The Great Yoga

or Maya Yoga

Two Yoga’s

In the beginning, Yoga was given as a system consisting of two broad phases, Karma and Jnana.  Karma means action, and Jnana means knowledge.  In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna declares, “In this world a twofold path was taught by me at first, O sinless one: that of Sankhyas by devotion of knowledge, and that of Yogins by devotion to action” (3:3).  This could be interpreted as two separate paths, but it should be noted that in the previous verse Arjuna asked Krishna to, “Tell me with certainty that one (way) by which I may attain bliss.”  Here is it clear that Krishna was providing the one path Arjuna requested, which is a path of devotion to both Karma and Jnana.  Shankaracharya confirms this in his commentary on verse 3 when he says, “But the truth is this : Devotion to action is a means to the end, not directly, but only as leading to devotion to knowledge; whereas the latter, which is attained by means of devotion to action, leads to the goal directly, without extraneous help” (93).  Here further clarification is provided; karma leads to jnana, and jnana leads to the goal of Self-realization.  Even though both Karma and Jnana are presented as Yoga’s in the Gita, they are not separate from one another, and by themselves, they do not represent the complete path.  The Tri Sikhi Brahmanopanishad says that, “Should Yoga and Jnana (Concentration and Knowledge) be absent (in one), for him gnosis becomes impossible.  Hence should the Yogin restrain his mind and vital airs and cut off, with the sharp-edged knife of the practice of Yoga, (his ignorance, which obstructs the attainment of the Brahman)” (21-23).  If it is not clear by this verse that the author is referring to Yoga as Karma and Jnana, verse 24 explicitly states, “Yoga is understood to be of two kinds Jnana and Karma-yoga.”  In order to transform the entire being, a complete system for spiritual development must include the two cycles of Karma and Jnana, in that order.  These two aspects of Yoga are then further subdivided in the Yoga scriptures.

Three Yoga’s

           Some teachers say that there are three Yoga’s.  Instead of just having Karma and Jnana, it is not uncommon to see Bhakti, or devotion, added as the third Yoga.  This is not without some scriptural support.  Swami Tapasyananda, speaking about the Srimad Bhagavata, says, “it recognizes the distinctiveness of three Yogas – Jnana, Karma, and Bhakti” (72).  But the swami also says, “According to the Bhagavata all genuine spiritual disciplines are parts of Bhakti Yoga” (72).  According to the verses of the Bhagavad Gita quoted in the previous section, it should be clear that there are not three, but only two phases of a single Yoga.  Devotion is actually included in both phases of Karma and Jnana, so it is not necessary to try dividing Bhakti into its own category.

Karma Yoga is Ashtanga Yoga

Karma yoga is also referred to as Ashtanga Yoga, or the Yoga of eight steps, which is the process of stilling the mind.  The Dattatreya Yoga Shastram says to, “listen to the narration of Karmayoga.  Sages like Yajnavalkya have classified eight aspects of Yoga which, namely, are Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samdhi” (27-29).  This verse identifies Karma Yoga as Ashtanga Yoga.  These eight aspects are briefly defined in the Sandilyopanishad as, “Yama (self-control), Niyama (observance), Asana (posture), Pranayama (rarefaction of breath), Pratyahara (withdrawal of breath), Dharana (stabilizing the breath), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (absorption)” (1:1-2).  The final step and ultimate goal of Ashtanga Yoga is samadhi, which is the absorption of the mind.  The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are classically known as Ashtanga Yoga, and it defines Yoga as “the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff” (1:2).  It can be seen from these that Karma Yoga is Ashtanga Yoga, and Ashtanga Yoga leads to the stilling of the mind.  This is confirmed by the Tri-Sikhi-Brahmanopanishad when it states, “Now hear what Kriya-yoga, which is of a two-fold character, is.  The confinement of the tranquil mind (Citta) to a particular range, Obest of Dvijas, is Samyoga.  The confining of the mind at all times to observances alone enjoined (by the Scriptures), (with the resolve) that such observances alone ought to be followed, is what is said to be Karma-yoga.” (23-28).  Here it is overtly stated that Karma Yoga is the confining of the mind.  Again, Karma Yoga is Ashtanga Yoga, and Karma Yoga is the stilling of the mind; therefore, Karma Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga are one and the same.  Even though Karma Yoga has eight steps, there are also three varieties of the process, depending on the focal point of concentration. 

Three Types of Karma Yoga

Karma Yoga has three varieties, depending on the ability of the disciple, which determines the object used to concentrate the mind.  In the Shiva Samhita, it is said that the lowest students receive Mantra, the moderate students receive Laya, and the best students receive Mantra, Laya, and Hatha (5:10-14).  This could be interpreted as a progression from Mantra to Laya to Hatha.  The Varaha Upanishad bears this out when it says, “the kinds of yoga are threefold.  They are Laya, Mantra, and Hatha…  One should learn this in the order of Mantra, Laya, and Hatha.  Yoga has eight sub-divisions.  They are Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi” (10-12).  It can be determined that the author is referring to Karma Yoga here, since he is described Yoga as Ashtanga Yoga, which has already been established as Karma Yoga.  It can also be determined that Mantra, Laya, and Hatha are types of Karma Yoga by seeing they all serve the same purpose of Karma Yoga, which is stilling the mind.  Mantra Yoga is the practice of repeating sacred syllables in meditation.  Speaking of the ultimate purpose of Mantra Yoga, the Mantra Yoga Samhita says, “gradually there is absorption of the mind and the state of Samdhi arises.  Through the attainment of Samadhi a Sadhaka becomes fulfilled in his objectives.  This is the attainment of Mahabhava, the supreme objective of Mantra Yoga” (81).  Here it is clear that Mantra Yoga leads to the eighth limb of Karma Yoga, which is samadhi, or the complete cessation of the mind.  Laya Yoga is described as a method of concentration using Sanketa, or “certain techniques of relaxation and concentration” (Dattatreya Yoga Shastram 11).  The goal of Laya Yoga, like Mantra Yoga, is the absorption of the mind.  The Dattatreya Yoga Shastram states, “through the practice of Layayoga, Citta (mind) gets absorbed due to Sanketa” (16).  Hatha Yoga utilizes special bandhas (energy locks) and mudras (energy seals) in order to concentrate the prana, or life-energy.  Hatha Yoga is also described as a method of controlling the mind; specifically, it controls the mind by controlling the prana, which is closely associated with the mind.  The Hatha Yoga Pradipika states, “When prana moves, chitta (the mental force) moves. When prana is without movement, chitta is without movement. By this (steadiness of prana) the yogi attains steadiness and should thus restrain the vayu (air)” (2:2).  As seen above, the process of Hatha Yoga is the restraining of the mind via the restraint of the prana.  By demonstrating that Mantra, Laya, and Hatha are methods of concentrating the mind, they are seen as synonymous with Karma Yoga, which is also eight limbed Yoga.  This dissects the first of the original two-fold Yoga of Karma and Jnana.  Next, Jnana Yoga will be examined more closely.   

Jnana Yoga is Raja Yoga

Jnana Yoga is also known as Raja Yoga.  Raja Yoga literally means “royal union.”  This implies that Raja Yoga is the king of Yoga, or the greatest of among Yoga’s.  Some teachers have confused Raja Yoga with Ashtanga Yoga, or Karma Yoga.   Swami Vivekananda popularized the idea that Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras were teachings of Raja Yoga, even though the text makes no such claim.  As has already been shown, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras represent Karma Yoga.  Remember, Shankaracharya stated that Karma Yoga leads to Jnana Yoga.  Swami Svatmarama in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika said that, “knowledge of Hatha Yoga, which like a staircase leads the aspirant to the high pinnacled Raja Yoga” (1:1).  If Hatha Yoga is equal to Karma Yoga, this would suggest that Raja Yoga, which follows Hatha Yoga, is equal to Jnana Yoga.  In the Aparokshanubhuti, Shankaracharya says that true Jnana is the knowledge “I am Brahman” (24).  He later says in verse 143 that, “This knowledge…is Raja Yoga.”  He further adds that if the disciple has not attained maturity, they should continue with Hatha Yoga, once again illustrating that Hatha, or Karma Yoga, precedes Raja, or Jnana Yoga (143).  These two are interdependent and together form a complete system of Yoga.  Hatharatnavali states, “Without hatha, rajayoga cannot be accomplished; so also without rajayoga as an objective, hathayoga cannot be perfected.  Therefore, rajayoga and hathayoga are inter-dependent” (19).  So Mantra, Laya, and Hatha are the three Karma Yogas, and Raja is equal to Jnana.  Together, these bring into view the four Yoga’s, which are one unified system.

Four Yogas

           Yoga in the scriptures, while remaining only one, is divided into Mantra, Laya, Hatha, and Raja.  We find in the Yoga Tattva Upanishad that, “Yoga, although one, is according to practice and usage, O Brahman! Differentiated as of various kinds: …Mantra-yoga, Laya..Hatha and Raja-yoga” (19).   The Shiva Samhita says, “The Yoga is of four kinds: First mantrayoga, second hathayoga, third layayoga, fourth rajayoga, which discards duality” (5:9).  In the Yoga Shikhopanishad it reads, “Mantra, Laya, Hatha, and Raja-yoga at the end, are the steps in order.  This Maha-yoga is only one but is called by four different names” (129-130).   These examples make it clear that there is one Maha Yoga, and it consists of four parts.

Kundalini Yoga

           Kundalini Yoga, often believed to be its own style of Yoga, is not separate from the one Maha Yoga.  All methods of Karma Yoga are for the purpose of awakening the Kundalini, which then leads to Jnana Yoga.  The Yoga Shikhopanishad says that, “The mingling together of Prana and Apana should be known as (the common feature of) the four-fold Yoga” (138).  In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika it is said that “having kept both the hands together in the lap, performing the Padmasana firmly, keeping the chin fixed to the chest and contemplating on Him in the mind, by drawing the apana vayu up (performing mula bandha) and pushing down the air after inhaling it, joining the prana and apana in the navel, one gets the highest intelligence by awakening the sakti (kundalini) this” (1:48).  In the Yoga Kundalyupanishad it says:

When one makes the Apana with the downward course move upwards by force, by constriction (of the sphincter-muscle of the rectum) as they call it, this is known as Mula-bandha. When the Apana coursing upwards reaches the region of fire, then the flame of fire, caused by the vital air to move up, increases in its height. When the fire and the Apana reach the heated Prana (vital air), then by that (Prana) in an overheated condition is a flame generated in the body. By that flame the sleeping Kundalini, being very much heated, is roused and like a snake belabored with a stick” (42).

From these it is clear that the joining the prana and apana awakens Kundalini, and since the joining of prana and apana is common to all types of Yoga, all of Yoga is Kundalini Yoga.

Four Stages of Yoga

           The one Maha Yoga can also be divided into four stages.  The Dattatreya Yoga Shastra says, “The four stages of Yoga are Arambha, Ghata, Parichaya and Nispatti” (11).  The first three stages pertain to Karma Yoga, or eight stepped Yoga, and the final stage pertains to Jnana or Raja yoga.  The Arambha stage contains the beginning steps of Yoga, which are Yama, Niyama, Asana and Pranayama.  “Followed up by this (Arambha), a practitioner of Pranayama enters the stage of Ghata” (Dattatreya Yoga Shastra 87).  Here it is seen that the second stage only begins after Pranayama has been reached.  The text then goes on to discuss the practice of Pratyahara, the step following Pranayama, and its benefits, after which it says, “as the results of such practice, state of Paricaya supervenes.  Vayu (Prana), which is stirred, along with fire is carefully and smoothly moved into Kundali by awakening her (Kundali) up.  Thus Vayu (Prana) along with Citta (mind) easily enters the Susumna” (Dattatreya Yoga Shastra 104-106).  After a practitioner reaches the stage of Paricaya, the next steps of Yoga are followed.  These are Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi (Dattatreya Yoga Shastra 108-159).  Only after these final steps are complete is Karma Yoga finished and Raja Yoga begins.  “All these are to be practiced in an order over a period of time as suggested by all (Masters).  Then alone the state of Rajayoga supervenes, and not at all otherwise.” (Dattatreya Yoga Shastra 160).  The completion of Raja Yoga is the completion of the final stage, the stage of Nispatti.  “Just as a Yogi achieves perfection in his practice through Rajayoga, similarly, he attains success in the state of Nispatti as well which offers success in both material as well as spiritual achievements.” (Dattatreya Yoga Shastra 163). 

           In a world where Yoga has acquired many names, the ancient scriptures of Yoga declare there is only one Yoga, the Maha Yoga.  The original texts provide a detailed map that takes the disciple from the elementary stages all the way to Self-realization.  The story is consistent across the scriptures.  This Maha Yoga is only one, but it can be said to have four stages.  It is only one, but it can be seen as consisting of four kinds.  Although it is one, Krisnha states that is has two phases, the first phase containing eight steps.  Over and over again, the truth of Yoga is proclaimed.  There is only one Yoga, for Yoga means unity.


Work Cited

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Gharote, M. L., et al, translator. Hatharatnavali. Lonavali Yoga Institute, 2002.

Muktibodhananda, Swami, translator. Hatha Yoga Prakipika.  Mungar: Yoga Publication Trust, 1985.

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Satchidananda, Swami, translator. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Integral Yoga Publications, 2012.

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Vimuktananda, Swami, translator. Aparokshanubhuti. Advaita Ashram, 1938.