Pranayama versus Jnana Yoga

One of my readers posted the following question: Is it absolutely necessary to practice asana and pranayama to evolve to the highest human level or is it possible to do so by exclusively following the path of Jnana Yoga as taught by the likes of Ramana Maharshi or Nisargadatta Maharaj?

First I would like to point out that Ramana and Nisargadatta are in Western countries very differently portrayed than in India. Westerners, often disillusioned with their own religion and culture, like to be iconoclasts that are apt at pulling down established beliefs and rites. Ramana argued on many occasions against practicing Jnana Yoga on its own but those quotes are usually not published by Western authors or publishers because they don’t sit well with the Western Jnana audience. For example when Ramana was asked, “How come we have never seen you practice yoga, yet here you sit being liberated?” Ramana responded, “Make no mistake, everybody who seems to have reached spiritual liberation spontaneously has put in all the hard work in previous lifetimes.” There is no exception to this because everything in this world is an endless chain of cause and effect. If something is happening that seems uncaused it is so only because the causes are hidden from our view, but they are there nevertheless.

Another misconception is that Ramana became liberated when he was 10 years old, having a half-hour experience of lying down on the floor and surrendering to death. The truth is this was only the beginning to his awakening. The experience called him to undertake a lifelong pilgrimage to Mount Arunachala. After Ramana had arrived at the holy mountain, this little South Indian man commenced the possibly severest sadhana and tapas that any 20th century person had endured. For 12 years he not only remained silent but he radically refused any form of identification with his body to the extent that he did not only not procure any food (he was occasionally fed by some people who had compassion with his state), but he also refused to defend himself (he was pelted with stones and even defecated upon by people who had no compassion with his state).

When Ramana was eventually found in an underground dungeon and cared for by Ganapatti Muni, Sheshadri Swami and others, his body, which had been fed upon by vermin, was a mass of pass-oozing sores. Yet Ramana refused to identify with his body and by that time had reached the non-dual state. In the Brahma Sutra and other ancient texts it is said that those who want to attain this state need to qualify exactly through what Ramana brought, that is utter and total dis-identification with the body and turning away from the body. Ramana confirmed this later when he said, “To seek happiness and yet believe that I am the body is like trying to cross a river on the back of an alligator”

In the ancient days the Jnana Yoga was considered to be the most difficult type of yoga and the high road of success. Only those who showed exactly that dedication that Ramana exhibited were thought to be fit for it. The supreme teaching of Jnana Yoga is encrypted in the Brahma Sutra and we have only to look to the first stanza to find a definition of the qualification for Jnana Yoga: Athato brahma jijnasa – “Then, therefore, instruction into the ultimate Reality”. This cryptic word, athato “Then, therefore”, implies a dual prerequisite. The first prerequisite, implied by “Then” means that after previously having “appointed” ourselves to gain happiness through sensory objects (the body, money, sex, fame, power, real estate, $400 shoes, $5000 handbags, etc., etc.) these objects have ultimately been found wanting and therefore we have “disappointed” ourselves. This is a very, very powerful state and although it does sound a bit “disappointing”, without this disappointment, without this lure of the world having failed you, Jnana Yoga can never succeed.

The second term “therefore”, implies an even steeper attainment. It means that our intelligence (buddhi) needs to be free from viparyaya (error, misconception). Put simply it means that whatever or whoever you encounter in that world your “buddhi” is capable of looking right down into the heart of the phenomenon and in all and every situation identifies it rightly. I personally don’t fit that criterion and am hence not ready to practice Jnana Yoga. I also can’t remember in my over five decades of life to have met such a person. Even 5000 years ago when the battle of Kurukshetra was about to begin, Lord Krishna advised Arjuna that this “Yoga of inaction” as he called it, was only suitable for very few. And even Shankaracharya himself, the main proponent of the Jnana Yoga, says in Aparokshanubhuti, “this Royal Yoga is difficult to attain. In most cases one will have to combine it with Hatha Yoga to succeed”. Asana and pranayama are the defining elements of Hatha Yoga but let me get back to that later.

Back to Ramana: He perceived Mount Arunachala as the embodiment of Lord Shiva and circumambulated it daily for many years. Hidden to the view of many Westerners, Ramana had a very strong Bhakti side. Daily he practiced meditation on the Divine-with-form. On one occasion, for example, real estate developers wanted to build a large estate on the slopes of Arunachala. The local Hindu community did seek a legal injunction to stop the development on what they perceived to be a holy mountain. The judge was sympathetic but said he needed to have an affidavit signed by a reliable authority that this was no normal mountain. He was soon presented with a document signed by nobody but Ramana Maharshi himself, stating that this particular mountain was in fact the body of God. Does that sound like Jnana Yoga to you? Jnana Yoga is built on the premise that all appearances are nothing but mirages projected or superimposed on the one true reality, which is the formless Absolute, also called nirguna Brahman or the infinite consciousness. If you follow that line of reasoning no place is holy because they are all mirages, yet all places are holy because they are images superimposed on the one true Reality.

In the preceding paragraphs I tried to show that the modern Western Jnana movement strongly simplifies things and that originally Jnana was regarded as the highest and culminating stages of Yoga. To go there straight without putting in the legwork to me looks a bit like “I wanna have it all and I wanna have it now”. The ancient sages were saying, “Of course can you have it but are you willing to pay the price?” But what exactly is the price?

The Vedas are divided into three portions, called Jnana Kanda, Upasana Kanda and Karma Kanda, meaning portion dealing with knowledge, portion dealing with devotion and portion dealing with action. Out of those grew the main three categories of yoga, that is the Jnana, Bhakti and Karma Yogas. I have described these yogas in more detail in Ashtanga Yoga The Intermediate Series Anatomy, Mythology and Practice. Now let me delve a bit into mythology (there is lots to be learned from it even if we modern conquerors of the world often laugh at it as the naiveties of superstitious natives): A long, long time ago we lived in a civilization in which we were fully integrated into nature and human community. We did not perceive ourselves as having separate egos, which is why we did not fight against each other, there were only few disorders and we treated Mother Earth and all her beings including the animals and plants with great respect. Because we knew they are all us (remember the Jnana Yoga says the appearance of many forms has only one underlying common reality). We didn’t have to work hard because the Earth was abundant and even in our nakedness we were all dressed royally as the lilies in the field. We were not afraid because we knew that all beings were an embodiment of Love and so we did not produce arms nor did we have to horde wealth. In this first civilization we were held in the state of Jnana by grace and did not have to do anything for it, as it was the natural state.

This age in India is called Satya Yuga, the age of Truth and in the Bible it is the Garden of Eden. Western civilization is currently doing everything to eradicate any memory of this our lost greatness because it does not fit into our paradigm of linear progress. Our ancestors are always depicted as brainless brutes, yet all ancient cultures contain this tale of lost greatness and I believe we have much to learn from it.

According to myth our ancient culture was destroyed in three waves of destruction (with a fourth possible being upon us now) and I have described this process in more detail in Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy, so here a strongly simplified account: The first wave drove us out of Eden and made us build large cities and complex social structures. The process that Karl Marx called ‘estrangement’ began and with it depression, mental disorders and a tendency to see life as a meaningless accident. The yogis answered this societal development through Jnana Yoga. It consisted of three simple steps called ‘shravana (hearing the truth from one established in it), manana (reflecting upon it), nididhysana (embodying the truth).

Then came a second wave during which power, cities and egos grew much stronger (again I simplify here). Large kingdoms and empires grew with bellicose jingoes at their head and we entered a state of constant warfare against each other. Yogis responded by teaching Bhakti Yoga, during which the Divine-with-form outside of us is worshiped and we then endeavor to see this very Divine through the eyes of all beings.

This went on for a few millennia and then a third wave brought us to our current state. We now convinced ourselves that we are DNA-powered robots that are competing against each other for limited resources. If we accumulate and store more wealth we will be able to procreate with more other individuals and our genes and progeny (supported by our accumulated and handed down wealth) will flourish whereas those of the others will perish. More and more our civilization formed the belief of us against the ‘other’. This attitude and belief made us even more isolated from each other and alone and we became now more powered by greed resulting from fear. Yogis responded by teaching Karma Yoga, the yoga of right action. The term Karma Yoga was originally used as a name for a vast tool box of techniques (asanas, pranayamas, meditations, mudras, samadhis, etc.) that, when practiced, made people aware that there is within us a pristine state of love for all beings beyond fear, anger, greed and competition.

For a modern person living at the end of the fourth age (in India called Kali Yuga), a reasonable approach would therefore be to start with Karma Yoga, then include Bhakti Yoga and eventually add Jnana Yoga as well. In any case we are most likely to succeed if our practice includes all three main categories of yoga, i.e. our yoga must ultimately be a synthesis of Jnana, Bhakti and Karma. This teaching is of course not mine but was already formulated by the master Shri Aurobindo.

Where do terms like Ashtanga and Hatha fit in here? The actual architecture of Karma Yoga (yoga of action) was described by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutra, thus we could say that Ashtanga Yoga (Patanjali’s Yoga) is nothing but the architecture of Karma Yoga (we should not be confused by the fact that many today reduce Ashtanga Yoga to asana because as the late BKS Iyengar once said when asked what he thought of Ashtanga Yoga, “All yoga is Ashtanga Yoga”. He took of course Ashtanga Yoga to mean Patanjali Yoga, which is the original meaning of the term.

Hatha Yoga is then nothing but the lower tiers or echelons of Ashtanga Yoga, that part of Ashtanga Yoga that focuses on asanas and pranayamas. On the other hand Raja Yoga is the highest echelon of Ashtanga Yoga, being the part the focuses on the samadhis.

Finalizing now my pitch for pranayama let me quote the Taittiriya Upanishad. The Upanishads are a class of scriptures that were compiled right after the first waves of destruction had struck and we were driven out (well, drove ourselves out) of the Garden of Eden. This Upanishad tells of the five layers of the human being (panchakosha doctrine) of which the first three are body, breath (or pranic sheath) and mind. Looking into the Yoga Sutra we find in sutra I.31 the hint that the obstacles to yoga are residing exactly here, that is in body, breath and mind. Any efficient set of techniques must therefore engulf the triad of asanas (transforming the body), pranayama (transforming the pranic sheath) and meditation (transforming the mind).

Of course nobody and especially not me can tell you whether you do have “the gift of the last birth”. This traditional term implies that this current embodiment is your last because you have put in the groundwork in your previous lives. Yogis hold that in this final embodiment you can now purely go by the path of Jnana Yoga, as Ramana did. The only person that is able to tell whether you have this gift is you yourself. But there are indicators so that we do not fool ourselves. So is it said that a true Jnanin will need to hear the truth only once. Then their hair will stand on end, their face will be awash in tears from spontaneously hearing (shravana) of this liberating knowledge. They will then without delay go on to the second stage (manana) where they are reflecting on the truth until finally embodiment of the truth (nididhysana) is reached. If one cannot even after repeated hearing of the truth move on to its contemplation and embodiment then even Ramana Maharishi and Shankaracharya recommended techniques like pranayama, mantra and chanting of the Vedas to aid Jnana.

Personally I found pranayama when taught and practiced well to be of the most baffling benefit. In Pranayama The Breath of Yoga I made many attempts to explain exactly why pranayama is so beneficial but even after giving myself all these reasons I am still baffled. But let me try once more briefly: Pranayama (in its form of alternate nostril breathing) enables us to overcome the already in our physique inbuilt duality of left brain-hemisphere, catabolism, extraversion, efferent nerve currents, fundamentalism and sympathetic nervous system on one hand and right brain-hemisphere, anabolism, introversion, afferent nerve currents, relativism and parasympathetic nervous system on the other. It also enables us by means of internal and external breath retentions to enter the breathless state, thus temporarily shutting down the dichotomizing mind. This lets us enter that pristine state that we embodied when we were still in the natural state/ Golden Age/ Garden of Eden, that is the knowledge that all beings are part of a larger super-intelligence that expresses itself through even the slightest of us and that we and even all matter down to the minutest atom are nothing but embodiments and manifestations of Divine Love and Beauty.

About Gregor Maehle

Gregor Maehle began his practice of Raja Yoga in 1978 and added Hatha Yoga a few years later. For almost two decades he yearly travelled to India where he studied with various yogic and tantric masters. Since then he has branched out into research of the anatomical alignment of postures and the higher limbs of Yoga. He obtained his anatomical knowledge through a Health Practitioner degree and has also studied History, Philosophy and Comparative Religion. Gregor lived many years as a recluse, studying Sanskrit, yogic scripture and practising yogic techniques. He has published a series of textbooks on all major aspects of yoga. His mission is to re-integrate ashtanga vinyasa practice into the larger framework of Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga in the spirit of T. Krishnamacharya. He offers trainings, retreats and workshops worldwide.
Posted in Ashtanga Yoga, Mythology, Pranayama, Teaching.


  1. What of the teachings of the great sage Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, considered a partial incarnation of Krishna, who brought upon us the kirtana movement and taught that in the Kali Yuga chanting the names of God alone is enough to bring liberation? While I don’t necessarily ascribe to this, I’ve heard bhakti is easier to access and more productive in this age from others who I respect as well. Associating Patanjali with karma yoga also seems to be quite a stretch on many levels. Patanjali Yoga and Hatha Yoga are totally different spheres of activity which seem to have been horribly confused in this day and age, once again thanks to people such as Mr. Iyengar. For example, while Patanjali references asana, no commentator/”lineage” worth their salt (in my book) has brought in much more than sitting poses for meditation in reference to Raj / Astanga yoga implying that entire system is built around a meditative stance and not some “higher” or “lower” separation that has crept into the equation. While hatha practices can definitely help adn overlap in this regard ( and yes pranayama is a MAJOR hub), there seems more to be looked at. I appreciate your thoughts, though they seem to be somewhat of personal philosophical pandering considering all the above. Don’t mean to be cross as I appreciate your work, but just engaging in conversation for clarity’s sake.

    • Hello Frank,
      I remember a modern follower of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu castigating me and saying that the Patanjali Yoga that I was practising was satanic (he was actually referring to Patanjali and not to Vinyasa yoga) because it kept me away from expounding the glory of the one true God, i.e. Krishna. Now I am the sort of person that has 15 translations of the Gita on my bookshelf and I still get tears in my eyes when I read it but when I hear “only true God”, something in me switches off. If you read the poems of Hafiz (a Muslim), you can’t deny that he has reached God realisation. Similarly, if you read Lao-tzu you can feel that he had realised the formless Absolute, but from a completely different angle, meaning without any Bhakti whatsoever. I, myself, am a bhakta but I’m quite cautious with rubbing it into peoples faces as many these days are scarred by religion and separation between bhakti and religion are very fluid. In my Meditation books in sections on the ‘Nagaraj’ and the ‘Summit Metaphor’ I explain further.
      In regards to karma yoga I published a section on the meaning of this term in ‘Ashtanga Yoga The Intermediate Series’. Basically there are today three meanings to this term, of which the most modern one was coined by Sw. Vivekananda in this book Karma Yoga and it is actually deeply influenced by Christianity. In my post here I am using the ancient most, Vedic usage of the term. The Karma Kanda of the Veda is that portion that gave rise to action opposed to inaction. The other portions of the Veda would ask you to simply reframe all of your daily activities against the backdrop of either Jnana or Bhakti, meaning while you would for example plow your field you would be thinking, ‘I am doing that for the glory of the Divine’ (in the case of Bhakti) or you would think, ‘my oxen is nothing but the formless Absolute’ (in the case of Jnana). The Karma Kanda of the Veda introduced a completely new form of discipline. It says get off your field and perform dedicated actions (such as ritual, asana, meditation) which in any other context (such as agriculture) would be completely useless as they only constitute spiritual discipline. In that way all forms of yoga that are not covered by Jnana and Bhakti fall under the Karma Kanda of the Veda.
      Now to the personal ponderings: I am part of a current of mystics that view all components of mysticism (and yoga is a form of mysticism) that are today extant as remnants of an original super discipline (that I call Mahayoga), that embraced all aspects of life. Some important exponents of this current would be Ramakrishna, who practised all schools of Hinduism and also Islam and Christianity and stated they all led him ultimately to the same goal. Another exponent would be Aurobindo, who integrated the above mentioned Jnana, Bhakti and Karma into what he called Integral Yoga. Zooming now into technical yoga, all forms of Vedic Karma Yoga, whether they are Hatha, Kundalini, Mantra, Raja, Laya, Tantra or Ashtanga Yoga are then only parts and sub-discliplines of a large Maha Yoga. This view is for example taught in yoga shastras (scriptures) such as the Hatha Tatva Kaumudi or the 10 chapter edition of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (four chapter edition is useless). If you want to check up on those they were both translated by ML Gharote and published by the Lonavla Yoga Institute.
      To clarify further: The mystic George Gurdjieff said, “Knowledge has a physical dimension.” If you do let the body lag behind and only develop the mind (such as some forms of Raja Yoga) you will end up with similar problems as Hatha Yogins who only develop the body. Maha Yoga aims at a renewal of the entire human being, the body involved. A explained this in great detail in Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy which has as its main tenet that physical yoga practice and the Yoga Sutra are two sides of the same coin. Of course nowadays we are mainly faced with the opposite problem and that is asana practitioners that do not go beyond asana.
      Hope that clarified a few missing points.

      • Thanks for the detailed reply, Gregor – and yes it clarifies your perspective much, particularly your interpretation of the karma kanda as it applies to yoga. The path I am on is actually a form of mahayoga that incorporate many different strands of practice, so I follow your logic fine on those accounts, though I think there’s still more to explore and discuss on the interface between these various paths per what is needed for different aspirants that can be left for another day. Will check out your recommendations and do a little exploring in the meantime. Best to you.

  2. Thank you Gregor for the excellent commentary.

    Diogenes, one of the founders of Cynic philosophy, offers a perspective that could be relevant here: no labour is good, unless the end of it is the courage and strength of the soul, but not that of the body.

    So one could take those rungs of Ashtanga and Hatha practices in that light.

    Some are blessed with courage and strength of soul. Most are not and need to train. Here it is not clear to me how far one can go with just asana and pranayama and what other conditions negate these practices.

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