Branches and Brands of Yoga

By Sudhanva V. Char


  The Sankya philosophy of Kapila Maharishi visualizes the human body as a hologram of the universe. All the elements listed in the Chemical Periodic Table are found in the human body. Water (H
2O), iron, copper, carbon, magnesium, sulphur, lead, phosphorous, lime and others are present in large or small quantities. The human body is itself a marvel of intelligent design. It is thus capable of pulling off whatever the universe is proficient to do. Yoga helps us connect ourselves with the realm of potentialities. However, there are different branches of yoga and one needs to be unambiguous about what one desires from Yoga to be able to realize the potentials.

   Most persons new to Yoga get carried away by the numerous kinds of Yoga that are mentioned of late. In order to steer clear of this confusing number of adjectives before the generic word Yoga, let us first bring up the four prominent branches or paths we learn about in the Bhagavad-Gita (BG hereafter). These are distinct from various brand names. Lucidity is essential in thinking about the kind of yoga one needs learn or that which is appropriate to a person in order to avoid muddles. You don’t want to catching a flight to Chicago when you actually want to go to New York, do you? Also, keep in mind that a person may be a yogi without doing any asana or pranayama if such a person has already passed through these initial qualifying prerequisites and has piloted a course beyond them. In the BG, the word Yoga is used in an omnibus sense. And yet, the branches described therein, stand out, marked by their own individuality.

   Yoga in BG:

   Let us begin at the beginning, the BG. The word Yoga is attached to almost all chapter (adhyaya) headings in the BG, such as starting with Arjuna Vishada Yoga, and going on to Samkhya Yoga, Jnana Vigjnana Yoga, Viswarupa Sudarshana Yoga and so forth. Under the broad umbrella of the word “Yoga,” there is also Mantra Yoga or the effect of the ambiance or sensation developed by mantras, Tantra Yoga or the philosophical question (agama) and answer (nigama) session between Shiva and Parvati on shristi, pralaya, devtarchanam, satkarma and so forth, Yantra Yoga, or the effect of geometric shapes and structures, Kundalini Yoga or the Yoga of the power of nerves (Ida, Pingala and Sushumna) and of the psyche and others and definitely several others, including Laya Yoga (Yoga of Will Power) and Dhyana Yoga (Yoga of meditation or thought). A caveat is in order at this point! Please stay cool even if there are overlaps all over, because not infrequently different words are used for the same thing and there is no standard set of terms with unequivocal meaning attached to them.

   However, the earnest Yoga student should keep in mind that BG is the source for four distinct paths:

A. Bhakti Yoga that helps the aspirant to learn to love God as our earliest parent because He always loves us more than we, as His children, can ever love Him, thanks to His nirhetuka kripa (absolute love) that can liberate us from even the law of karma if only we surrender to Him. Love of God and emotional warmth towards Him establishes divinity. Prapatti (absolute surrender) is considered an extraordinary form of Bhakti and is highlighted mainly in the 18th adhyaya, verses 65 to 71. Bhakti Yoga is the choice of most unpretentious persons like twelve Aalwars, most of whom were not Brahmins, some were even outcastes, and yet fascinated the Brahmins by pouring out their heart into their lyrical works (Nalayira Divyaprabandham) that embodied their irresistible love for Krishna, Ranganatha or just their guru. Bhakti was promoted by the Nayamars too. Love of God was further endorsed and elevated by Namdeo, Meera, Surdas, Nanak, Kabir and others in the North. Ramakrishna Paramahansa spoke of three kinds of love: Samartha or unselfish, Samanjasa or mutual and Sadharana or selfish. And we should all go for the Samartha type because that is what ennobles us and that is what we collect from Him.

B. Karma Yoga or the Yoga of Cause and Effect, enables us to carry on our obligatory loukika efforts without being attached in a selfish way to the outcomes of such effort, thereby liberating ourselves from the action-reaction syndrome. The stress is on correct action and the avoidance of improper action. Karma Yoga could guide an aspirant towards Bhakti Yoga.

C.Jnana Yoga imparts knowledge and wisdom of the significance of the relation between God and us (the amsha-amshi arrangement) and in that perspective reinforces the lesson of karma yoga. This insight helps us undertake all activities without ahankara the I or mamakara or mine, in a spirit of Sarvam Sri Krishnarpana mastu or total selfless detachment with regards to the outcomes of such effort. Any person who uses his mind even in loukika affairs, as distinct from a manual labor, could be considered to be in quest of Jnana of God.

D.Raja Yoga begins where HathaYoga comes to an end. Raja Yoga’s emphasis is on the mind and its cultivation. It focuses on single-mindedness, meditation and reflection. It combines certain aspects of A, B and C above and emerges as the Raja (King) of Yoga Paths and incorporates the eight-fold path of Ashtanga Yoga:

   Yama (five don’ts), Niyama (five dos), Asana, Pranayaama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi.

   Patanjali, (circa 900 BC) is the bio-mechanical designer-engineer, although not the creator, of this system aimed at reining in and taming the wild horse that the mind is. Raja Yoga guides the aspirant to turn the light inwards, calm the passions, become clean and become Brahman-like (BG 6.27), the very ultimate goal of all. Raja Yoga demands that we get to be the CEO (chief executive officer) of our body and mind.

   Brands of Hatha Yoga :

   The salient features of Bhakti Yoga are put forward in Chapter (Ch.) 12 of BG, of Jnana Yoga in Ch. 4, of Karma Yoga in Ch.2, and the characteristics of Raja Yoga in Ch. 9. It is however necessary to keep in mind the caveat mentioned above: references to each of these four types are spread out over the entire scripture (BG) and not confined to just the adhyayas above. Different thinkers pick diverse adhyayas as the wellspring of the four main Yogas. Chapter 12 is regarded by many as the focal point of Bhakti Yoga. However, slokas relevant to Bhakti Yoga can be found in not just Chapter 12, but also in 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, and 16. Likewise, besides Ch. 2, verses appropriate to Karma Yoga are found in adhyayas 3, 4, and 18. The same is true for the other two kinds of Yoga.

   The Yoga that most persons are familiar with – Hatha Yoga per se – is not even mentioned in this prime scripture. The first syllable ‘Ha’ in hatha refers to the Sun and tha stands for the moon. Pranayama through the right nostril is linked to Pingala Nadi, the conduit for solar energy. Pranayama done through the left nostril is connected to the Ida nerve, the medium for lunar energy. The two nerves merge in the Ajna area located between the two eyebrows. This is the symbolic bringing together of forces of Nature, or in the case of yoga, the seamless integration of the body (including the mind) and the soul. Hatha also means resolute or unwavering. The mind of the practitioner of Yoga becomes indomitable in the pursuit of God. The best example is that of Prahlada as he persists in his faith in Sri Vishnu despite all the agony he suffers from Hiranyakashipu for not swearing off Sri Vishnu.

   In a majority of yoga classes, the physical aspect of Hatha Yoga is what is being taught almost everywhere. This contrasts sharply with the foremost goal of any branch: achieving inner harmony with oneself and external peace with the world. Thanks to the emergence of different schools of yoga as well as due to commercialization, new brand names have materialized such as Kriya Yoga, Kripalu Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Integral Yoga, Vikram Yoga and others besides the more distinguished brands or styles, such as Iyengar, Ashtanga, Bihar School, Sivananda, Viniyoga, Viswayathan and several others. At times it is amusing to see a couple of them claiming that their brand is so unique that they would take a person to court if such a person undertakes to teach Yoga in a way that even remotely resembles their instruction scheme. This is the height of trade-marking in Yoga, almost like threatening to bring a claim against someone who does worship in a recognized way. It also suggests deceptively that the trademark owners had a hand in the advancement of yoga from where Patanjali or Swatmarama left off! Don’t be surprised if someone tries to take out a patent on “Yoga Nidra” by means of which we invite God to relax after offering “paryankasan” everyday! This is the inevitable price we pay for not following persistently our folkways and mores in Yoga. It also points to the need to undertake research and to bring up unpublished palm-leaf or any other text that would showcase best practices in Yoga in a public domain.

   It is crucial that the Yoga student knows what he/she wants or expects from Yoga. That would decisively help in picking the right paths, programs and physical, mental or spiritual exercises. Suppose the need is just one of physical fitness, assuming that the person has covered all other needs. We would then suggest that the person undertakes to practice the asanas (item 3 of Ashtanga as stated above.) For instance, if a person has digestive health problems or has diabetes, we would recommend exercises such as uttansana or the forward bend, bhardwajasana or the trunk or abdominal twist, sarvangasana (all-body-parts) shoulder stand, halasana, (the plough exercise) and so forth. Such exercises would stimulate the dormant pancreas, make them operational again and reduce if not eliminate, the need for insulin injections. Such asanas come under the category of yoga sthoola vyayama.

   If, on the other hand, someone is unable to focus the mind on God or a financial, mathematical, or a software problem, or any one item, we would recommend certain breathing exercises together with asanas. Such breathing exercises to develop will power, mind, intellect, eye-sight, hearing, strengthening wrist, hand, upper arms etc., come under the category of Suksma Vyayama. For example, the yoga exercises aimed at bolstering will power do help rein in the wild horses of thought, make it more disciplined and structured, and achieve single-mindedness. These endeavors would come under prnayama and pratyhra, items four and five of Asthanga Yoga. Both the physical and breathing exercises mentioned above have to be preceded by Yama or how we should conduct ourselves with the outside world, and Niyama or how we need to discipline ourselves. They have been explained here earlier.

   Yama and Niyama are the prerequisites for the yoga student. Any school would ask you to complete the prerequisite courses first before attempting higher level courses. The logic is if someone cannot hop over a foot-long moat, how can such a person jump over a 3-foot long moat? How can one muster the mental and physical discipline that Yoga would demand, if in the first place we cannot give up excess or junk food, excess sleep, and other pointless pleasures?

   In this situation the judicious thing to do is to go to a teacher without pretensions and who follows a generic path of Yoga as has come down to us over the millennia. It is true that there is no systematic course or sequenced learning in Hatha Yoga. But not knowing what exactly one wants from Yoga would confound the situation further.

Dr. S. V. Char is a Professor, with a PhD in Economics. He is also a certified yoga instructor from the K.D. Yoga Institute, Bombay which is renowned for Yoga Intensives and therapeutics for over 100 years. Dr Char has learn meditation techniques from his father Prof. G. Veeraraghava Char. He has practiced yoga for several decades and taught at several institutions including Emory and Stanford, Spellman College and Clark University, several High Schools and Hindu Temples, and medical institutions. Hundreds of students have learnt to prevent/cure serious illnesses such as Cardiac, Diabetic, and libido-related problems through Yogic methods taught by Dr Char. Amongst his students, about ten percent are physicians, surgeons, chiropractors, nurses and health-care professionals.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these columns are solely those of the writers and do not necessarily represent those of the editor/publisher.


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