Updated: Mar 1, 2020
In Fall 2019, I became a Supplemental instructor for a World Religions course at Louisiana State University. Slipping into the position of guiding students to learn came incredibly natural to me due to my experience in teaching yoga outside of the classroom. This semester like the last, Hinduism was the first religion covered. To my excitement, the professor includes yoga teachings within the lectures by discussing the margas.
The three margas (paths) are disciplines that, when practiced, lead to enlightenment. Marga helps practitioners reach enlightenment, or recognition of the divine nature within every person. These three margas are bhakti (devotion) marga, karma (action) marga, and jnana (knowledge) marga. A fourth marga was introduced by Patanjali named raja or “royal” marga. These four margas are commonly referred to as the four yogas as well. I’ll be using the terms yoga and marga interchangeably throughout this post. In this context, yoga is a spiritual discipline that is practiced to reach enlightenment. These yogas are outlined in the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text that describes the purpose of each person and the ways to reach enlightenment.
While revisiting the material in the supplemental sessions I try to engage with the students’ lives so they can place something tangible to an overwhelming amount of information. One student told me she never thought of yoga outside of the practice that is dominating the fitness industry. My mind lit up like a lightbulb because sadly that is the case for many Americans. Even hatha yoga, the physical-based branch of raja yoga, is practiced for spiritual benefits.
When I stepped away from teaching consistently in a yoga studio, I felt part of my identity was stripped from me. The reality I slowly learned was that I am always a yoga teacher because I strive to embody the yoga that is physically, mentally, emotionally, and ethically based. I do not have to teach a yoga class on a studio schedule to serve as a yoga teacher. To those familiar with yogic philosophy, they may say, “of course!” Yet for many, this idea is confusing and foreign.
Westernized yoga depicted on social media through pretzel-twisting poses can discourage the beginner yogi from practicing, but yoga can be practiced without ever stepping into a yoga class. A scroll through yoga hashtags on Instagram will certainly take you to those pretzel-twisting poses with #yogaeverydamnday. So, I thought I would share with you how I - and you - can practice yoga every day.
The path of knowledge or wisdom is called jnana marga. This path constitutes about seventy percent of my daily yoga practice due to being a full-time student. The knowledge described here is primarily studying Hindu scriptures but is sometimes defined as studying Hindu philosophy. For a Christian, this looks like reading the Bible or a devotional. It may go without saying, but simply reading scripture is not the whole of practicing jnana yoga. Contemplation such as the Christian practices of sacred imagination and Lectio Divina are an example of going deeper into a jnana yoga practice.
Raja marga is often referred to as a subset to Jnana marga. Raja marga is closest to what we know as yoga, the path of mindfulness and meditation. Because raja marga practices are physical and mental, it is associated with hatha yoga due to Hatha yoga’s preparation of the body for meditation and building a relationship with God. The physical element of raja yoga most efficiently prepares my mind for the mental side of raja yoga, meditation, and prayer. This is why I fell in love with yoga as a spiritual practice in the first place. Raja yoga also looks like presence every moment, looking at people in the eyes and going about your daily to-dos with intention. The eight limbs of Ashtanga are included under the raja marga because raja yoga was conceptualized by Patanjali (author of the Yoga Sutras). To learn more about Ashtanga yoga, see my previous blog series on the eight limbs.
Today, we may hear the terms good karma versus bad karma. The idea that when someone wrongs you, they will receive justified punishment is almost the opposite of the traditional understanding of karma. Karma marga encourages practitioners to act without attachment to the results. This is responding to others without thinking “what’s in it for me?” The practice of service comes to my mind here. Serving others with small unnoticed acts of kindness is a perfect example of karma. Daily practice of karma for me looks like praying that God helps a friend in need or smiling at someone passing by.
The focus of bhakti marga represents devotion to religious intentions. For Christians, this can be enacted through lighting a candle for a saint or offering prayers of thanksgiving. Some Bhakti yoga practices involve devotional prayers, songs, and chants. In my opinion, this path is embedded in all of the Christian practices of the margas. Jnana is devoting yourself to God through studying his word; raja is preparing the whole self for full single-minded devotion; karma is devoting your actions to God by treating people with dignity and respect. In the Bhagavad Gita, bhakti yoga is the most accessible path to obtaining a relationship with God.
Yoga every day looks like a practitioner, a student, a good friend, and a faithful follower of Christ. Living your yoga happens by stepping on and off the mat. By striving towards practicing yoga at every moment, you may be a yoga teacher, too!
Peace and Namaste,