In the physical-fueled world of yoga, it’s easy to understand why most people believe that’s the only way to practice yoga. But in the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most beloved and sacred texts of India, it describes the necessity for different forms of yoga. Because humans have different personalities and varying tastes, they require multiple options for practicing yoga, too.
Think about yoga in terms of food preferences. If you don’t like kale or lima beans, does that mean you can’t eat healthy? Absolutely not. The same goes for yoga. Just because you might not do, or even like, poses, doesn’t mean you can’t practice yoga.
it’s helpful to understand yoga
Before I dive into the different forms of yoga, it’s helpful to understand the term yoga. Yoga is a Sanskrit word meaning “to yoke” or “to unite.” The ultimate union (known as samadhi) fully connects you to your spirit which in turn is connected to the whole universe. Some people call this enlightenment.
When a practice (any practice) helps you achieve that ultimate connection, it can be considered yoga. This doesn’t necessarily apply to every endeavor, but you could argue if you experience the ultimate union, you’ve reached a state of yoga.
Also, some debate exists on what constitutes a major form of yoga. Again, I reference primarily the Bhagavad Gita for the list.
There are six traditional or major forms of yoga: raja, karma, bhakti, jnana, tantra, and hatha.
Raja means “king” or “royal” in Sanskrit and pertains to the discipline of your mind. Through the practice of meditation and adherence to the eight limbs of yoga, you seek clarity through the quieting of your mind.
The Yoga Sutras identifies five stages you’ll travel to overcome the obstacles of your mind:
- In stage one, your mind is agitated
- The next state, you experience dullness or lethargy
- With stage three, your mind is distracted
- Then in stage four, you’re focused
- And finally, in the last stage, you experience your deepest and most tranquil mind.
Only in meditation can you release old thought patterns and get rid of what isn’t working in order to create new beliefs.
If this sounds similar to Kriya yoga, you’re right. Kriya yoga is a three-part system of self-discipline, self-study, and surrender to the Divine as a means of reducing kleshas. These five afflictions hamper your road to clear knowledge. (More on this in another post.)
👉 Raja yoga: union through meditation and focus
The second major form of yoga is karma yoga, considered the path of selfless service. In Sanskrit, kr means “to do” or “action,” and relates to any physical or mental action PLUS the result of that action.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna urged Arjuna to perform his work with no attachment to the results of his labor. Do the work for the sake of the work, and not for any praise or expected outcome.
Whenever you perform your work, live in a selfless fashion, and seek to serve others, you dissolve the perceived separation between the Self and others in order to see the Divine in Self and others.
A more familiar concept of karma is “what goes around, comes around,” a reference to the consequences of your actions. By releasing your attachment to results, you learn to be free from lust, greed, anger, jealousy, and ego.
👉 Karma yoga: union through action and service
Bhakti yoga is the third major type of yoga, and comes from the Sanskrit root bhaj which means “to serve” or “to worship.” This is the path of love and devotion.
With bhakti, you have the opportunity to cultivate acceptance and tolerance, to choose love over anger. Through love and devotion, you can then see those qualities in other living beings.
By using positive human emotion, it helps awaken your true identity and increase your ability to love. When you open your heart to the sacred, and be open-hearted in your most intimate relationships, you learn to live in harmony with all living creatures.
👉 Bhakti yoga: union through divine devotion and worship
The fourth traditional form of yoga is jnana yoga, the path of the sage or scholar. A system of wisdom, jnana yoga requires development of your intellect through the study of scriptures and texts of the yogic traditions.
This branch of yoga appeals to individuals who are more intellectually inclined, and can be a direct path to experiencing truth. For this reason, jnana yoga can be the most difficult and at the same time most direct path to union.
Self-study (the fourth niyama of the Yoga Sutras) provides a means for getting close to and studying the internal workings of your mind. All learning, reflection, and contact helps you with self-study.
TKV Desikachar in the Heart of Yoga writes, “Jnana can describe the search for real knowledge with the underlying assumption that all knowledge lies hidden within us. We just have to discover it.”
👉 Jnana yoga: union through knowledge and philosophy
The fifth form of yoga is probably the most misunderstood. With early origins in Hindu-Vedic thought, Tantra yoga’s purpose is to achieve complete control of yourself, and all forces of nature, thus attaining union with the Divine.
Tantra is a Sanskrit word meaning “weaving” and “expansion,” and its traditions are rooted in the sacred. With the focus on kundalini energy, a tantra practice reduces energy blocks and seeks the Divine in every experience.
Practitioners consider this form of yoga to be the technology of joy whether in sexual pleasure or samadhi.
“Many associate Tantra with sex and sexuality. In reality tantra is a mystical path that works with kundalini energy to purify, and strengthen the energy. This allows the kundalini to rise through the central channel thereby awakening the individual.” –Yogapedia.com
👉 Tantra yoga: union through ritual
The last major form of yoga is the most familiar to Westerners with its emphasis on deep breathing, physical poses, and meditation. Derived from two words in Sanskrit, ha meaning “sun” and tha meaning “moon,” the practice of hatha yoga therefore integrates opposites: dark and light, hard and soft.
However the hatha yoga we practice today has more recent beginnings than the previous ones–the late 1800s. It became a way to build strength, stamina, and energy in order to maintain long sessions of meditation. And now this physical branch is ubiquitous with our modern version of yoga.
Hatha yoga frequently gets mislabeled as a style of yoga such as gentle, beginner, or basic, thus perpetuating the idea that yoga = postures. But heart-pounding, sweaty vinyasa classes are hatha yoga, too.
Whenever you unroll your mat to practice breathing, postures, and meditation (or in most cases savasana) you’re doing hatha yoga.
👉 Hatha yoga: union through breathing, postures, and meditation
A form of yoga for everybody
Yoga offers a path for everyone. Short or tall, adventurous or more laid back, male or female. Yes, men, too! When the modern yoga era started in the late 1800s it was only taught to men, but you might not know that by looking at the demographics of current yoga classes.
If you seek enlightenment you don’t have to rely on updog or handstands to get there. You can find it in breath work, meditation, devotion, worship, study, ritual, cleansings, purifications, and more.