A student recently wondered why in some Yoga traditions, such as the bhakti tradition, there is little or no emphasis on the practice of asana, yet in Jivamukti Yoga and most other contemporary Western Yoga disciplines, asana plays a major role. It is true that there are traditions that focus primarily on practices other than asana. There are four major paths of Yoga, all of which have the same goal—enlightenment, or the realisation of the Oneness of being—but each of which has a different emphasis on how to reach the goal. Bhakti Yoga, the path of devotion, primarily emphasises japa (repetition of the names of God), chanting and ritual. It is the practice of developing a personal relationship with God through which past karmas are purified. Some notable bhakti yogis include Neem Karoli Baba, Shyamdas, Krishna Das, Rumi and Mirabai. Jñana Yoga, the path of the intellect, primarily emphasises meditation, scripture and Sanskrit study. It is centered on the question, “Who am I?” and the investigation of all possible answers to that question. Ultimately, the jñana yogi comes to the realisation that no answer that derives from the material, relative world can be correct, and all that is left is the true nature of reality. Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj and Ramana Maharshi are jñana yogis. Karma Yoga, the path of selfless service, primarily emphasises surrendering the results of actions to God—“not my will, but Thy will, be done.” Through service to others, we come to see ourselves—and God—in the others, and the illusion of a separate self dissolves. It is said that if we could do one truly selfless action—an action entirely without ego—we would instantly attain enlightenment. Swami Sivananda and Mother Teresa are karma yogis. Raja Yoga, the path of the mind, is the eight-limbed path (or Ashtanga Yoga) described by Patanjali in The Yoga Sutra. It primarily emphasises observing and investigating the mind’s tendencies and characteristics and ultimately training ourselves to shift our identity away from the fluctuations of the mind, at which point we realise the Oneness of being. Sri Krishnamacharya and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois are both raja yogis. In the early twentieth century, Sri Aurobindo taught that the four paths of Yoga could be integrated, drawing on the practices of all four paths, not only to raise the practitioner’s consciousness and lead to enlightenment, but to bring positive change to the world as well. Jivamukti Yoga is such an integrated system of Yoga.
Asana is considered to be a practice of Raja Yoga, but asana actually underlies all types of Yoga. To practice Yoga you must be incarnated—meaning living in a physical body. The bhakta chants with her heart and voice, which are part of her body; the jñani sits and meditates while in a body; and the karma yogi certainly performs his compassionate actions by means of his body. Asana pertains to our relationship with the Earth and all others, and our means of relating to others is physical. The practice of asana can bring us directly to enlightenment because the only thing that stands between us and enlightenment is our perception of ourselves and others. The karmas generated by our interactions with others are stored in the tissues of our bodies—in fact, our karmas actually make up our bodies—so moving the body through asana practice has the effect of purifying our karmas, helping us feel more comfortable in our bodies and in our relationships with others, and ultimately leads to freedom and liberation.
Looking at human history we see that as civilisation and organised religions gained power so did prejudices against others. Two of the oldest such prejudices, misogyny (hate for women) and speciesism (hate for animals), revolve around a negative view of the physical body, treating it as if it represented a fall from grace and must be tamed, degraded or beaten into shape. Over time, we human beings have become more and more disconnected from the Earth, our physical bodies and our own place among other animals. We tend to see ourselves as a special case and arrogantly strive to disassociate ourselves from the physicality of animals. This has led us to the mistake of thinking that how we live and how we treat the Earth and other beings has no adverse consequence for ourselves, other beings or the Earth.
Looking at the history of Yoga, over time the practices had to become more and more detailed or refined in order to address our own escalating sense of alienation from life. The earliest writings about happiness, realisation, living in harmony, knowing God and knowing Self seem to us now very idealistic, very philosophical and very difficult for people in the present time to understand and put into practice. For example, The Rig Veda teaches, “Who knows this? No one knows.” Most of us needed a little more direction than that. So the teachings of the Vedas were distilled in The Upanishads and are presented as narratives, stories and parables. Many people still needed more concrete instruction than that, and eventually we got The Yoga Sutra and The Bhagavad Gita, much of which we can relate to even now, but much of which still strikes us as abstract. Then in the Middle Ages came The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which gives detailed instruction for fifteen asanas, among many other practices. It seems that as time has passed, it has become more and more difficult to comprehend the mystery of life in the age of conflict, the Kali Yuga. Traditionally a seeker would find a teacher who would perhaps give the seeker one mantra, which if recited devotedly with faith in the teacher could lead to enlightenment. These days, few of us have that kind of faith in a teacher or in a mantra. So we could say that our bodies—physical, energetic, mental and emotional—have become dulled; we’ve lost our sensitivity, our ability to perceive subtlety. We’ve given up a lot to live a “civilized” life. Asana practice has the power to sharpen our senses and restore us to our natural state—the state of unity with all of existence, the state of eternal joy.