Did you know there’s more than one yoga path? So often when we think of yoga, we conjure images of yogis doing intricate poses. If we’re more familiar with yoga, we might also think of breath practices. Maybe even the 8-limbs of yoga, which also include meditation and a disciplined lifestyle. But these aspects of yoga pertain to only two yoga paths. There are other paths that don’t involve poses or breathing practices at all. Many people don’t know that!
There’s also one path that combines ALL the different paths of yoga into one system. It’s called Integral Yoga, and it’s the journey I’ve been on for some 25 years, without fully realizing it. (We’ll talk more about that in a bit.) Today, I’d like to share with you this integrated yoga approach – one that seeks full development of the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of our self. And one that encourages us to stay fully engaged in life, instead of retreating from it. So we may fulfill our potential and contribute our best self for the highest good of our world.
In this post, you’ll learn about the five different yoga paths Integral Yoga synthesizes to create one integrated yoga approach. And how taking the integral yoga route can enrich and expand your yoga journey. But first and foremost, let’s take a look at what yoga is. After all, if some yoga paths don’t include postures, it has to be more than just a physical practice that offers mind-spirit benefits, right? So what is yoga, exactly?
What is Yoga?
Before we can explore the different yoga paths, it’s important to understand what yoga is. What’s a yoga path? And where do these different paths lead to?
To start with, yoga means union. More specifically, it means to join or reunite with the Original Source, Universal Consciousness, the Timeless, the Infinite, God, Creator – however you may call it. This is the intention of yoga. To move beyond the limited perception of our ego-identity, so we may return to oneness with our Original Source.
Having said that, it’s important to note yoga is not a religion. It doesn’t define this source or make any absolute claim as to its nature – other than that it exists. That we emerge from it. And that we can connect to it more and more deeply and purely as we transcend the limitations of our ego-identity and body-mind experience. The practices the various yoga paths offer assist us in removing obstacles that keep us from feeling deeply connected to – and identified with – our Original Source.
As you’ll see in the next section, each yoga method utilizes and emphasizes a different aspect of our self to remove obstacles and bring us closer to this timeless, infinite source. But Integral Yoga incorporates all aspects of our self, resulting in a fully integrated yoga path and a whole-self approach to knowing this Source. In taking this more holistic route, Integral Yoga avoids some of the limitations and/or risks that can arise when one focuses on developing only one aspect of the self.
The Yoga Paths
The illustration below offers a brief introduction to each of the yoga paths. You can save it for quick and easy reference later.
Hatha Yoga Path
The Hatha Yoga path is what most people think of when they hear the word yoga. It involves dedicated practice of physical postures that increasingly purify, tone, and optimize the body. It also includes pranayama (breath control) techniques that serve the same physical goals, as well as facilitate calmness and steadiness of the mind. All of this prepares the body and mind for spiritual practices.
Hatha Yoga primarily focuses on the body. The yoga postures and breath practices steady and strengthen the nervous system, stimulate the glands, and energize the body in a balanced way. This optimized physical state creates a more stable, purified mental state. Life energy flows freely and harmoniously through the body-mind system, which means physical and mental obstacles to spiritual awakening are removed.
Limitation: Over-preoccupation with the body and physical postures can become an obstacle to yoga’s ultimate goal. Accomplishing extraordinary feats with one’s body can become the primary (or whole) focus. This can potentially produce vanity, or its opposite, insecurity. Additionally, as one increasingly focuses on the body, the value of intellectual and/or social development can be diminished.
Raja Yoga Path
This yoga path is also referred to as the Royal Path of Meditation or the 8-Limbed Path. It focuses mainly on mastering the mind. While it includes physical postures and pranayama techniques, they’re practiced with the sole intention of preparing the body-mind system for deep concentration and meditation. The ultimate goal is to bring the mind to total stillness, at which point one’s spirit may shine through with no interference from the body or mind.
In addition to these Hatha elements, Raja yoga calls for spiritually disciplined living, as prescribed by the yamas and niyamas. And gradually increasing stages of concentration, from pratyahara (sensory withdrawal) to the final stage of meditation, samadhi (reunion with Original Source). This path continually refines the mind, bringing it more and more under one’s control, until the mind is silenced. Ego-identity disappears completely as one merges with universal consciousness.
Limitations: The Raja yoga path can lead to life-negation. Meaning, one can become so focused on bringing the mind to stillness that one increasingly disengages from the activity of life. Feelings of social responsibility and connection can get lost in the process. The value of participating in the creative unfolding of life, and contributing one’s gifts and talents to the world, may be overlooked.
Bhakti Yoga Path
The Bhakti yoga path opens the heart and cultivates love of God. Bhakti is a devotional practice that focuses on developing a loving relationship with a personal God. By personal, I mean God is experienced as a father, mother, a teacher, etc. The normal human emotions we have for our most important relationships are uplifted and transmuted into pure, unconditional love of God. Bahkti yogis develop a deeply personal relationship with God – not as an abstract force, but as a Divine Being who’s capable of having a personal relationship with us.
Key to this love and devotion for God is a growing, natural desire to surrender one’s own will in service of God’s divine will. And a trust in God’s benevolence as our protector and provider. The practice of Bhakti entails expressing love in all interactions, as an offering of love to God. It can also include devotional mantras, prayers, and songs, as well as deep contemplation and reading of scriptures. The ultimate goal is to live in complete, blissful harmony with the Divine.
Limitations: There’s a risk one’s relationship with a personal God might lead to discrediting someone else’s relationship to God, especially if their experience arises from a different religious path or somehow looks different from our own. This can interfere with true expression of love and compassion. Additionally, as a desire to surrender any sense of self in devotion grows, one’s purpose and personality – the uniquely beautiful reason we were created to embody – might never be fully developed or expressed.
Jnana Yoga Path
This path is the way of wisdom and knowledge. It seeks to find the ultimate truth – about one’s self and about the nature of reality – using one’s intellectual capacities. It’s an arduous journey that requires self-discipline, a steadying of the mind, and detachment from sensory enjoyments in the relentless pursuit of enlightenment. It requires deep reflection and contemplation. Through long meditation, knowledge turns into wisdom. A profound knowing that defies words sets in. This spiritual insight frees one from fear, anxiety, doubt and despair.
Jnana yoga removes the veil of the ego-identity, as one seeks more and more to answer the existential questions:
- Who am I?
- What am I?
- How do I relate to the Original Source?
Ultimately, the mind is used to transcend its own limitations and merge with Universal Consciousness.
Limitations: With this yoga path, one can tend toward life negation and an increasing retreat from life and relationships. Its emphasis on the intellectual aspect of life can lead to a devaluing of emotions. An aloofness toward world affairs (including real world suffering) and interpersonal relations can emerge. And the desire to eradicate ego-identity can lead one to disengage from life, preventing participation in the creative, dynamic expression of life.
Karma Yoga Path
The Karma yoga path is the way of action. Specifically, spiritual action that’s selfless in nature and serves the greater good. Contrary to Jnana yoga’s more ascetic leaning, this approach encourages engagement in the business of life. It seeks to direct one’s natural inclination to participate in life away from self-serving goals and toward the higher calling of working to better the lives of others. Unlike Bhakti yoga, which encourages service as an act of devotion to God, Karma yogis perform humanitarian and charitable acts in an effort to liberate themselves from attachment and the suffering it brings.
Personal attachment to the results of one’s action and work is released. Instead, one completes all action and work as an offering to others, for the benefit of the highest good. In this way, one doesn’t cling to expectations of reward or merit. And this means, one doesn’t have to be upset with whatever outcome occurs. Selfless social activity purifies our motives and liberates us from the chain reactions of cause and effect that selfish motives create. As more and more of our daily activity is offered up in service of the greater good, our ego-identity naturally becomes less pronounced. We discover a growing sense of oneness with the Original Source, as it expresses itself through all beings.
Limitations: One may increasingly reject the natural enjoyment of life, which we were created with the capacity to experience. And an overemphasis on service to others may lead to self-negation, in such a way that natural desires are unhealthily (and unnecessarily) suppressed.
The Integral Yoga Path
All of the yoga paths detailed above are beautiful in their own right. And each can be taken to attain the ultimate goal of yoga. Oftentimes, people are drawn to the particular path that most appeals to their natural tendencies. This is why the different routes to union were discovered in the first place. And, it’s why they’ve each been trod by countless travelers over many years. But the Integral Yoga path synthesizes all of them into one system, so that all aspects of the individual self may be utilized, honored, and developed. As we bring our whole self to the yoga process, our body-heart-mind-spirit system integrates and comes into alignment with our intention.
Additionally – and importantly – integral yoga acknowledges the significance of our life experience for its own sake. Rather than seeing our time and natural experience here on this planet as a bondage we need to break free from, it views life affirmatively. Life is perceived as an expression of the creative energy Universal Consciousness emits.
In other words, our life has value and meaning in its own right. If we only retreat from it (or reject it) in an effort to transcend it, we’re not embodying our true potential or purpose. (Or, at least not all of it.) If we only seek to annihilate our ego-identity, we’re missing out on the full blossoming of the self we were created to express in the first place. Which means, the unique chrysalis of Divine Imagination within us never finds its full expression.
Incorporating All Paths
Integral yoga encourages us to incorporate practices from all the yoga paths on our journey. And also to avoid the limitations each path can give rise to. We can use Hatha to keep our body and mind healthy and fit for spiritual practice. With Raja yoga, we can align our lifestyle for whole-self wellness and vitality. And importantly, we can learn to master the obstacle of our mind, which can create much suffering and confusion. We quiet it down, so its noise doesn’t drown out our spirit.
Bhakti yoga opens our hearts, so we can embrace true unconditional love and compassion. And so we can come to trust God’s divine will, creativity, and intelligence at work in our lives. Through Jnana yoga, we develop discernment between what’s real and true and what isn’t. We access profound insight and make direct contact with timeless wisdom. With Karma yoga, we transmute all these gifts into actions that serve the collective good. And that ease the suffering for all whom we can reach through our work.
And because the Integral Yoga path recognizes the value of our time and experience here on this planet, we bring our fully developed self to the world. While we may retreat inward for a time of intense self-realization, we emerge from this cocoon free to embrace the joys and wonders of life.
A Fully Integrated Yoga Path
Working with all these paths, we naturally develop the different parts of our self each approach focuses on. And, we do this in a balanced way. This means, not only do we experience union with our Creator on every level of our being, but our spiritual practice touches every aspect of our life. This is fully integrated yoga. It’s a this/and perspective rather than a this/or view. I think this is why I was instinctively drawn to it.
I first encountered Integral Yoga when I was in college. At the time, I knew nothing at all about yoga. But I was on a quest to find answers to the big life questions, as well as to find myself. I guess you could say I was a Jnana yogi. I was reading a LOT – poetry, literature, and spiritual & philosophical books. And I reflected deeply on everything I encountered, testing it to see if it rang true for me. I went into the process with few assumptions. However, I held onto one key premise. No book, theory, or field of inquiry would likely hold all the answers. So I took from each what resonated with my inner being as truth, and what did not, I simply set aside.
One day, I came across a book on Integral Yoga at a friend’s house. It intrigued me, so I asked to borrow it. When I read it, I was surprised to find it brought together many of the pieces of wisdom I’d already gathered, and formed them into one holistic picture. The book – Integral Yoga: The Concept of Harmonious and Creative Living – was all philosophy. And I didn’t fully grasp everything it referred to, because yoga was foreign to me. But regardless, it stuck with me.
A Full Circle Path
Eventually, I did start yoga. Not surprisingly, I chose the 8-limbed path, another mind-focused method. It led me through a period of disciplined practice and deep meditation, during which I still read and contemplated deeply. In time, the love for God my Christian upbringing had rooted in my heart flourished into a form of Bhakti yoga. I continued to pray, enjoyed kirtan music, and increasingly recognized the need to stop resisting life and surrender to perfect Divine Will.
Though my meditation practice pulled me toward less engagement in world affairs, I was also practicing compassion. I couldn’t ignore the suffering of the world. So I also felt the call of karmic yoga asking me to shift the focus of my efforts outward, in gradually increasing spheres. I began to look at my work and social relations through the lens of service – the desire to ease suffering and to somehow contribute to the highest good.
All of this felt natural. It was internally driven, as the years went by and the efforts of my yoga practice bore fruit. And also divinely inspired, as life events and intuitions presented fresh aha moments. Then, just a few weeks ago, I recalled that book I’d read some 25 years ago. I felt drawn to revisit it. When I searched for it on the Internet, I realized it’s out of print now. (And given the price for a physical copy, it must be rather rare.) But thankfully, I was able to download it in electronic format.
A Beautiful Path
Coming back to it after all this time – and reading it with the perspective of my many years of yoga experience – I realized it had set the course for my yoga journey. I’d indeed taken the Integral Yoga path detailed in the book, without fully realizing it!
It’s a beautiful path. Spiritually rich in every way. Balanced and attentive to every aspect of my being. Which means my body, mind, heart, and spirit are more and more healthy and freely expressed as the years go by. And this is why I wanted to share Integral Yoga with you today.
Whether you’re new to yoga, or you’ve been on your own journey for some time now, exploring the different yoga paths can open up new frontiers for your practice. Is there any part of yourself – body, mind, heart, or spirit – that might benefit from more development? Could the unique focus of one (or more) of these paths support you in your spiritual growth?
As you explore the different approaches, you can incorporate what feels right for you, and discard the rest. In the end, only you know what’s best for you. But if you’ve been emphasizing one aspect of yourself while neglecting others, exploring a path that engages those other parts of you can catalyze new insights and levels of transformation.
I hope this article serves your growth in some way. May you be abundantly blessed and divinely guided on your yoga journey. Namaste.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below. And if you’d like to develop greater awareness of each part of yourself (body, heart, mind & spirit), download my free guided meditation.