Yoga, types of


Yoga literally means to link with the Supreme. Yoga is often thought of as a form of physical exercise, but its bodily sitting postures, asanas, are just the first part of an ancient system of meditation.

The yoga system was originally meant for realizing God, and all varieties of yoga practice are supposed to bring one to that point. Success in yoga ultimately depends on quality of consciousness and the good wishes of the Supreme Person, rather than on our own gymnastic endeavors. The yogic asanas, breath control, and withdrawal of the senses are meant to help pacify the mind so that one can focus all attention on the Supreme within.

Krishna gives His view of yoga practice in the Bhagavad-gita. Since the ultimate goal of yoga is to revive our relationship with the Supreme, anyone in constant contact with God in a mood of loving service (bhakti) is the perfect yogi.

On Thoreau and Vedic Thought

From leads obtained during my visit to the Thoreau Lyceum in Concord, Massachusetts, I have now gathered a few more articles and books that link Thoreau’s life and philosophy with the Vedic tradition. My readings have confirmed the feelings I had while at Walden Pond that Thoreau was striving in his own way to practice yoga. Without a bona fide spiritual master, however, he was unable to understand the real goal of yoga.

In an article published in the New England Quarterly (Sept. 1964), Frank Macshane puts together convincing evidence from Thoreau’s writings that Thoreau was heavily influenced by Indian spiritual thought. Macshane claims that most readers think of Thoreau’s Oriental themes as incidental, whereas actually they are at the heart of his life and writings:

[In Walden] there are many overt references to the sacred texts of India, as in, “how much more admirable the Bhagavad-gita than all the ruins of the East!” And Thoreau himself followed certain Hindu customs: “It was fit that I should live on rice, mainly, who loved so well the philosophy of India.” … Flute playing, his own and that of John Farmer, is also reminiscent of the God Krishna’s favorite musical pastime. Most significant of all are the many references to the river and the definite equation of Walden Pond with the sacred Ganges.

Macshane argues that Thoreau went into seclusion not with the usual Christian idea of repentance and resignation from life, but with the aim of releasing himself from petty daily affairs to contemplate his personal nature. “What he did,” writes Macshane, “is precisely described in the sixth book of Bhagavad-gita: ‘The yogi should retire into a solitary place and live alone. He must exercise control over his body and mind….’”

“Rude and careless as I am,” Thoreau wrote in his journal, “I would fain practice yoga faithfully.”

Macshane describes the goal of yoga as union with Brahman, or God. He also thinks the Vedic literature teaches one to follow the yoga most fit for one’s nature. He concludes that Thoreau’s interest in Hindu philosophy was monistic and that Thoreau valued the freedom of “following his own inclinations with dignity.”

According to Macshane, Thoreau’s experiment of living by Walden Pond has a sacramental feature, which Thoreau followed in the mood of a yogi:

Every morning he would go down to the pond, for all the world like a Hindu in Benares, for his morning ablutions. This bathing in the lake he characterized as “a religious exercise and one of the best things which I did.”

Macshane depicts Thoreau as a jnana-yogi, due to his intellectual inclinations. He also describes him as a karma-yogi, owing to his renunciation of worldly acts in favor of loftier pursuits. Macshane equates Thoreau’s strict dietary control, solitude, and chastity with the practices of ashtanga-yoga.

Although Macshane has only a vague understanding of bhakti-yoga, he makes an interesting presentation of Thoreau, who was so devoted to nature, as a bhakti- yogi: “Throughout those sections devoted to the pond itself, the animals, the fish, and even the earth, there is a constant note of praise and indeed of worship.”

Thoreau’s nature worship was not a simple pantheism. He did not see God as identical with nature or with the self, but as the transcendent creator. As Thoreau wrote in his journal: “The red-bird which is the last of Nature is but the first of God,” and, “If Nature is our Mother, is not God much more?”

In a 1967 Back to Godhead article, Hayagriva dasa described both Emerson and Thoreau as striving toward Krishna consciousness.

In Walden Thoreau wrote in even greater length about the Gita, and it is clear that the words of Krishna figured prominently in the transcendentalist movement. The transcendental ideal was to obtain union with God through “plain healthy living,” avoidance of the frills of society and all forms of artificial intoxication, avoidance of dogmatic “church religion,” and abandonment to the direct revelation of the Supreme, who usually spoke through His nature, or prakriti, revealing His supreme purusha, or what Emerson called the “over-soul.” For the transcendentalist, direct contact with nature was as good as direct contact with the divine, for it served as a springboard to direct realization of Him. Nature was a wise, familiar, and loving guru.

Even if we consider Thoreau a yogi, we should be aware that he was grasping only the lower rungs of the ladder of yoga and therefore failed to realize the personal nature of the Supersoul, the original form of the Personality of Godhead, Sri Krishna. In one sense we cannot blame him for this. After all, the Vedic texts available to him did not give Vaishnava commentaries. Perhaps if he had met a pure devotee, he would have surrendered. In any case, he never gained such an opportunity.

My study of Thoreau’s Vedic leanings brings to mind two conclusions. First, no matter how great a thinker or individualist one may be, no one can rise above material desire and reach to the ultimate truth without a Vaishnava guide. Even after a life of renunciation and philosophical speculation, one can only approach an inkling of God realization: “If Nature is our Mother, is not God much more?”

Seeing Thoreau stranded in his own thought makes me appreciate more the transcendental welfare work begun by His Divine Grace A C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and continued by his followers in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. There are always persons, like Thoreau, with strong leanings toward spirituality, and specifically toward Vedic knowledge. These persons may have inherited this inclination from past lives. In any case, at least in this life they are attracted. To bring such sincere souls to the realization of their heart’s desire and to connect them in loving service to Krishna, devotees of the Lord must vigorously preach, reaching out to budding transcendentalists, whether they be living in forest retreats or in cities.

In this way we can make useful the emotions and associations that come to mind when we think of the almost Krishna consciousness of Henry David Thoreau, who loved the Bhagavad-gita:

The sweltering inhabitants of Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta drink at my well. In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water and lo! there I meet the servant of the brahmana, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas or dwells at the foot of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant, our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water mixes with the sacred water of the Ganges.

The Yoga of Love

One wet evening in 1972, when I was first learning about Krisna consciousness, I sat in a tent leafing through Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is. Occasionally I looked out gloomily through the rain to see the dim outline of the Pyrenees Mountains surrounding the little green valley in which I was marooned. The rain had fallen steadily for two days without sign of letting up. Even my sleeping bag was wet.

My romantic idea of practicing yoga in the mountains was fast proving to be a dream only. All I could think of was dry clothes and a hot meal. Still, I had my Bhagavad- gita, and I continued turning the pages.

Something caught my attention: “The culmination of all kinds of yoga practices lies in bhakti-yoga. All other yogas are but means to come to the point of bhakti-yoga. Yoga actually means bhakti-yoga, and all other yogas are progressions toward the destination of bhakti-yoga.” (Bg. 6.47, purport).

“Of course,” I thought. “Since the word yoga means to connect with the Supreme, the binding link of that connection must be bhakti.”

Following Srila Prabhupada’s line of thought, I understood that when a jnani absorbed in empirically contemplating the distinction between truth and illusion comes to the point of understanding and accepting that the Supreme Truth is Krishna, he then becomes a yogi. Similarly, when a karmi busy working for material rewards comes to the point of feelingly offering the results of his work to Krishna, he also becomes a yogi.

Prabhupada made it all so simple: karma + bhakti = karma- yoga; jnana + bhakti = jnana-yoga.

I finally understood that yoga simply means to act for Krishna’s pleasure. Either I could sit in my cold tent thinking, “I have no desires, I own nothing, I am nothing,” while secretly clinging to my world, in which I was the central character, or else I could agree, “Yes, Krishna is the enjoyer, the Lord, and my dear friend.” I felt a surge of happiness to think that perhaps I was not alone. With a light heart I lay down in my sleeping bag listening to the steady downpour pelting against the canvas and further soaking the sodden valley.

Dawn came slowly and miserably. I was cold. I was so conscious of my painful body that a long time passed before I could bring myself to continue my reading and contemplation. I could see no end to the rain, which after three days seemed to seep into my bones. There was no question of packing up and trudging off. All I could feel enthusiastic about was cooking a hot meal with my diminishing supplies.

As the pan heated on the camping stove (“Krishna’s stove,” I remembered), with numb fingers I again opened up the Gita. This time it was Chapter Nine, text twenty-six: “If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit, or water, I will accept it.”

In the purport Srila Prabhupada explains that there is a very simple process for achieving perfection: offering Lord Krishna our loving service and “nothing more.”

“This is wonderful!” I thought. “But wait a minute. Although Prabhupada says ‘the process is very easy,’ he also says that the only qualification required is to be a pure devotee who loves Krishna. But I don’t love Krishna. I barely know anything about Him. Basically I just love myself (and I’m not even sure about that), so how can I reach the highest perfection of life in this way? Maybe I should meditate instead.”

I had tried meditating, withdrawing my mind from external stimuli. True, I had temporarily felt some peace by my efforts, but I was always faced with the fact that I had to live in a busy world. To go off and live in a cave in the Himalayas, or even a secluded wood nearer home, was beyond me. And even if I could, I might find myself in the same situation—cold, hungry, and staring bleakly at the rain and meditating “Rain, rain, go away,”

I read on: “But preparing nice, simple vegetable dishes, offering them before the picture or Deity of Lord Krishna, and bowing down and praying for Him to accept such an offering enables one to advance steadily in life, to purify the body, and to create fine brain tissues which lead to clear thinking. Above all, the offering should be made with an attitude of love. Krishna has no need of food, since He already possesses everything that be, yet He will accept the offering of one who desires to please Him in that way. The important element, in preparation, in serving, and in offering, is to act with love for Krishna.”

“Perhaps I could try it with the soup,” I thought. “But still, it’s the love bit that stumps me. Surely Krishna won’t accept my offering, devoid of love.”

But Prabhupada made it sound easy. “Prepare a simple vegetable dish.” I could do that. “Bow down and pray to Krishna to accept such a humble offering.” I could do that too. Certainly my offering would be humble, even if I wasn’t.

“Besides, I’ve got to start somewhere. Prabhupada’s right—the process is easy. Learning the right attitude is the hard part. That might take a long time. Still, with Krishna’s help anything’s possible.”

I followed Srila Prabhupada’s directions and bowed down. “Krishna, please accept this. Hare Krishna.” I felt foolish, not knowing what to say, but deeper than my sense of foolishness was a laughing happiness rising within my heart. Yes, I had done the right thing. Lord Krishna and Prabhupada told me to do it, and I’d done it.

I looked at the soup and began to serve it out. Prabhupada had said serving was also important. I felt he was directing my every move. I was already familiar with the idea of eating in a mood of gratitude to God. But this was different. I had just offered something to the Lord, and now it looked as though He was offering it back. I sipped at the soup.

I knew what taste to expect, because it was a simple vegetable soup. But besides the expected taste, a wonderful thrill began from my mouth down to my stomach—and beyond. My whole being felt electrified. My heart felt it would burst. Something more was going on than a hungry man having breakfast.

I had a sense of what bhakti is about. I was detached from the uncomfortable conditions (I had forgotten all about them), I knew (at least a little) what I was doing and who I was doing if for, and I was absorbed in transcendental thought. Bhakti, the yoga of love, did seem to include all to be gained from other yogas, and much more, because by linking with the Lord and serving Him I could feel His helping hand.

A solitary mystic may gain mastery over some time and space, but unless he awakens love for Krishna, what has he ultimately gained? A little fame, power, or influence. Only bhakti is absolute, because only bhakti links us in a firm embrace with the Absolute Lord.

I gazed at the rain, cheered by the warm sunlight of Krishna consciousness. I no longer felt alone.

The Yoga of the Bhagavad-gita

Lord Krishna discusses the major forms of yoga, setting up a hierarchy and saying clearly which one belongs at the top.

When Time magazine ran a cover story on the science of yoga, it reported that "fifteen million Americans include some form of yoga in their fitness regimen—twice as many as did five years ago." Yet one wonders if any of the fifteen million are getting out of yoga what they should. As supermodel Christy Turlington, pictured on the cover as an ardent practitioner, is quoted as saying, "Some of my friends simply want to have a yoga butt." Patricia Walden, a prominent yoga teacher who has made a fortune producing instructional videos, responds to what many would consider a shallow approach to yoga: "If you start doing yoga for those reasons, fine. Most people get beyond that and see that it's much, much more."

Or do they?

The sad truth is that most people are not studying the Bhagavad-gita, traditionally seen as a yoga-sutra, a treatise on yoga. At least in Western countries, aspiring yogis, intimidated by the Gita's Sanskrit terminology, set the book aside to be studied later. Though that response in understandable, let's look at the Gita's teachings on yoga and see why for centuries it has been, and still is, considered among the most important textbooks on the subject.

It should be noted at the outset that the word yoga itself refers to "linking with God." This implies that any genuine approach to yoga should involve the spiritual pursuit, however varied that pursuit may be. For example, in the first verses of the Gita's third chapter, Lord Krishna introduces two forms of spirituality that might be identified with yoga: the contemplative life and the active one. The people of India in the time of the Gita were given to extreme acts of renunciation. Aspiring spiritualists of the age felt that only by shaking off the burden of active worldly life could one approach a life of the spirit. The Gita seeks to correct this misconception. It takes the doctrine of nivritti, negation, so dominant in ancient India, and augments it with positive spiritual action. Thus, Krishna (who is also known as Yogeshvara, or "the Master of Mystic Yoga") teaches Arjuna not so much about renunciation of action, but about renunciation in action. In later Vaishnava terminology, this is the preferred yukta-vairagya, or "renouncing the world by acting for the Supreme." Krishna accepts both forms of renunciation, but He describes the active form as more practical and more effective as well.

Whichever form, or approach, one chooses, says Krishna, detachment from sense objects is mandatory. The difference, then, lies only in one's external involvement with the world. Krishna asserts that contemplative, or inactive, yoga is difficult because the mind can become restless or distracted. He recommends the active form of yoga, which He calls karma-yoga. This is safer, He says, because one still strives to focus the mind, using various techniques of meditation, but augments that with practical engagement in the material world.

Krishna elaborates on how to perform karma-yoga in the sixth chapter, again emphasizing its superiority to mere renunciation and philosophy:

One who is unnattached to the fruits of his work and who works as he is obligated is in the renounced order of life, and he is the true mystic, not he who lights no fire and performs no duty. What is called renunciation you should know to be the same as yoga, or linking oneself with the Supreme, O son of Pandu, for one can never become a yogi unless he renounces the desire for sense gratification. (6.1-2)

Krishna's instruction here is especially useful for us today, living in the Western world. He is saying that we needn't go off to a forest to contemplate our navel. In fact, He says that such endeavors will most likely fail for most of us. Rather, we can achieve the goal of yoga by learning the art of "detached action," one of the Gita's main teachings. Krishna will explain that art to Arjuna and, by extenuation, to the rest of us. The Gita teaches how we can, in modern terms, be in the world but not of it.

Meditation: Restraining The Mind

Krishna explains that both processes of yoga, the contemplative and the active, begin with learning how to control the mind, which is essentially dhyana, or meditation:

When the yogi, by practice of yoga, disciplines his mental activities and becomes situated in transcendence—devoid of all material desires— he is said to be well established in yoga. As a lamp in a windless place does not waver, so the transcendentalist, whose mind is controlled, remains always steady in his meditation on the transcendent self.

Such meditation, Krishna admits, is difficult, but one can achieve it through arduous effort:

It is undoubtedly very difficult to curb the restless mind, but it is possible by suitable practice and by detachment. For one whose mind is unbridled, self-realization is difficult work. But he whose mind is controlled and who strives by appropriate means is assured of success. That is my opinion. (6.35-36)

In verses ten through fourteen of the sixth chapter, Krishna elaborates on the "appropriate means," and we begin to see how truly difficult it is to perform this kind of meditation. The yogi must learn to meditate continually, without interruption, in perfect solitude. Free of wants and possessiveness, the yogi must fully restrain his mind. He must prepare a seat for himself in a clean place, neither too high nor too low, covered with cloth, antelope skin, and kusha grass. He must sit in this special place, says the Gita, and learn to make his mind one-pointed, restricting any extraneous thoughts or sensual distractions. The yogi should practice such meditation for his own purification only—without any ulterior motive. Firmly holding the base of his body, his neck, and his head straight, looking only at the tip of his nose, he must be serene, fearless, and above any lusty thought. He must sit in this way, restraining his mind, thinking only of God, Krishna says, fully devoted to the Supreme.

Krishna calls this method raja-yoga, because it was practiced by great kings (raja) in ancient times. The heart of this system is breath control (pranayama), which is meant to manipulate the energy (prana) in the body. Breath control, along with intricate sitting postures (asana), was an effective means for quieting one's passions, controlling bodily appetites, and focusing on the Supreme.

Nonetheless, this contemplative form of yoga, systematized in Patanjali's yoga-sutras and popular today as hatha-yoga, is too difficult for most people, at least if they are going to perform it properly. Krishna says this directly by the end of the sixth chapter.

Still, He recommends elements of contemplative yoga along with the yoga of action, or karma-yoga. And for most readers of the Gita, this can get confusing. Just which is He recommending—the austere form of disciplined sitting and meditation or action in perfect consciousness? Does the Gita recommend hatha-yoga, or doesn't it? Does this most sacred of texts accept the path of contemplation, or does it say that one must approach the Supreme through work?

Indeed, Arjuna himself expresses confusion in two chapters of the Gita: Is Krishna advising him to renounce the world, Arjuna wonders, or is He asking him to act in Krishna consciousness?

A thorough reading of the Gita reveals a hierarchy, a yoga ladder in which one begins by studying the subject of yoga with some serious interest—this is called abhyasa-yoga—and ends up, if successful, by graduating to bhakti-yoga, or devotion for the Supreme. All the stages in between—and there are many—are quite complex, and at this point most modern Western practitioners become daunted in their study of the Gita.

Stages Of Yoga

The question may legitimately be raised why the two approaches to yoga—the contemplative and the active (and all their corollaries)—seem to be interchangeable in one section of the Gita and a hierarchy in another. The answer lies in the Gita's use of yoga terminology, a lexicon which, again, can be confusing. The whole subject becomes easier to understand when we realize that the Gita uses different words for yoga that actually refer to the same thing: the various yoga systems are all forms of bhakti-yoga. The differences are mainly in emphasis.

Bhakti-yoga is called karma-yoga, for example, when, in the practitioner's mind, the first word in the hyphenated compound takes precedence. In karma-yoga one wants to perform work (karma) and is attached to a particular kind of work, but he wants to do it for Krishna. Karma is primary, yoga secondary. But since the work is directed to God, it can be called karma-yoga instead of just karma. The same principle can be applied to all other yoga systems.

Bhakti, the first word in the hyphenated compound bhakti-yoga, means devotional love. In love, one becomes selfless, and thus, instead of giving prominence to one's own desire, one considers the beloved first. So the second part of the compound (yoga) also becomes prominent—linking with God takes precedence over what the individual wants. The first and second words of the hyphenated compound become one: Real love (bhakti) means full connection (yoga). This makes bhakti-yoga the perfection of the yoga process.

Karma-yoga emphasizes working (karma) for the Supreme, jnana-yoga emphasizes focusing one's knowledge (jnana) on the Supreme, dhyana-yoga involves contemplating (dhyana) the Supreme, buddhi-yoga is about directing the intellect (buddhi) toward the Supreme, and bhakti-yoga—the perfection of all yogas—occurs when devotion (bhakti) is emphasized in relation to the Supreme. The main principle of yoga, in whatever form, is to direct our activity toward linking with God.

Climbing The Ladder

We may first of all, then, observe that the Gita accepts all traditional forms of yoga as legitimate, asserting that they all focus on linking with the Supreme. Yet the Gita also creates a hierarchy: First come study, understanding, and meditation (dhyana-yoga). These lead to deep contempla-tion of philosophy and eventually wisdom that culminates in renunciation (sannyasa-yoga). Renunciation leads to the proper use of intelligence (buddhi-yoga), then karma-yoga,and finally bhakti-yoga.

All of this involves a complex inner development, beginning with an understanding of the temporary nature of the material world and of duality. Realizing that the world of matter will cease to exist and that birth all too quickly leads to death, the aspiring yogi begins to practice external renunciation and gradually internal renunciation, which, ultimately, comprises giving up the desire for the fruit of one's work (karma-phala-tyaga) and performing the work itself as an offering to God (bhagavad-artha-karma). This method of detached action (karma-yoga) leads to the "perfection of inaction" (naishkarmya-siddhi), or freedom from the bondage of works. One becomes free from such bondage because one learns to work as an "agent" rather than as an "enjoyer"—one learns to work for God, on His behalf. This is the essential teaching of the Gita, and in its pages Krishna takes Arjuna (and each of us) through each step of the yoga process.

The Top Rung

The Gita's entire sixth chapter is about Arjuna's rejection of conventional yoga. He describes it as impractical and "too difficult to perform," as it certainly is in our current age of distraction and degradation (known as Kali-yuga). Since the goal of yoga is to re-connect with God, bhakti-yoga rises above all the rest. According to Krishna, Arjuna is the best of yogis because he has devotion to the Supreme Lord. Krishna tells His devotee directly, "Of all yogis, he who always abides in Me with great faith, worshiping Me in transcendental loving service, is most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all."

This brings us back to the basic definition of the word yoga. The word comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means "to link up with, to combine." It is similar in meaning to religio, the Latin root of the word religion, which means "to bind together." Religion and yoga, therefore, have the same end in mind: combining or linking with God. This, again, is the essential purpose of the yoga process, and the end to which the Gita hopes to bring its readers.

The Yogi in the River

Ages ago, Saubhari Muni was so accomplished at yoga that he could meditate underwater. Everything was going fine, until …

To practice yoga, or silent meditation, you first of all need a secluded place. Traditionally, yogis have retired to Himalayan caves, to remote corners of dense, unexplored jungles, even to the depths of an ocean or river. The great yogi Saubhari Muni meditated for many years within the Yamuna River, with only the local fish for company. He was able to do so because he possessed many mystic powers—the sign of a true yogi—and could, like his aquatic companions, breathe underwater.

Why such extreme measures? Because the purpose of yoga is to withdraw the senses from all material engagements and fix the mind on the Supersoul (the form of the Supreme Personality of Godhead who dwells within the hearts of all living creatures). The aspiring yogi must completely abstain from even the thought of sex, reduce and regulate his eating and sleeping, and even restrict what he sees and hears. By extended, uninterrupted practice, the yogi transcends material nature and returns to the eternal spiritual world, the abode of Lord Krishna.

So don’t expect to properly practice the yoga of silent meditation in a city or a suburb or, for that matter, even in most rural areas; there are just too many distractions nowadays. You may practice sitting postures and breathing exercises, trying to improve your health, your aura, or your sexual prowess, and if you like you can call that yoga. But according to the ancient Vedic literature, the sourcebooks of yoga instruction, the purpose of yoga is to fully and continuously restrain the senses and fix the mind on the Supreme Person.

With this purpose fixed in his mind the yogi Saubhari Muni long ago entered the Yamuna River. Surely there he would be undisturbed. There were no attractive girls in designer jeans strutting along the river bottom, no ads for cigarettes, beer, or fashionable clothing to divert the attention, no business-wise yoga instructors crooning that their brand of spiritualism makes one a better executive or a better student or a better lover. No distractions whatsoever. Hardly a sound. Just Saubhari and the river. And the fish.

Poor Saubhari. He was a qualified, sincere, no-nonsense yogi, so well endowed with mystic powers that he could meditate underwater, yet his mind was diverted by a pair of fish. After many years of underwater meditation, Saubhari observed two fish copulating, and feeling the desire to enjoy sexual pleasure awaken within himself, he emerged from the river and went looking for a mate.

From this we can understand that meditational yoga, also known as ashtanga-yoga, although recommended in the Vedic literature as a means of ascending to the spiritual plane, is extremely difficult. We are all by nature active and pleasure-seeking. Most of us find it difficult to sit still even for a few minutes. We want to enjoy life by seeing, hearing, touching, walking, talking, and so on. To abruptly stop all these activities and meditate on God is almost unthinkable. Even such a highly qualified yogi as Saubhari Muni, who lived thousands of years before the rise of our noisy, polluted, fast-paced modern civilization, had a hard time of it.

So why would anyone attempt such a difficult form of yoga? Well, the aspiring transcendentalist, the yoga candidate, usually understands that bodily and mental activities alone cannot bring satisfaction. He has heard from Vedic authorities that we are not these material bodies but are eternal spirit souls dwelling within the body. The yogi wants to free himself from bodily encagement.

In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna teaches that the body is a temporary vehicle for the soul and that after the demise of the body the soul takes a new body. The unenlightened soul transmigrates from body to body in the painful cycle of birth, old age, disease, and death, trying to enjoy life but is ultimately frustrated in every attempt. To become free from this cycle of misery and to experience transcendental bliss, the yogi is advised to reduce bodily activity and to meditate on the Supersoul, Lord Krishna. According to the Bhagavad-gita,the state of mind at death determines our next life. Thus, the yogi who passes away fully absorbed in meditation on Krishna attains an eternal, blissful body in the spiritual realm and never returns to take birth and die in this material realm.

In previous ages many yogis were able to perfect the process of ashtanga-yoga. In fact, Saubhari Muni himself, after exhausting his desire for material enjoyment, completely renounced the life of sensual pleasure, returned to his meditation, and attained perfection. In the present age, however, ashtanga-yoga is more or less impossible, and the Vedic literature recommends instead the path of bhakti- yoga, devotional service.

The purpose of bhakti-yoga is the same as that of ashtanga-yoga: to withdraw the senses from all material activities and to concentrate the mind in unswerving meditation on the Supreme Person. In bhakti-yoga, however, we actively use our senses in Krishna’s service. In particular, bhakti-yoga involves hearing—hearing about Krishna’s qualities and pastimes, about the activities of His incarnations and great devotees, and about the transcendental philosophy spoken by the Lord Himself in the Bhagavad-gita. The bhakti- yogi learns to see everything in relation to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, to see that the material universe is His creation. The bhakti-yogi alsoregularly meditates on the beautiful Deity form of the Lord in the temple. The bhakti-yogi can even employ his tongue in Krishna’s service—by tasting food offered to Krishna and by chanting His holy names.

In this way the bhakti-yogi is always active within the realm of devotional service. He attains the same result as the inactive ashtanga-yogi; but easily and naturally. The bhakti-yogi can live with his friends and family in the midst of modern civilization. In fact, many of the practices of bhakti-yoga are best performed in the company of other devotees—the more the merrier. Far from distracting, the association of devotees is an inspiration for the performance of devotional service. The serious ashtanga-yogi; however, must remain alone. and even then, as in the case of Saubhari, there is a chance of falling away from the path of austerity and renunciation.

The purpose of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) is to make the spiritual association of devotees (Bhakti-yogis) available in every part of the world. ISKCON centers are open to anyone interested in hearing about the Supreme Personality of Godhead and rendering service to Him in the company of devotees. Aspiring yogis can thus attain perfection, unperturbed by the distractions of modern life.

Yoga for a Lofty Goal

A dozen or so students gathered in the assembly room of the college dormitory for an introductory talk on bhakti- yoga. I got their attention and said we’d now do some yoga. About half of them pulled their legs up into some semblance of the lotus position, waiting for tips on breathing and concentration.

But instead of the sound of silence, they heard the sizzle of a small pair of hand cymbals. Eyes opened, jaws dropped.

It didn’t take long, though, before the students got the idea. Soon many were singing along with the Hare Krishna mantra, their faces lit up with smiles.

After the demonstration, I asked the students to tell me what they thought yoga meant. I got the predictable responses, mostly having to do with sitting, stretching, twisting, and concentrating. Someone spoke of clearing the mind of all thoughts. Someone mentioned picturing yourself as “identical with the One.”

“Bhagavad-gita says that yoga means to connect with God,” I began my talk, “and that’s why we chant Hare Krishna.”

Their pleased expressions showed they were losing misconceptions. When people see Hare Krishna devotees singing in the street, they probably don’t think we’re doing yoga. But in the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna teaches us how to make our whole lives yoga. Srila Prabhupada often said that his students were practicing yoga twenty-four hours a day.

Today’s so-called yoga usually aims at a healthy body and a peaceful mind. That’s fine if that’s all you want. But the real purpose of yoga is to reestablish our relationship with Krishna—clearly a much loftier goal. The word yoga means “to connect,” and from it we get the word yoke. Krishna covers various kinds of yoga in the Gita, but they’re all meant for the same thing: to awaken our love for Him.

Bhakti-yoga is not only the easiest type of yoga; Krishna declares it the best: “And of all yogis, the one with great faith who always abides in Me, thinks of Me within himself, and renders transcendental loving service to Me—he is the most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all. That is My opinion.” (Bg. 6.47)

Since the goal of yoga is to concentrate on God, what better way to do that than by bhakti- yoga—serving Him in love? Prabhupada would scoff at the practice of doing fifteen minutes of meditation in the morning and then spending the rest of the day in material pursuits. Bhakti-yogis take their meditation to work. Krishna tells Arjuna to fight and remember Him. “In all activities be conscious of Me,” He says.

Prabhupada taught his disciples to mold their lives so they could never forget Krishna. He gave us a program of morning and evening practices focused on Krishna. He told us, as Krishna does, to offer the fruits of our work to Krishna. He told us to try to chant Hare Krishna always.

After my talk, one of the students, Mira, thanked me for clearing up some confusion.

“I was always attracted to stories of yogis,” she said, “and now I’m happy to hear I can be a student and a yogi at the same time.”

And I was happy to hear she understood.

Karma, Jnana, and Bhakti Yoga

[Yoga literally means to unite, to link with, to connect with God. The physical exercises we commonly associate with yoga help align our body, mind and spirit to achieve a peaceful state of samadhi, complete absorption in our spiritual reality. In this article, Jayadvaita Swami briefly explains three main paths of yoga given by Krishna in Bhagavad-gita.]

According to the Vedic literature, there are three realms of human endeavor—the realm of karma, that of jnana, and that of bhakti.


Karma refers to action performed for the sake of the body and its senses. The work we do to earn a living is karma. The work we put into having a good time is karma too. When we eat, that's karma. When we sleep, that's karma. When we watch TV, listen to Beethoven, or Ravi Shankar, or Madonna, when we have kids, or drive our car—when we do just about anything—that's karma.

Karma can be "extended" too. It's not only what we do directly for ourselves but also what we do for others, in relation to the body and senses. When we help out a friend, give food to the poor, serve in the Army, or show our uncle how to cheat on his tax returns—again, it's all karma.

Karma may be "good" or "bad" (or, for that matter, mixed). So karma may bring good or bad results (or, again, mixed). These results are also sometimes called karma. (More precisely, they are karmic reactions.)

Sometimes the results of karma are quick and obvious: work hard and get a good grade, overeat and get indigestion. But sometimes the results may take years—or, according to Vedic literature, lifetimes. I may do something this life and get the results in the next—or ten lifetimes from now, or thousands. So karma and its results form an intricate web.

If someone's born ugly or poor or sick, that's a sign of bad karma. Or if someone gets in trouble with the police, or gets in legal trouble—bad karma again. And good looks, good money, good health—good karma.

We're getting reactions now for what we've done in the past, and creating future reactions by what we're doing now. Gets complicated, doesn't it

The scriptures of the world—the Vedas included—try to warn us away from bad karma and guide us towards good.

But we don't always go along. And even when we do, the best that we get are good karmic results. And good or bad, we're still caught in the net, still entangled. Good karma or bad, we're still tied to the wheel of repeated birth and death.


Jnana (pronounced "gyana") is the pursuit of knowledge. Of course, we may pursue any sort of knowledge—how to hammer a nail, or play the piano, or program a computer. Knowledge of history, or business, or medicine. But that's hardly above karma, and that's not really what's meant. Jnana, more precisely, pertains to the ultimate questions in life: Who am I? Why am I here? Why am I suffering? Where does everything come from? What is the purpose of life? What is everything finally all about?

The realm of jnana is that of the philosopher, the intellectual, the thinker. By reflection, by speculation, by logic, intuition, and discourse, by exploring and evaluating ideas, we try to understand what is ultimately what. We may approach those ultimate questions through physics or biology or psychology—or, if we go deep enough, by thinking about almost anything. When somehow or other those questions come upon us, we enter the realm of jnana.

But this too is a world we can get stuck in. We can spend lifetimes in speculation, questing and questing, and still be doing hardly more than playing games in our minds.

The Vedic literature, therefore, offers guidance on the path of knowledge. It gives us access to the thoughts and realizations of sages who have been through this territory before. It aims, finally, to bring us from speculation to knowledge, from wondering to seeing, from seeking to finding.


Early along the path of Vedic knowledge, one comes to understand that he's a spark of pure consciousness, above the body, above even the mind. He sees that he uses the body and mind—when he tells his finger to scratch his head it does so; when he directs his thoughts, they go from one subject or another—yet the body and mind are distinct from his inner identity, his inner being. This understanding is called self-realization.

Yet self-realization is not the end of it. By further introspection—unless one gets stuck—one comes to understand that his own consciousness, his own spiritual existence, is not ultimate. Even in his own essential identity, he himself is not the be-all and end-all of everything. There are other living beings too, and they're not just projections of himself. And there's a material cosmos out there, hard and tangible and unlikely to be something he has merely imagined up. And even if he thinks that in reality such distinctions at last no longer exist, that in truth there is only absolute oneness, and that all else is but an illusion, a dream, he still has to ask himself, "Where does this illusion come from?"

In this way his thoughts bring him to realize that there is an Absolute Truth, a source of all energies, all realities, and he sees himself to be a part of that Supreme Absolute. By considering his own identity as a conscious individual—a conscious person—he ultimately realizes the individual personal nature of that Supreme Absolute. He recognizes the eternal relationship between himself and the Absolute. And in this way he enters the realm of bhakti, the realm of personal spiritual dealings between himself and the Absolute. In bhakti, the individual person joyfully devotes himself to serving the absolute Personality of Godhead, who joyfully and unlimitedly reciprocates. This is the postgraduate stage of self-realization.