The roots of Jnana Yoga can be traced back to Vedic scripture such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
Yoga as an all-encompassing practice is essentially a collection of techniques, behaviors, and contemplations that is about exploring the true nature of reality through self-enquiry.
Jnana Yoga is an aspect of the yogic path in which the aim is to understand the self: your thoughts, your emotions, your ego, your body, and the nature of this ever-changing entity from one moment to the next.
Jnana Yogis ask: am I the composition of the physical body? Am I the cognition of my sense organs? Am I the feelings and thoughts that arise as a result of the impressions of my senses? Am I all of these combined?
And then most importantly, if I am none of these, in their temporal and ephemeral nature, then who am I?
This self-enquiry is the enlightening spiritual path of Jnana Yoga.
In this article we’ll cover the below:
- Jnana Yoga definition: the word, the path, and the goal
- Origins and context of Jnana Yoga
- Asana practice in relation to Jnana Yoga
- How to practice Jnana Yoga
- Benefits of Jnana Yoga
Jnana Yoga Definition: Etymological
The word jnana is derived from Sanskrit, meaning “knowledge” or “wisdom”. It can also be defined as the “awareness of absolute consciousness” through self-study.
The pronunciation of Jnana is G’yan with a hard G, and is sometimes also spelt with a G.
The Intellectual and Experiential Path
Jnana Yoga is an intellectual and experiential path, in which you proceed in attaining self-knowledge:
#1: Intellectual Process
You can attain self-knowledge by applying your intellect and reasoning abilities. You can discern the truth through logical thinking.
This is traditionally achieved through studying scripture and absorbing the wisdom imparted by those who have already established themselves in Jnana Yoga. You would do this to some degree in yoga class!
#2: Experiential Process
Secondly, and most importantly, you attain the fruits of Jnana Yoga through first-hand, experiential self-study.
This involves raising the question, as the enlightened yogi Sri Ramana Maharshi stated, “who am I?” and contemplating it through direct exploration of the phenomena of your body and mind.
This intrinsically subtle and actively existential path is considered one of the most difficult means of spiritual development.
The Goal Of Jnana Yoga
The primary goal of Jnana Yoga is to attain liberation from the illusory world (maya) and to achieve union between the individual self (Atman) and the true Self (Brahman), in recognition of the oneness of all life.
By removing the veil of illusion, you break your subjective concepts, worldviews, and perceptions. In their place, you attain liberation from the self-imposed suffering of selfish desire, the limitations of the ego, and ultimately the ignorance in which we all reside.
Don’t let it unsettle you to be accused of being ignorant by default. In this philosophy, it is not a criticism, but rather an observation of the collective state of humanity. This ignorance exists simply because we are human and live in this world.
Origins And Context Of Jnana Yoga
Over time, yoga was distilled into four classical paths, each a function within a wider collective practice. This collective practice of yoga is about reaching a final goal of self-realization – sometimes termed as enlightenment. These paths are:
- Bhakti Yoga (path of devotion)
- Karma Yoga (path of action)
- Raja Yoga (path of self-control)
- Jnana Yoga (path of self-knowledge)
No path is considered better or higher than the other, and there’s no prescription that says you have to practice them each in a certain measure.
To help understand Jnana Yoga, we have to look at the wider picture. Asking “who am I?” in a yogic format requires contemplation of the context.
Let’s take a look at the contextual templates in which Jnana Yoga is based:
#1: Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu text that focuses on liberation from suffering, was the first to introduce the concept of Jnana Yoga.
While Jnana Yoga involves the study of scriptures, it also includes practical and experiential knowledge gained through meditation training, rather than being solely theoretical.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Jnana Yoga is a means to intellectually comprehend formless reality, and the non-duality of the self:
“Truly, there is nothing here as pure as knowledge. In time, he who is perfected in yoga finds that in his own Atman.”– Bhagavad Gita 4.38
#2: Advaita Vedanta
Similarly to the Bhagavad Gita, classical Advaita Vedanta explains Jnana Yoga as pursuing “knowledge of the absolute” through four attitudes as outlined below:
- Discrimination (viveka) – being able to identify the difference between the eternal (nitya), and the ever-changing (anitya)
- Dispassion of fruits (viraga) – being able to remain indifferent to the pleasure or pain of sensory objects (sense objects being anything that can be received by the five senses)
- Six virtues (satsampat) – moderation of mind, moderation of sense organs, withdrawal of mind from sensory objects, self-control, devotion, concentration
- Drive, yearning (mumuksutva) – intense longing for self-realization
Much like the above mentioned Vedic literature, the Upanishads also reinforce that Jnana Yoga is about self-realization: knowledge of oneness between the individual self (Atman) and the ultimate self (Brahman).
#4: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
Patanjali in antiquity developed and expounded Yoga Sutras, which are marked as classical yogic literature.
These classical sutras included Yamas (moral restraints), Niyamas (moral observances), and the 8 Limbs Of Yoga (instructions for embodying yoga).
Regarding Jnana Yoga, the Niyama of self-study (svadhyaya) is especially relevant as it describes the historical practice of studying Vedic literature.
This practice is essential in Jnana Yoga as it promotes self-knowledge and insight through the contemplation and analysis of spiritual texts.
Furthermore, this self-study of Jnana Yoga is conducted through 3 of the 8 limbs of yoga:
- Withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara)
- Concentration (dharana)
- Meditation (dyana)
The goal of jnana yoga corresponds to the goal of the 8 limbs: samadhi or divine union. Once again this is a stark parallel to the other contextual sources.
#5: Teachings Of Gautama Buddha
While technically different from yogic philosophy, there is a rich relationship between Buddhism and Vedic spiritual instruction.
Both traditions share similar moral guidelines, such as the Yamas and Niyamas, which are reflected in the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism.
Similarly, spiritual instruction in both traditions includes the withdrawal of the senses, concentration, and meditation. In the Dhamma, the Buddha expounds a process of awareness (sati) and insight (vipassana) to understand the self through Jnana Yoga.
Yogic philosophy also mentions that Jnana Yoga is employed through the study of scripture to progress in self-knowledge through inspiration.
Similarly, Buddhist philosophy also emphasizes the importance of self-knowledge, which is learned in part through suta-maya-panna: wisdom acquired from spiritual literature and listening to others.
Jnana Yoga, therefore, is an ancient practice of self-realization, as described in these religious and spiritual sources.
It is a path of knowledge and wisdom through which individuals develop self-knowledge and insight by engaging in introspective, critical contemplation of the nature of the self, the universe, and the relationship between them.
So how does your asana practice fit into this?
Asana for Jnana?
Asana practice was (and is) one aspect of a holistic path to create harmony in the body and breath and therefore ripe conditions for meditative states, to lead to self-realization.
Starting the journey towards self-realization involves getting to know ourselves better, starting with the obvious and easy-to-understand parts and gradually exploring the more subtle aspects of our being.
Basically, asana practice helps us develop a greater understanding of our minds using our body as a forum that leads to a wisdom that goes beyond just thinking, and can only be sensed deep inside.
You may have found that after asana practice, a natural self-inquiry starts. You might ask yourself questions like “What’s this feeling I get when I do yoga that’s hard to explain?” or “Why do I feel an intuitive sense of balance in my body and mind?”
In order to answer these questions, we turn to the practice of Jnana Yoga.
How To Practice Jnana Yoga
Essentially, Jnana Yoga is a practice of using the mind to observe itself in the below route:
- Enquire into its own nature
- Enquire into its relationship with the body and vice versa
- Enquire into its identification with thoughts, ego, emotions and bodily sensations
Sitting to meditate would be an obvious format to conduct this inquiry, but self-realization through Jnana Yoga can of course happen through meditative application in all states.
For example you can contemplate the self in your asana practice, interactions with your environment, interactions with people, or observation of experiencing pain, pleasure, or neutrality.
What we’re getting at is that your mind and body is constantly in flux and engagement through your senses with the outside world, and so self-enquiry can constantly be applied.
Benefits Of Jnana Yoga
Jnana Yoga is about having clarity of the truth about the mind, body and the universe. This itself is a benefit, but broken down, what does this clarity look like?
Here we outline the benefits:
#1: Freedom from suffering
The ability to truly reject attachment or hatred and maintain self-control, because you are not ignorant in thinking that objects outside of yourself will bring you lasting peace.
#2: Increased awareness
The practice is about developing concentration as an auxiliary component to enquire into the self. This concentration will create an uncluttered mind and more peaceful thought.
#3: Sympathetic joy
Attaining the liberating insight of sympathetic joy is said to develop a state of compassion because understanding the self and the universe provides clarity to be empathetic towards others.
We’d recommend a good starting point for self-knowledge would be to attend a 10-day meditation retreat:
If you’ve enjoyed reading about Jnana Yoga, why not check out these other articles on yogic philosophy: