The three fundamental forms of yoga: Jnana, Bhakti and Karma

In my last article I talked about jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge, and how practitioners of this form of yoga spend their life trying to understand the nature of the mind and how it works. All this sounds like an extreme sport version of intellectualisation.

But we all know that humans don’t just think and rationalise, they feel. Separating our thoughts from our emotions is virtually impossible: as adults we are very adept at rationalising our feelings, or on the other hand adding layers of emotion to our analytical thinking.

Yoga recognises that both our intellect and our emotions affect our actions. In fact our actions are the result of an intimate dance between intellect and feelings. This triad of intellect, emotion and action form the three fundamental types of yoga: jnana yoga – the yoga of knowledge; bhakti yoga – the yoga of emotion and devotion; and karma yoga – the yoga of action.

Just as we can’t determine how well a person is going to fare in life just by their IQ, a yogi cannot rely solely upon one form of yoga if they hope to reach their ultimate goal of pure happiness. While we were in India we sat with a jnana yogi and someone asked them, “can you think to much?” The rather elliptical response was “too much of anything is not a good thing”. Sage advice.

Although every yogi has a preferred yoga style they also take the support of the other two strands as well. So you will find jnana yogis practicing ritual prayers of devotion or karma yogis taking time out from their work with the underprivileged to study the scriptures.

But how does this relate to our lives? How can we balance the interplay between our thinking, our feelings and our actions? Of course the answer will be different for each one of us. However, here are some ideas to get you started.

  • When you’re working selflessly for a cause you believe in, that is a form of Karma yoga.
  • Spending a minute before each meal thanking all those that prepared it is a form of Bhatki yoga.
  • And as I said last week seeking out stories from different cultures and applying their meaning to your life is a form of Jnana yoga.

Image by David Stott

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