Eight Spokes of the Wheel: Moving Forward on the Yoga JourneyOct 01, 2022 06:00AM ● By Mila Burgess
If they’re asked what types of yoga there are in the world, most yoga practitioners in the West will likely mention vinyasa flow, yin, restorative, power, hot sequence, Ashtanga, and others. Yet while these mainstream forms of yoga are widely practiced around the globe, they all fall under one umbrella category of yoga: hatha.
Georg Feuerstein, a German Indologist that specialized in the philosophy and practice of yoga, describes these types of yoga as an eight-spoked wheel. In the hub of the wheel lies things like liberation, transcendence and equanimity of mind. The outer rim of the wheel consists of those things that hold the spokes together so they can connect to the hub. They represent the moral and ethical guidelines of yoga—namely the yamas and the niyamas.
Each spoke of the wheel is important, and the more practitioners can balance the spokes, the more complete their yoga journey will be. Hatha is the first spoke of the wheel.
The common translation of the Sanskrit word “hatha” is “willful” or “to persist at something with effort.” Hatha yoga refers to the physical postures of yoga, or asanas, as well as the effort to balance mind and body by moving through pose sequences and linking breath with the postures. The term “hatha” can also be broken down to its root words; “ha” means sun, and “tha” means moon. This translation references the relationship and balance of the masculine aspects of the practice, such as heat and activity, and the feminine aspects, such as coolness, stillness and receptivity.
While it’s an important part of yoga, hatha is but one piece of the overall yoga puzzle. There are other types of yoga that, combined with hatha, move practitioners toward the overall goal of yoga, which is to quiet the mind.
The second spoke is karma yoga, which is best described as acts of selfless service that benefit others. Karma yoga doesn’t have to be performed in a yoga studio, although it certainly can be. Participating in or hosting a donation-based yoga class that raises funds for a specified cause would qualify, for example. However, it most often refers to personal, social and professional activities in which mindful and intentional service is offered from the heart. To truly practice karma yoga, one must act with no expectation of the result, outcome or reward. As such, yogis believe this type of yoga diminishes the ego and helps to purify the mind.
Kriya yoga, the active aspect of yoga, is the third spoke. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the great sage outlined the kriya yoga system, which aims to lead practitioners into self-realization by assuaging the causes of suffering that arise from ignorance. The path to this awakened state consists of three parts: tapas, or self-discipline, svadhyaha, or the study of oneself, and ishvara prandidhana, surrendering to one’s higher self. Today, the practice of kriya yoga refers to a specific technique that focuses on the relationship between the mind and the breath. The belief is that by mastering the breath through practice and discipline, one can more deeply and intuitively connect with and surrender to the divine, true self.
Jnana yoga, the fourth spoke, is often referred to as the path of knowledge or the yoga of wisdom. The goal of jnana yoga is to be free of self-limiting thoughts and perceptions; it is a deep inquiry into the nature of one’s true self. This is achieved by practicing techniques of self-questioning and reflection called “The Four Pillars of Knowledge.” The pillars build upon each other, so they are practiced in sequential order and are meant to cultivate greater insight into oneself as well as experience the connectedness of all things. The Four Pillars are:
- Discernment — a deliberate and continuous intellectual effort to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not and between what’s permanent and what’s temporary.
- Dispassion — the cultivation of nonattachment and indifference toward worldly possessions and the ego-centered mind. Swami Sivananda said, “It is only when the mind is absolutely free from the attachment of all sorts that true knowledge begins to dawn.”
- Six virtues — Six mental practices designed to create equanimity of the mind and emotions. They are tranquility, restraint, withdrawal from worldly distractions, endurance, faith/trust and concentration.
- Longing or yearning — An intense, passionate desire to achieve freedom from suffering. To achieve this liberation, one must be so committed to the path that they let go of all other desires.
Once a practitioner has practiced the pillars successfully, they are ready to begin the three core practices of jnana yoga, namely, hearing yogic philosophy through a spiritual teacher, reflecting upon specific teachings, and meditating to connect with the self and experience absolute truth.
The fifth spoke, bhakti yoga, is the yoga of devotion. It is focused on the loving devotion of a personal deity or the Divine or on emulating the positive qualities that a practitioner observes in those they admire. Bhakti is often practiced by sharing stories, repeating mantras, or using kirtan techniques, which are a form of call-and-response singing.
Raghunath Cappo, a former monk who studied yogic texts extensively and who hosts the daily yoga podcast “Wisdom of the Sage,” developed a set of “six pillars” that can be applied to this practice:
- Do not criticize.
- Be tolerant.
- Take no offense.
- Be quick to apologize.
- See the good in others.
- Be grateful and keep a tally of your blessings.
The practice of bhakti yoga is the practice of love. Love is accessible to everyone. It encourages the ego to loosen its grip and allows people to consider others’ welfare as much as their own. Bhakti practitioners believe that love creates the mental and emotional conditions necessary for a fulfilling spiritual life.
Mantra yoga, the yoga of sound, is the sixth spoke. A mantra is a word or phrase repeated aloud or silently to invoke specific qualities. In Sanskrit, the root word “man” means “mind,” and “tra” means “instrument” or “tool.” The practice of mantra yoga is a tool a practitioner uses to quiet the mind.
While it’s simple and easy, repetition of a mantra is one of the most powerful forms of meditation. Mantra yoga focuses on repeating syllables, sounds, words or phrases while consciously breathing to create a meditative state.
There are three different ways to practice mantra yoga. The first is to loudly chant the mantra. The second is to whisper the mantra in a voice so quiet that only the practitioner can hear. The third is to silently chant the mantra to oneself.
Mantra yoga is based on the principles of sound vibration and the belief that everything one does—from their thoughts, words and actions to their emotions—involves energy. Practitioners believe that any time people think or do something, they send out waves of energy that have far-reaching ripple effects. When repeating a mantra, that energy is directed inward so that the practitioner can tap into their deepest, truest self to gain mastery over the fluctuations of the mind.
“Raja” means “king” or “royal” in Sanskrit, and raja yoga is known as the royal path of yoga. Raja yoga is the seventh spoke of the yoga wheel, and it refers both to the primary goal of yoga, which is to quiet the mind, as well as the method through which one attains that goal.
According to raja yoga philosophy, the biggest challenge one faces on the path to self-realization is a busy mind. Raja yoga, then, is sustained meditation. It encompasses the three dimensions of human existence because it is a physical, mental and spiritual endeavor. Its purpose is to reach a state of balance, peace, harmony and contentment on each of these levels.
Traditionally, raja yoga only emphasized the practice of meditation; however, the meaning of the term has evolved and is now often used interchangeably with “Ashtanga yoga,” referring to the “enlightened path” or “eightfold path” to the liberation of the true self.
“Sanyasa” is a Sanskrit term referring to an advanced stage in one’s spiritual development in which material possessions are renounced to concentrate more fully and purely on spiritual matters. Sanyasa yoga, the eighth and final spoke of the yoga wheel, refers to a lifestyle. For most yoga practitioners, the practice of sanyasa yoga is a reminder to let go of unnecessary possessions and minimize clutter so they may live a simple life inspired by love and peace. For many practitioners who dive deep into the wisdom, philosophy and practice of yoga, living this type of yogic lifestyle, and the journey toward it, is an important goal.
Although each type of yoga represents a unique spoke in the yoga wheel, in practice, they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, these yogic principles are inextricably interwoven. They each connect to the center hub as practitioners move towards equanimity of mind, and they are contained by adherence to moral and ethical observances. To keep the wheel moving forward, practitioners find balance by attending to each of the individual spokes of the yoga wheel. ❧
Mila Burgess, E-RYT 500, YACEP, teaches at LifePower Yoga in Sandy Springs. She is the owner of Metta Yoga, offering workshops, private lessons, virtual classes, teacher trainings and retreats. Contact her at [email protected]