What is Jnana Yoga?
You will not see Jnana Yoga on a class list at a Yoga Studio - but you might see examples of the practice, un-named and unrecognized, in mental health posts throughout social media. Jnana Yoga is about self-awareness. It has changed lives - and if you are capable of practicing it, Jnana Yoga could change your life too.
Unlike Vinyasa or Hatha Yoga, Jnana Yoga isn’t a physical asana practice. Instead, it is one of the four paths to enlightenment using the right knowledge.
Jnana is a difficult word to read, and it’s in the spirit of Jnana to recognize that difficulty as a distraction from learning. It makes sense to begin by explaining the pronunciation, before moving on with less distraction to the more important questions of what Jnana Yoga is, and how it might be practiced.
How to Pronounce Jnana Yoga
If your brain has been skipping over this combination of letters, you are not alone. Translation between spoken and written records, between languages and between regional accents, and also the passage of time, has had some strange results. The trick, for an English speaker, is to almost completely ignore the written letters. It is not pronounced the way it looks.
Jnana is pronounced G’yahn - in some places you might also see it spelled Gyana. That’s a hard G, as in ‘good’, and an ‘ah’ as in ‘open up and say ah’.
When pronounced traditionally, Jnana Yoga becomes ‘Gyan Yōg’ - the final ‘a’ is silent in both words.
What Does Jnana Yoga Mean?
In simple translation, “jnana” means knowledge or awareness. “Yoga” refers to the unity of the Self with reality. Together, the words refer to awareness and understanding of the Self.
It’s important to emphasize that the knowledge referred to is knowledge of and about the Self. Jnana Yoga is not about the pursuit of knowledge of just any kind. It relates only to gaining knowledge and awareness about the ‘Self’.
Is anything in Philosophy really that simple? Yes, it is - but only after you have the knowledge and understanding to see it clearly. Read on, to raise your awareness of Jnana Yoga and better understand this path of self-knowledge.
Jnana Yoga - The Path of Knowledge
Yoga philosophy describes four paths to guide the journey towards the seventh stage of yoga - the stage of self-realization often called enlightenment. These paths can be practiced singly or in any combination, to form each individual’s journey toward the seventh stage. No one path is considered superior to the others.
The paths presented in yoga philosophy are:
- Karma Yoga (the Path of duty)
- Bhakti Yoga (the Path of devotion to purity)
- Raja Yoga (the Path of self-control)
- Jnana Yoga (the Path of knowledge of Self)
To learn more about the Paths of Yoga, read: The Four Paths of Yoga.
The Purpose of Jnana Yoga
If Jnana Yoga is the path of self-knowledge, then its purpose is to move a person forward along their journey toward full self-knowledge and enlightenment. The connection between self-knowledge and enlightenment is clear - a person could hardly achieve unity of the Self without knowledge and understanding of the Self.
To achieve self-knowledge, the Path of Jnana Yoga involves receiving knowledge, analyzing it, understanding it, and detaching the ego from the Self in the process. Detaching from the ego makes a person stronger, and closer to purity.
Knowledge and Ego
There is a traditional saying that a Jnana Yogi loses every day, while a scholar gains every day. This is intended to mean that in the practice of Jnana Yoga, a yogi will lose ego as they learn they are merely a speck, a tiny part of the universe. A scholar, on the other hand, might grow their ego with the feeling that their increasing knowledge and expertise make them important and valuable.
Does it seem strange that a person could devote themselves to learning and yet not look at how much they’ve learned and feel proud? Perhaps absorbing and analyzing questions like that is part of the path to self-awareness.
The Monk and the Potter’s Boy
This story takes place once upon a time, in a small village in India. The people of the village knew all about the wandering monks, whose spiritual path meant walking constantly from place to place, free of possessions.
The people of the village were delighted when four very famous monks came walking down their road. The monks needed a place to rest for the night, so they asked in the village: is there a temple, or another place we can stay?
The village did not have a temple, but the monks were soon told about a potter who lived there. This potter, they heard, was a spiritual and religious man who would be very happy to share his house. And so the monks walked toward the potter’s house, and soon found it by the rows upon rows of pots outside.
Playing amoungst the pots was a young boy, about eight years old. He was tapping the pots with a stick, and the monks smiled at his games.
The potter was very happy to greet his famous visitors, and he welcomed them into his house in the traditional way. He touched their feet, gave them a place to sit, and brought them tea and food.
As the monks and the potter sat talking, the young boy came inside. He was the Potter’s son, Mohan, and the head monk made conversation with him. It wasn’t long before the monk asked about the game he had seen the boy playing with his stick amoungst the pots.
“Oh no,” Mohan said, “I wasn’t playing with the pots. I was testing them.”
The monk was surprised, and asked the boy what he was testing.
“I was testing if they were ready, or if they were still raw,” Mohan said. “My father makes the pots and puts them in the fire. When he thinks they’re ready, we take them out of the fire and put them outside. I hit them with a stick to hear the sound they make. If they aren’t ready, I can hear it, and we put them back in the fire to make them stronger.”
The old monk was impressed, because judging the sound so accurately was difficult. “You are very young,” he said to the boy, “can you do it?”
Mohan was confident he could, and assured the monk, “My father says I’m the best at it. He says I can do it better than him.”
“Okay,” said the old monk, a little surprised. “You know, we are also made up of the element earth. Can you also test us?”
So Mohan took up his stick, and he hit rather hard on the bare bald heads of the monks. Tck! Tck! He hit each monk, listening to the sounds.
One of the monks did not like a small boy hitting his head so hard. “I am a famous monk,” he thought. “People come to touch my feet and ask my blessing. This small boy should be touching my feet, not hitting my head with a stick.”
Even though he didn’t like it, the monk didn’t object. He smiled, and went along with the game the head monk had suggested.
When Mohan had finished listening to each monk’s head, the old monk asked what he had learned from the sounds.
“This one is raw,” Mohan said.
The head monk was surprised, and quickly asked what Mohan meant.
“This monk,” Mohan said, “he may have learnt a lot but his ego has not left him. That’s why he is still raw.”
The head monk, who had suggested the testing just for fun, was amazed by Mohan’s words. He turned to the monk Mohan stood in front of, and asked if Mohan spoke the truth.
“Yes,” said the younger monk, “I can see that it is true. I’m surprised that he could tell, but I was thinking that he was a naughty boy to be hitting me with a stick instead of touching my feet and asking for my blessing. So he is right, I still have ego because of my learned knowledge."
So an eight-year-old boy was able to see that a monk was not ready. The monk had gained ego instead of gaining awareness of the truth.
Who Should Practice Jnana Yoga?
Not everyone is equipped to practice Jnana Yoga. That’s okay, because other paths are equally valid. What is needed for the practice is not a genius intellect. Instead, the important qualities are openness to receiving information, patience, willingness to analyse information, and an ability to recognise the difference between information that is true and information that might not be true.
Receiving and Analysing information
At first glance, receiving and analysing information seems like a simple two-step process. However, both these steps are more complicated than they seem - and both might be occurring at the same time.
The keys to receiving and analysing information include possessing an open mind, common sense, and curiosity.
If you tend to reject information without analysing it (possibly because it challenges your existing beliefs), or automatically believe it without questioning it (possibly because it conveniently supports your existing beliefs), then you may not be suited to Jnana Yoga. These are natural human tendencies, but they can be overcome with open-mindedness, common sense, and curiosity.
Patience, also, is absolutely vital in both collecting and analysing information. It takes time to absorb information, and there is much to be gained from repetition. Repeatedly reviewing information can reveal unexpected knowledge.
Take, for example, the Bhagavad Gita. You can buy a copy of the Bhagavad Gita for twenty cents in some places. Theoretically, you then have all the information needed for enlightenment. But reading through the text doesn’t deliver immediate enlightenment. Instead, you need to read it repeatedly, and most likely spend a lifetime putting the information into practice until you truly understand it and absorb it into your awareness.
Jnana Yoga, therefore, requires the patience to apply repetition, time, and consistent effort in order to build knowledge of, and awareness of Self.
What can be considered to be True?
A vital aspect of analyzing information in Jnana Yoga is determining what is true. If you can directly perceive the information with your senses, you would consider it to be true. If you can see, hear, taste, smell or feel clear proof of the information, then it must be true. You would believe a wall to be hard if you put your hand on the wall and felt its hardness.
You might also believe information that you know has already been proven with acceptable certainty. You can reasonably believe cobras are poisonous because there is considerable proof that they are - you don’t need to suffer a snakebite before you believe it for yourself.
There are also forms of reasonable deduction, where complete proof of truth is not available. For example, if you can see a fire then you know there is a fire. However, if what you see is a sky filled with smoke, you might reasonably deduce that there is a fire somewhere, even if you can’t see the fire yourself.
Another form of deduction occurs when you are presented with a body of information, and you know the majority of it to be true because you have previously analysed it, or it has been proven elsewhere. In this case, you might deduce that the remaining unproven information is possibly true as well.
How to Practice Jnana Yoga
In order to practice Jnana Yoga, we collect knowledge and information about Self. We question who we are. We investigate our spirituality.
By being open to this information, by being curious and patient as we absorb and analyse it, by questioning and determining what is true and what is not true, we practice Jnana Yoga and progress in the journey toward awareness of Self.
The majority of us will not practice Jnana Yoga to the degree of the Jnana Monks, who are perhaps the most extreme of the monks in India. These monks give up their material possessions, including clothing, and walk barefoot around the country. They don’t attach to a place to call home, and they eat and drink very little. They are inspired to this practice because of the power of Jnana Yoga in their lives.
A less extreme practice of Jnana is available to more people. Any time we learn something about the Self, we are practicing Jnana Yoga. In reading this article, you are engaged in practicing Jnana Yoga.
Jnana (pronounced G’yahn) Yoga is the Path of knowledge of Self, on the journey to the Seventh Stage of Knowledge, often called Enlightenment. If you patiently collect information about Self then analyse, question, and seek the truth within that information… then you are practicing Jnana Yoga.
Practicing Jnana Yoga as a path to self-knowledge can be a very powerful tool to raise your awareness, reduce your ego, and move you closer to the seventh stage of yoga: Enlightenment.