptingwhatever comes, without expectation of payment, thanks, or recognition. 

The Karma Yogi

  • Lives life with passion but remains dispassionate about the outcome
  • Is effortless and graceful in all things
  • Has a loving, friendly nature
  • Is sympathetic, compassionate, and tolerant
  • Rejoices in the success and happiness of others
  • Feels neither above nor beneath anyone
  • Speaks and acts truthfully

Vedanta also says that Karma Yoga is the Warriors Path and the Yogi should:

  • Maintain a strong healthy body
  • Bear insults and compliments, comfort and pain, equally
  • Have faith in him/herself, knowing that the Divine will always love him/her
  • Be adaptable to any situation and able to mix with everyone
  • Have a calm mind
  • Be fearless

With Karma Yoga, all desires eventually merge into one, which is to serve and ultimately serve the Divine.

3. Gyana (Jnana) Yoga

Gyana Yoga is the path of knowledge or, more correctly, wisdom. It is the means to Enlightenment through the process of reason—particularly the process of discrimination between what is real and what is not real, what is true and untrue—through study and self-inquiry. 

It is said to be the most difficult path because it uses the mind and intellect to go beyond themselves to finally realize you are One with the Divine. The Upanishads call it the “razor’s edge,” where the ego is always trying to knock us off. It requires great strength of character, will power, and intellect.

When asked a question, Ramana Maharshi, a great Indian Saint and Gyana Yogi, would often reply, “First ask yourself who is asking the question.” Gyana Yoga is the study of the ancient texts and teachings of the Great Masters but, more importantly, it is the study of your own self.

The Gyana Yogi

  • Studies the spiritual texts of his/her traditions
  • Reads the words of the Great Masters
  • Asks the heart the following questions and listens to the answers without judgement or evaluation:
    • Who am I
    • What do I want?
    • What is my purpose?
    • What am I grateful for?
  • Is mindful of the surrounding world
  • Listens, reflects, contemplates
  • Practices discernment and detachment
  • Meditates and takes time each day to be silent

The Gyana Yogi stops worrying about what is being seen but asks, “Why am I seeing it?” Life begins to be seen as a dream.

4. Raja Yoga

Raja Yoga means the “Royal Path.” Just as a king maintains control over his kingdom, you must maintain control over your own “kingdom”—the vast territory of your mind.

It’s the path of meditation, mantras, and techniques. The basic theme of Raja Yoga is that your perception of the Divine Self is obscured by the disturbances of the mind. If the body and mind can be made still and pure, the Self will instantaneously shine forth.

Raja Yoga is the path most favored by Westerners because it can be practiced by almost everyone requiring no belief or particular faith. Raja Yoga says to believe only what you find out for yourself through direct experience. 

The Raja Yogi

  • Maintains balance in sleep, diet, lifestyle, and work
  • Is in harmony with nature’s rhythms
  • Is pure and nonjudgmental
  • Takes responsibility for his/her life
  • Has control over his/her emotions and remains free from worries
  • Avoids distractions
  • Trains the mind through techniques of meditation

Although he didn’t call it Raja Yoga, this path was best summarized by the Indian Sage Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras, under the title Astanga, or The Eight Limbs of Yoga.

The Eight Limbs

  • Yama: Abstaining from harming others through wrong doing, including non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, not wasting our energy, abstention from greed or hoarding
  • Niyamas: Principles for our own daily lives, including purity or cleanliness, contentment, discipline, study, devotion
  • Asanas: Seat or posture, yoga poses
  • Pranayama: Mastering and enlivening the life force
  • Pratyahara: Inner reflection
  • Dharana: Focused attention
  • Dhyana: Meditation, continuous flow
  • Samadhi: Freedom, liberation, enlightenment

In essence, Raja Yoga is a systematic process of molding our character and life to the experience of Enlightenment.

The Four Paths 

Even though these four paths appear different, there is really only one Yoga, one Union. We may be drawn to one Path more than the others but they complement each other. As the saying goes, “All roads lead to Rome,” so all Paths lead to Enlightenment. 

The Paths are like four different strands woven together to form the same rope, each one strengthened by the others. Choose whichever aspects of each path resonate with you and begin to incorporate them into your life. Look for joy in your daily practice and let it guide you.


Rediscover a new purpose through teaching the Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga practice. Chopra Center Certifications provides the opportunity to get certified as an instructor and deepen your understanding in the practices you love! Click here to learn more.

 

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About the Author

Roger Gabriel (Raghavanand)

Chopra Center Educator
Born in Liverpool, England, Roger Gabriel spent his formative years in the United Kingdom and first learned meditation there in the early 1970s. It instantly became his passion and he soon trained to be a meditation teacher under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. After moving to the U.S., Roger began studying Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of health care. In 1985, while helping to establish centers for Ayurveda and meditation, he met and became friends with Deepak Chopra. Since then, Roger has assisted Deepak with numerous training programs, seminars, and workshops; taught thousands of people on all continents to meditate; and assisted in training hundreds of people to become teachers of meditation,...Read more