6 classical forms of yoga explained

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The 6 Major Forms of Yoga Explained

In the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most beloved and sacred texts of India, it describes the necessity for different forms of yoga. These became known as the classical forms of yoga.

While we love our physical-fueled classes, humans have different personalities and varying tastes. So 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.

what does yoga mean

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.

When you reach this stage of samadhi, you’ve obtained enlightenment.

Any practice that helps you achieve ultimate connection can be considered yoga. This doesn’t necessarily apply to every endeavor, but we are able to practice mindfulness in a great many ways.

There are six traditional or major forms of yoga: raja, karma, bhakti, jnana, tantra, and hatha.

The first four were described in the Bhagavad Gita. 


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.

👉 Raja yoga: union through meditation and focus.

#2 karma yoga

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

#3 bhakti yoga

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

#4 jnana yoga

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

#5 tantric yoga

The fifth form of yoga derived from earlier Hindu-Vedic thought. Its 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

#6 hatha yoga

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.

Our modern day hatha yoga practice traces its origins to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and more recently, the 1800s when Sri Krishnamacharya “popularized” it.

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. Whenever you practice breathing, postures, and meditation (or in most cases savasana) you’re doing hatha yoga.

👉 Hatha yoga: union through breathing, postures, and meditation

a major form 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.

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6 classical forms of yoga explained
classical forms of yoga explained

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Shannon with Purple Lotus Yoga
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For 20 years, I’ve helped women of all ages and sizes to realize their dreams of becoming inspiring yoga teachers. 

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