What is Jnana Yoga?

What is Jnana Yoga?

Patanjali saw four paths for attaining the “union” of yoga. In past posts, we have discussed Karma yoga, or the yoga of service, Bhakti yoga, or the yoga of devotion, and Raja yoga, or the royal path. Lastly, we have Jnana yoga, or the yoga of wisdom and knowledge.

Jnana yoga is meant for those who are intellectually oriented, or those who want to approach their spiritual path through study. But Jnana yoga does not mean studying books; it is a process of study, reflection, and meditation in pursuit of understanding the self and therefore understanding the nature of the divine.

Jnana yoga is considered to be the most direct, but also the most difficult, path to liberation, or moksha. It is difficult because you are using your mind to understand the truth behind or beyond the mind, like studying the physical heart to understand the soul.

That seems big.

It is easy to get caught up in the theoretical and forever continue being a student when practice is what is necessary for mastery. For example, you could study books about surgery for the rest of your life, but without physical practice, you will never be a surgeon. In this way, intellectual exploration and curiosity is not a substitute for practice, but a way of leading in to practice.

What are the steps on this path?

There are certain concepts that Jnana yogis have to study and master on this path:

  • Discrimination: being able to tell the difference between the permanent and the impermanent; part of this is understanding that the “self” is temporary but the Self, or the Universal or Divine, is forever unchanging.
  • Separation: Like the path of Karma yoga, this step is about separating your actions from desire for a certain outcome from that action; for example, doing something kind for someone else with no expectation from them for a reaction or a payment in return.
  • Six virtues: These six practices are meant to move you along the path of Jnana yoga:
    • Keeping the mind calm
    • Withdrawing the senses from the over-stimulation of the world
    • Letting go of that which is not important, only keeping those things that are your duty
    • Bearing suffering and pain with equanimity
    • Having faith in a teacher and in the yogic path
    • Concentrating with a single mind
  • Yearning: This is intense desire for liberation from ignorance.

So where would I even start?

Jnana yoga might seem like a difficult undertaking, but it’s simple to start (it might not be simple to continue). You can start with any spiritual texts, but some good places to start would be the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, two important historical spiritual texts in the yoga tradition. Consider regularly attending classes with a teacher that you respect – even if they are not masters of the philosophical tradition you would like to follow, everyone has something to teach and share beyond the physical poses of a yoga class. Read everything that you can get your hands on, and try not to just read – reflect, write down your thoughts, and meditate on the concepts that you learn. The goal of Jnana yoga is deep and true understanding, not just reading words on a page. Seek out teachers, always being wary about those who want you accept their words blindly, and learn everything you can.