Yoga is more than just stretching and exercise.
Many of us associate yoga with postures, movements, colorful workout clothes, and sometimes even certain social classes. While there is no problem with the various new types of yoga that have been created through western culture (naked yoga, goat yoga, puppy yoga, etc..), there’s so much more behind this ancient practice that many people don’t know.
What we know of as ‘yoga’ today is a result of thousands of years of different philosophies like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism being creatively merged and developed. To really understand it, imagine a tree – the roots, trunk, and branches. The image of a tree is used to symbolize yoga. It has branches, and each branch on this metaphorical tree represents a different history, philosophy, and intention. The word ‘yoga’ can be translated to ‘union’, each branch aims to obtain a union of some sort, this could be body, mind, and spirit, earthly and divine, or oneness with all.
Most Well-Known Yoga Branches
There are many different branches that have grown and developed over time, but there are six that are most well-known: Hatha, raja, jnana, tantra, bhakti, and karma. This may all sound overwhelming, but don’t worry, it’s not necessary for you to choose just one path exclusively as many of the practices and benefits of each branch overlap. The most predominant form of yoga in western culture is ‘hatha yoga’. This branch focuses on the movements and postures we recognize most today, so we’ll get into that one first!
Before we dive in, here’s a quick glossary of some terms we’ll use throughout this piece that may be unfamiliar.
All words marked with an asterisk (*) will be words in the glossary:
- Pranayama – breathing techniques
- Asanas – physical poses
- Mantra – chanting or reciting
- Mudra – hand gestures
- Shatkriyas and Shatkarmas – cleansing techniques
- Ascetic – the practice of severe self-discipline and abstention
- Shakti – divine feminine energy
- Shiva – the male expression of the divine
- Yogis – someone who is proficient in yoga
Yoga Branch #1 – Hatha
Hatha yoga is the most common form of yoga in the west and is the most modern branch. Ha is believed to mean ‘sun’ and Tha means ‘moon’ because this practice is designed to harmonize the sun and moon energies that exist within us. However, the exact translation of hatha is ‘force’ which is why it is referred to as “The Yoga of Force”. Before it’s modernization, Hatha yogis* would participate in physically taxing activities like holding their arms in the air for hours, hanging upside down, and submerging themselves in cold water, this was part of the ascetic* tradition. Life as an ascetic meant that you would devote your entire life to hatha yoga, constantly working to ‘burn off’ past karmas and refine the body and mind. The Buddha practiced asceticism for many years before coming to the conclusion that the extreme feats reaped no benefits and he eventually rejected them. Many of the asanas* and movements we perform today only began to exist within the past 50 years as yoga became popular in the west. Hatha is centered around making the body perfect and filling it with life force by viewing it as a vehicle for the soul. It is anything that involves the physical body, this includes asana*, pranayama*, meditation, mantra*, mudra*, and shatkriyas, and shatkarma*. All aspects of hatha yoga are used conjunctively with a goal of perfecting the health of the body and unlocking the subtle spiritual elements of the mind.
Yoga Branch #2 – Raja
The meaning of Raja is ‘royal’, ‘chief’, or ‘king’ and is also known as ‘Classical Yoga’, it is considered to be the ‘best’ or ‘highest’ form of yoga. It focuses on meditation and contemplation and teaches self-discipline and self-respect. This branch strictly follows the Eight-Fold Path (also known as the eight limbs) of Yoga as written in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The eight limbs of yoga are:
- Yama – self-control
- Niyama – discipline
- Asana – physical exercises
- Pranayama – breath exercises
- Pratyahara – sensory withdrawal
- Dharana – concentration
- Dhyana – meditation
- Samadhi – complete realization
These eight limbs are believed to encompass all necessary requirements needed to attain inner peace, self-control, and clarity. A large majority of those who practice Raja yoga live by spiritual or religious orders. They aim to unite with their higher, spiritual self and actively work towards a connection with ‘God’ or ‘consciousness’.
Yoga Branch #3 – Jnana
This branch involves a deep comprehension of yogic scriptures and texts with a goal to develop or increase intellect and wisdom. Jnana means ‘Knowledge” therefore, this form of yoga uses questioning, self-inquiry, contemplation, and meditation to better understand the body, soul, and truth of oneself. It is considered to be the yoga of the mind and wisdom; priests and scholars are often Jnana yogis. It is one of the most difficult branches of yoga but is also one of the most direct. Jnana yoga approaches the studying of the spirit with an open and curious mind. Those who are intellectually inclined, rational, and open-minded are most drawn to this branch.
Yoga Branch #4 – Tantra
Tantra yoga began as a religion around 500BC and was a primary belief system in India for over 1000 years. Tantra is derived from the word ‘tan’, which means ‘to expand’ or ‘to weave’ and it delves into all sensations and energies that ‘weave’ through the mind and body. This branch is known as the most misunderstood and is often perceived as sorcery or witchcraft and is confused with ‘spiritualized sex’. While sex is a part of it, it is made to be sacred and promotes purposeful and meaningful sex as opposed to no sex at all. Tantra yoga is based on the worship of Shakti* and views life as a dance between Shakti and Shiva* symbolizing the balance of both masculine and feminine energies. To put it simply, tantra yoga is intended to expand our awareness, recognize subtle energies in all physical and mental aspects of life, and to experience the Divine in everything we do.
Yoga Branch #5 – Bhakti
Bhakti yoga, known as “The Yoga of Devotion” centers its practices around seeing the Divine and developing love, acceptance, and tolerance for everyone and everything. This branch involves the devotion to ‘God’ or a higher power, because of this, it may be a different experience for each person depending on their beliefs. Bhakti yogis implement their devotional nature into every aspect of their lives whether it be completing chores or dealing with conflict. Alike to Raja yoga, there are eight limbs that each practitioner follows:
- Kirtana – singing of devotional songs
- Dasya – devotion to a higher power
- Shravana – listening to sacred scriptures
- Pada-sevana – worship
- Vandana – submission to ‘God’
- Sakhya – friendship with the Divine
- Smarana – including and acknowledging the divine during meditation
- Atma-nivedana – self-offering
Some examples of people who possess the devotional and selfless qualities of bhakti yogis and the branch of yoga as a whole, include: Martin Luther King, Jr, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teresa.
Yoga Branch #6 – Karma
Most people have probably heard the word ‘karma’ before. It translates to ‘action’ or ‘deed’ and, in Hinduism, it refers to the results and effects of your actions. Karma yoga is referred to as “The Yoga of Action” or “the path of service”, and is described as being inescapable. This branch is based on the principle that our present experiences are determined by past actions. Living life selflessly is promoted and practiced in order to ensure a future free from the bonds of negativity and selfishness. A focus on ‘living in the moment’ is emphasized by raising awareness of each and every thought, word, and deed. It is believed that changing your consciousness will result in a change in your destiny. Selfless services like volunteering or donating to charities are examples of ways one can better their karma and better their future circumstances.
Yoga and You
In order to truly understand yoga, it’s necessary to try it and experience it yourself. Many people turn to yoga to stay fit and some turn to it as a form of relief. Regardless of your reasons for choosing it, it has the ability to offer you everything you need and more.
The purpose of this piece was to show you that yoga is so much more than holding some poses and breathing a certain way, and we really only scratched the service. There are over 100 different types of yoga, and there is no one specific or ‘right’ way to practice it. Odds are you already actively participate in one or more of the branches mentioned. For example, if you volunteer regularly you are already practicing karma yoga, if you’ve ever taken a hot yoga class before you’ve practiced a form of hatha yoga, and if you actively try to express your gratitude and compassion for others then you are leading the lifestyle of a bhakti yogi.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which branch you’re most interested in or which type of yoga you practice. Yoga can help you discover inner peace, your true self, and simultaneously tone your body and relax your mind. The ability to control your mind is a skill that can set you free from things that may hold you back from reaching your full potential.