The beauty of yoga is that there are different styles and forms to suit us all.
The Bhagavad Gita, the historical yogic text, mentions eighteen different forms of yoga that include hatha yoga, kundalini yoga, karma yoga, tantra yoga, raja yoga and bhakti yoga.1
The last two types – raja yoga and bhakti yoga – are both not forms of yoga with which I am wholly familiar.
So I did some research.
Here’s what I found.
What is bhakti yoga?
Bhakti yoga is devotional yoga, the upholding and serving of a power greater than ourselves’, a divine being, – what many people would refer to as God.1
The word bhakti comes from the Sanskrit bhaj, which can be translated as to serve, and students of bhakti yoga offer service to a divine being through devotional thoughts, actions and chanting meditations, among other things.1
My first exposure to Bhakti yoga was while volunteering at a Hare Krishna centre in South America back in 2011, where I helped out in the kitchen.
All preparation was done in silence, absolute cleanliness and without the usual herb/spice/salt level taste tests I’d become accustomed to while cooking in my ‘normal’ life.
The reason for this became clear before the mealtime: the first dish was offered up and left at the feet of the Krishna deity in the temple. Only once this had happened were the rest of us able to let food pass our lips.
This focus on serving a higher being ahead of ourselves is predominantly what’s focused on when discussing Bhakti yoga, but can be extended to seeing – and therefore serving – the divine in all beings.1
In this sense, there is a suggestion that we each carry the divine within ourselves and therefore need to honour that in each other. The vehicle for this is unconditional love.
As much as many of us like to think we can love unconditionally, in reality it is hard. Very hard. Maybe for dedicated students of bhakti yoga, it becomes easier.
Surely it has to?
What is raja yoga?
In Sanksrit, raja means king.1
Like bhakti yoga, which honours the divine in all, raja yoga too acknowledges that there is a ‘king within’ us all, a state of higher being that too easily ends up hidden beneath the many distractions and burdens of life.1
Raja yoga, then, is for those committed to mastering their mind – to being king of their mind. Enlightenment is said to be the result of this mastery.
Not unlike jnana yoga, raja yoga focuses predominantly on meditation but it also strictly follows ‘the eight limbs of yoga as outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras’.4
Raja yoga is, then, a holistic, committed and somewhat introspective engagement with the practice of yoga. It’s the inward, introspective part that seems to most obviously separate it from bhakti yoga.
With its intense focus on mental and spiritual development, raja yoga is likely not for the every day person.3
What are the key differences between bhakti yoga and raja yoga?
Without being a committed student of either yoga form, from an outsider’s perspectives raja yoga appears to focus on self-development to find peace and clarity and reach the higher self.
Bhakti yoga, on the other hand, appears to be more expressive, caring and puts others – be that deities or individuals – at the forefront.
But is bhakti yoga really any less caring than raja yoga? Is raja yoga any more selfish than bhakti yoga? On the surface the answers may seem obvious but, as with everything in life, there’s always more to it.
Bringing the principles of raja yoga and bhakti yoga into lay life
Despite being more of a meditator than an unconditional, lovey person, I surprisingly find myself gravitating towards the more giving nature of the bhakti tradition.
And yet, if like me you find mantra and chanting lie low on your happy list, truly following the bhakti yoga path is not really an option. I’m personally not ready to follow the drums, song and orange throng through the streets of Byron Bay, or to live in a community of devotional bliss.
That bliss isn’t my bliss, and as a result I’d probably be pretty ineffective in actually delivering any unconditional love at all.
But what I – and you – can take from the bhakti tradition is the essence of honouring the divine in each of us, of treating each person we meet with the acknowledgement that they too are worthy of love.
And we can also take a pinch of discipline from the raja yoga tradition and add that to the mix too, because from where I’m sitting it’s very easy to say you’ll do something, say you care, and then not see whatever you said you’d do through.
Discipline would also serve us well to explore all of the eight limbs of yoga a little deeper. We may not have the time or dedication to fully follow a rajastic path, but a few steps on that path can only set us off in the right direction.
May whatever path you choose be the right one for you.
References and further reading
- Desikachar, T.K.V. The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice (Revised Edition). 1995.
- Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patajali. 2002.
- Livestrong. What Is the Meaning of Raja Yoga? //www.livestrong.com/article/513952-what-is-the-meaning-of-raja-yoga/. 2018
- Yoga Journal. The Branches of the Yoga Tree
- Mindful Moo. Beyond Image and Asanas: A Brief Definition of Yoga. /definition-of-yoga. 2018