Yoga now has as many branches as the banyan tree under which it has been practiced across the ages. From Ashtanga to Anusara, Bhakti to Bikram, it’s all too easy for modern yogis to find themselves getting tangled and tripped up by terms.
However, here we'll focus on just one major type of yoga: Jnana yoga. I'll explain its origins, philosophy and guidance on if it's the right path for you.
The Four Classical Schools of Yoga
From a classical perspective, yoga can be broken down into four main schools, from which all other forms stem: Jnana (knowledge), Karma (action), Bhakti (devotion) and Raja (meditation). Each of these groups offer unique approaches to the paths of yoga and self-realization, allowing you to practice whichever is best aligned to your own personal disposition. However, of the four, Jnana is considered not only to be the most direct route to self-realization, but also the most difficult.
The Path of Wisdom
Derived from the Sanskrit term for “knowledge,” Jnana yoga is regarded as the path of wisdom. Although studying scriptures and yogic texts is an important facet of Jnana yoga, the essence of the practice is only revealed when experiential understanding is reached. It is possible to read a lifetime of books and articles about the illusion of reality or ignorance of ego, but simply accepting these teachings is not enough. In Jnana yoga, wisdom arises only from seeking experience.
Through this practical kind of knowledge, Jnana is intended to guide its practitioners toward a deeper understanding of their own being, using the mind as a tool for self-realization rather than a sponge for information.
Jnana's Ancient Origins
Jnana yoga can be traced back to the Vedic period of ancient India. Along with Karma, Bhakti and Raja, it is one of the earliest systemized forms of yoga, outlined in the sacred Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita.
The teachings of Jnana yoga were first disseminated throughout India by Hindu priests and philosophers such as Adi Shankaracharya and Ramanuja, alongside teachings of non-dualistic Vedanta philosophy. The confluence point of these disciplines is that the soul and the highest metaphysical reality are one, universal Consciousness. Understanding this is the key to understanding Jnana yoga and, ultimately, experiencing the knowledge within.
The Four Pillars of Knowledge
Whilst the concept of Jnana yoga may be relatively quick and easy to get to grips with, practicing it requires time, patience and intellectual curiosity. The practice itself can be broken down into a sequence of steps known as Sadhana Chatushtaya, or the "Four Pillars of Knowledge":
Meaning discernment or discrimination, viveka is a continual effort to extricate what is real from what is not. In doing so, the difference between eternal and transient aspects of existence become clear.
Translated as "detachment" or "dispassion," vairagya is the step that involves cultivating a sense of indifference and non-attachment to material possessions. This is vital to becoming detached from the ego.
(More on The Wisdom of Non-Attachment.)
Shat-sampat is the six-fold set of virtues believed to help train the mind to see beyond the illusion of the physical world. The six virtues are shama (the ability to remain calm), dama (control over reactions to external stimuli), uparati (abandonment of anything not in line with your duty, or dharma), titiksha (perseverance through suffering), shraddha (faith and trust in your path) and samadhana (complete concentration and focus of the mind).
Mumukshutva is the sense of desire and intense longing for emancipation from suffering. This step is essentially complete commitment to the path of Jnana yoga.
(More on the Roots of Suffering.)
Although the most practical way to apply each of these concepts is through deep meditation, they must also be woven into everyday life. Only in this way is it possible to attain the experiential kind of knowledge intrinsic to Jnana yoga.
Curious Minds Welcome
Undoubtedly, the path of Jnana yoga requires an inquisitive, analytical mind. Practitioners are actively encouraged to explore doubts as a means of arriving at individual conclusions, using curiosity as a tool to explore both the mind and the universe. As such, those who often find themselves asking questions and seeking answers are perfectly suited to Jnana yoga.
Nonetheless, just as few things in life are black and white, the four classical schools of yoga are not entirely distinct; think of them as a yoga Venn diagram, each overlapping with the next. You needn’t restrict yourself to just one path, nor should you battle with a school of thought that doesn’t quite click with you. In the words of prominent spiritual teacher, Sri Swami Sivananda: “One-sided development is not commendable. Religion and yoga must educate and develop the whole man -- his heart, intellect and hand.”
Whether or not the Jnana approach of in-depth philosophical study is your thing, have faith that whichever path inspires you the most is the right one for you.