The Bhagavad Gita is a 700-verse Hindu scripture that’s part of a longer epic known as Mahabharata. In the Gita, Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna stand on a battlefield with opposing armies on either side. The prince is struggling with a moral dilemma: should he fight his friends and family, who happen to be with the enemy? Krishna explains Arjuna’s duties as a warrior and prince to him and, in doing so, sets distinctions between different types of yoga: Karma Yoga (the yoga of selfless action), Bhakti Yoga (the yoga of devotion) and Jnana Yoga (the yoga of self-transcending knowledge).
Rather than focusing on physical postures and meditation techniques (which Patañjali would later describe), the Gita explains how the ultimate goal of yoga is to connect and bind with God (i.e., a higher power and your true, divine self).
Karma Yoga is acting out your dharma (duty) in life without attachment to results. In other words: selfless action without any thought of gain, such as “What’s in it for me?” or “Will I be the best at this?” According to Krishna, the fruits of your labour should never be the goal; rather, “Do your work, abandoning attachment, with an even mind in success and failure, for evenness of mind is called yoga. With the body, with the mind, with the intellect, even merely with the senses, the yogis perform action toward self-purification, having abandoned attachment. He who is disciplined in yoga, having abandoned the fruit of action, attains steady peace.”
We experience this concept daily in the hot room, whether it’s a special Karma Class or not. Ideally, the point of your practice should never be based on a fixation with an end result. Sure, there are benefits to be gained through Bikram Yoga – a better body, better health, a clearer frame of mind – but all will fall into place naturally simply by showing up and doing the postures to the best of your ability.
Bhakti Yoga is a mode of worship consisting of unceasing and loving remembrance of God, a path to stay in constant touch with and form a divine, loving union with whatever higher power you believe in. In that way, you develop your spiritual self. One way to do this is through meditation.
Bikram Yoga is described as a “90-minute moving meditation,” where the mental effort (focus and concentration) required to maintain proper alignment during the postures, mindful breathing throughout the practice and stillness during Savasana contributes to a kind of “forced” meditation. The 26 postures become a tool to help anchor you in the present moment, preventing your mind from wandering and allowing you to forget your “self” for an hour-and-a-half, surrendering instead to spirit, or that which is greater than us.
Bikram Choudhury explained this concept perfectly when he was interviewed by 60 Minutes in 2005: “You use the body as a medium to bring the mind back to the brain. Perfect marriage between body and mind. Then, you can reach and knock the door to the spirit … the philosophy of human life. Who you are? Human. Why you came to this earth as a human? What [is the] ultimate destination of your life? To understand all these things you have to study yoga.”
The process of Jnana Yoga lets you learn to discriminate between what’s real and what isn’t, what’s eternal and what isn’t. This is, essentially, a path of knowledge in regards to the difference between the immortal soul and the body. Krishna says there’s no reason to grieve those who are about to be killed in battle, because never was there a time when they were not, nor will there be a time when they will cease to be. He explains that the “self” of every warrior is indestructible, and that it is this “self” that passes from body to body – like a person changing clothes.
You can put Jnana Yoga into practice the next time you’re in the hot room by remembering, throughout the 90 minutes, that you are not your body – or your mind. The real you – your true, immortal self, which is connected to the divine – is the pure conscious awareness that lies beyond them. Be aware of what your body is doing and how it’s feeling as you execute each posture; notice the thoughts being generated by your mind. To put it in Eckhart Tolle-speak: become the Observer.