The original meaning of the word ‘yoga’ was not limited to the asanas or postures that are synonymous with Yoga in the West. The word yoga itself means union, and yoga was taken to mean any path which led the spiritual seeker to union with his highest Self, or union of the individual soul with the Universal Soul. In this sense, Yoga can trace its origins far back to the dawn of spirituality, to the time of the ancient Vedic seers, and possibly even before.
Over time, different yogic paths evolved reflecting the different types of human temperament. In the Bhagavad Gita, India’s most famous scriptural work, three main types of yoga were described:
- Bhakti Yoga was for people whose natural spiritual tendency was to approach the Highest through love and worship. In India, Lord Krishna was a central focus for those following bhakti yoga, and the popularity of this path grew in the 15th and 16th centuries through the life and example of such great figures as Sri Chaitanya, Mirabai, and Kabir. This kind of yoga is probably most familiar to us in the West as the approach to God used in Christianity.
- Jnana Yoga: the path of knowledge, through studying books and scriptures, but more importantly through self-introspection. One famous 20th century jnana yogi, Ramana Maharshi, would commonly ask those seeking his guidance to contemplate on one simple question ‘Who am I?’. The Buddha was also a jnana yogi
- Karma Yoga is for those who wish to make progress through staying in the world; it tells us to act selflessly, without attachment to the results of our actions. It means seeing and serving God in humanity; a familiar example would be the work of Mother Teresa.