Imagine if you decided to serve yourself a slice of toast with jelly slathered all over it. When you open the drawer, you realize you have three tools to choose from: a table knife, a butter spreader and a sandwich spreader. The table knife is the longest, and it can reach the bottom of the jar -- something that may be necessary because the jar is almost empty. The butter spreader wouldn't reach as far down but its thin design paired with its rounded blade would allow you to scrape the lingering jelly off the side of the jar. The sandwich spreader would allow you to scoop the most jelly at a time but as a wider tool you couldn't navigate the narrow nature of the jar quite as well. Each tool has its own distinct qualities and advantages, but ultimately, they all lead you to the same basic purpose of transferring the jelly from the jar to your toast.
In my previous blog, I wrote about how the ultimate purpose of pursuing the path of yoga is to end our personal suffering and liberate the spirit from this material existence. But just as we can choose different tools to spread a condiment on a piece of bread, we can also choose one of several paths in our yogic pursuit. On some paths, we may want to focus on getting to the bottom of the jar, but on others we may focus more on scraping the sides. But regardless of our approach, the true value of this pursuit is the state of peace we attain as we work to find our purpose.
One interpretation of yogic teachings teaches us that there are six basic approaches that will ultimately help us on our quest for liberation. Each one has a basis in Indian tradition and much like the various choices of knives have different benefits for different people.
When most of us think of yoga, we think of the physical discipline associated with postures. This makes hatha yoga, the path of purifying the body, the most recognizable path in the West. First formalized as a system in the 15th century, people who practice hatha yoga pursue postures, breathing exercises, manipulation of the body's various channels, and other practices that help to prepare the body for meditation. Those who struggle with a particularly dense attachment to the material world in the form of excessive behaviors may have an affinity for approaching the yogic path through a comparably physical process.
We understand the yogic path as we do today primarily because of how the sage Patanjali systematized it through the yoga sutras more than 2,000 years ago. In this concise text he outlined raja yoga, which ultimately helps the practitioner to resolve the fluctuations or sufferings of the mind. Raja yoga is known as the royal path and within it contains every aspect of all other paths and teachings of the yogic system. Patanjali outlined eight basic steps through which to explore raja yoga in its entirety, thus forming the basis of the Eightfold Path.
In the 20th century, a woman named Ananda Mayi Ma lived as a famous Indian saint. Her life was marked by a series of ecstatic states and she expressed a continual feeling of love. Ma was one of the more famous followers of bhakti yoga, a path that teaches the practitioner to devote themselves wholly and entirely to the divine. This state is fostered from an act of surrender and, upon devoting oneself to the divine, manifests as an awareness of this divinity in all living things. Given its lack of emphasis on specific practices, bhakti yoga is often embraced by those with less access to education.
In devoting her life to serving others, Mother Teresa stands as one of the more famous examples of those who practice karma yoga. Karma yoga teaches the practitioner to give their time and life over to selfless service for others. This service is done with total surrender to the divine without any attachment to results and is likely to be compatible with those who seek a connection to others.
While bhakti yoga may be sought by those without knowledge of esoteric practices, the path of jnana yoga offers a practitioner an opportunity to seek wisdom and inner truth through the pursuit of self-study and the study of sacred texts. Those on this path seek intelligence without an ego-based attachment to intellect. Those with an affinity for knowledge may stand to benefit from this path as a means of achieving spiritual liberation.
And perhaps one of the simpler paths is that of japa yoga, which centers on the recitation of mantra. japa yoga teaches the practitioner to seek the divine through consistent repetition of sacred words that have often been given to them by their guru as part of a formal initiation. But just because japa yoga is simpler it by no means is less powerful -- nor less difficult to master. Those with an inclination to craft a lifelong pursuit of the yogic path may benefit from being formally initiated into japa yoga.
Many people with an affinity for a particular path may become attached to their pursuits and even defend it as more viable than the others. When we allow for such attachments to define our perception of the teachings themselves, it can seem difficult to perceive how they each present the same opportunity for liberation. Choosing one may seem as arbitrary as the distinction between a table knife and a butter spreader, but it is in seeing their distinct qualities that we don't discount one or the other but rather allow our nature to dictate the path we are best suited to pursue.
For it is only when we choose to follow the yogic path that we may enjoy its bounty, just as we must choose to spread the jelly to enjoy its sweetness.
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