Yoga is much more than a means of toning your legs and butt, or even quieting your anxious mind. Its real aim is to transform your consciousness from self-centered to God-centered. In yoga, we learn how to establish a conscious connection with the Absolute Truth.
On the path of yoga, the practitioner progresses through various grades until he takes up bhakti, the eternal function of the soul. In the words of renowned teacher of yoga and the Vedas, Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, “Yoga actually means bhakti-yoga; all other yogas are progressions toward [that] destination.”
The Yoga Ladder
In yogic practice, one passes through the different types of yoga as one would ascend rungs on a ladder. The Vedas delineate this progression as follows:
Whether in a single lifetime or over the course of many lives, a spiritual seeker gradually progresses through these various phases of spiritual practice until they reach the phase of bhakti-yoga, the culmination of spiritual life.
Before taking up the practice of yoga, one must regulate his life according to the moral codes given in scripture. Anyone who worships different gods or deities or follows some kind of religious process for the purpose of attaining a better material condition of life falls into this category.
One who seeks fulfillment beyond the temporary comforts of material life is eligible for karma-yoga, the first stage of spiritual life in which one is able to acknowledge and submit to the authority of the Lord.
There are two divisions of karma-yoga: materially-motivated (sakama) and materially-detached (nishkama).
Sakama-karma-yoga: At this stage one is still attached to bodily pleasures, though he has accepted a transcendental goal (hence sakama, or “with desire”). He offers a portion of the fruits of his karma, or work, to the Godhead, and his consciousness expands. When he finally realizes the ephemeral nature of material enjoyment, he becomes nishkama, “without desire.” He gives up selfish desires and instead performs his work for the sake of attaining liberation from the bondage of samsara.
Nishkama-karma-yoga: Now the yogi knows that he is transcendental in nature, and he is completely disinterested in the fruits of his work. However, due to past conditioning, he may still tend to identify with a particular occupation. When he understands that self-realization cannot be obtained through work alone, he leaves aside karma to pursue the path of jnana, or theoretical study in pursuit of the Absolute Truth.
The jnana-yogi renounces all social roles and obligations and immerses himself in the study of the portions of the Vedas which describe the Absolute Truth, particularly the Upanishads. Neglecting the maintenance of his body, he undergoes severe austerity and subjects himself to all kinds of material discomfort. After (usually) many, many lifetimes of such practice, the yogi discovers that God is transcendental to all mundane logic and reason, and he realizes the all-pervading, impersonal aspect of the Absolute Truth, Brahman.
Having given up work, and fully understood the limit of human reasoning, the yogi abandons his dry philosophical exercises and takes up the process of ashtanga-yoga, the eight-fold path of meditation on the Absolute.
Literally, “ashta” means eight and “anga” means limbs or parts. The Yoga-sutras of Pantanjali describe this eightfold path as follows:
1-2) Yama & Niyama – the prescriptions and prohibitions which regulate the yogi’s habits and lifestyle.
3-4) Asana & Pranayama – the physical postures and breathing practices which allow the yogi to rein in the wayward mind and senses.
5) Pratyahara – having controlled the mind, the yogi withdraws his senses from their objects and directs his attention inward.
6-7) Dharana & Dhyana – these are progressive stages of meditation, increasing in both intensity and duration.
8) Samadhi – this is the culmination of ashtanga practice: full absorption in the Paramatma, or the Supersoul, the localized form of the Supreme Being, who resides in the heart of all beings and also within each individual atom.
Thus the yogi’s realization of the all-pervading Brahman matures into knowledge of the localized feature of the Absolute Truth, the Paramatma, who directly controls all movement in the universe.
Such an elevated yogi realized that no one in the world is his enemy. Seeing beyond the physical covering of the body, he knows all to be his spiritual kin. When the ashtanga-yogi attains the great fortune of hearing about the Supreme Person from one of His representatives, an authorized guru, the yogi accepts the position of disciple at the feet of that great master. This is the first step in buddhi-yoga, the doorway to bhakti.
Buddhi means intelligence, the capacity to discriminate. The perfection of yoga is to make one’s entire life an offering in service to God. This the stage of full surrender, a union of love with the Divinity.
Actually, this stage of loving devotional service is known as bhakti-yoga, the mature fruit of yogic practice. However, as with any technique, the art of divine service requires cultivation. Therefore the intelligent and progressive yogi places himself in the care of an expert bhakta, or devotee of the Lord, who acts as a spiritual trainer. The guru then guides his disciple with relevant instruction, encouraging him further along as he develops his relationship with Krishna. Acting according to the direction of the spiritual master for the purpose of nurturing one’s bhakti, or devotion to God, is the essence of buddhi-yoga.
Once the practitioner’s dormant love of God is fully revived, he enters into the realm of bhakti-yoga, the yoga of pure devotional service.
This final stage on the path of yoga constitutes the topmost perfection of the atma, or soul. Krishna confirms this in the sixth chapter of the Bhagavad-gita:
yoginam api sarvesham mad-gatenantar-atmana
shraddhavan bhajate yo mam sa me yukta-tamo matah
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. (Bhagavad-gita, 6.47)
When the yogi’s loving sentiments fully ripen, Krishna reveals Himself in full to His affectionate devotee. This is the stage of Bhagavan realization, the third and final aspect of the Absolute Truth. By direct perception the bhakti-yogi knows the personal, all-attractive feature of the Supreme, with whom he has an eternal relationship. Just as one emerges from a dream and immediately remembers his real identity and the activities of his waking life, the perfected bhakta attains consciousness of his spiritual identity and takes up his eternal position as a devoted servant of God.
Having attained this state of unconditional loving consciousness, one is relieved of all varieties of unwelcome anxiety and suffering, and he never again falls under the influence of false ego, the illusory, material consciousness that forces one to identify with his physical body and mind. This is the ultimate liberation and the highest perfection of yoga practice.