The Eight Main Branches of Yoga
When you take a bird’s-eye view of the Yoga tradition, you see a dozen major strands of development, each with its own subdivisions. Picture Yoga as a giant tree with eight branches — each branch has its own unique character, but each is also part of the same tree. With so many different paths, you’re sure to find one that’s right for your personality, lifestyle and goals. These eight branches are described here, arranged in alphabetical order.
Bhakti Yoga: The Yoga of devotion: Bhakti Yoga (pronounced bhuk-tee) practitioners believe that a supreme being transcends their lives, and they feel moved to connect or even completely merge with that supreme being through acts of devotion. Bhakti Yoga includes such practices as making flower offerings, singing hymns of praise, and thinking about the divine being.
Guru Yoga: The Yoga of dedication to a master: In Guru Yoga (pronounced goo-roo), one’s teacher is the main focus of spiritual practice. Such a teacher is expected to be enlightened or at least close to being enlightened. In Guru Yoga, you’re asked to honour and meditate on your guru until you merge with him or her. Because the guru is thought to be one with the ultimate reality, this merger is believed to duplicate his or her spiritual realisation in you.
Hatha Yoga: The Yoga of physical discipline: All branches of Yoga seek to achieve the same final goal, enlightenment , but Hatha Yoga (pronounced haht-ha) approaches this goal through the body rather than through the mind or through the emotions.
Hatha Yoga practitioners believe that unless the body is properly purified and prepared, the higher stages of concentration, meditation, and ecstasy are virtually impossible to achieve. Yoga asks you to take proper care of it, so that you can enjoy not only health but also longevity and, ultimately, enlightenment.
Jnana Yoga: The Yoga of wisdom: Jnana Yoga (pronounced gyah-nah) teaches the ideal of non-dualism — that reality is singular and your perception of countless distinct phenomena is a basic misconception. What about the chair or sofa that you’re sitting on? Isn’t that real? What about the light that strikes your retina? Isn’t that real?
Jnana Yoga masters answer these questions by saying that all these things are real at your present level of consciousness, but they aren’t ultimately real as separate or distinct things. Upon enlightenment, everything melts into one, and you become one with the immortal spirit.
Karma Yoga: The Yoga of self-transcending action: Karma Yoga (pronounced kahr-mah) seeks to influence destiny positively. This path’s most important principle is to act unselfishly, without attachment, and with integrity. Karma Yoga practitioners believe that all actions — whether bodily, vocal or mental — have far-reaching consequences for which we must assume full responsibility.
Mantra Yoga: The Yoga of potent sound: Mantra Yoga (pronounced mahn-trah) makes use of sound to harmonise the body and focus the mind. It works with mantras, which can be syllables, words or phrases.
Traditionally, practitioners receive a mantra from their teacher in the context of a formal initiation. They are asked to repeat it as often as possible and to keep it secret. Many Western teachers feel that initiation is not necessary and that any sound is appropriate to use. You can even pick a word from the dictionary — such as love, peace or happiness.
Raja Yoga: The Royal Yoga: Raja Yoga (pronounced rah-jah) means literally ‘Royal Yoga’ and is also known as Classical Yoga. When you mingle with Yoga students long enough, you can expect to hear them refer to the eightfold path, as codified in the Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali. This is the standard work of Raja Yoga.
Another name for this yogic tradition is ashtanga-yoga (pronounced ahsh-tahng-gah), the ‘eight-limbed Yoga’ — from ashta (‘eight’) and anga (‘limb’). The eight limbs of this approach, which are designed to lead to enlightenment, or liberation, progress from yama (moral discipline) through to samadhi (ecstasy).
Tantra Yoga: The Yoga of continuity: Tantra Yoga (pronounced tahn-trah) is the most complex and most widely misunderstood branch of Yoga. In the West and in India, Tantra Yoga is often confused with ‘spiritualised’ sex. While sexual rituals are used in some schools of Tantra Yoga, this isn’t a regular practice in the majority of schools.
Tantra Yoga is actually a strict spiritual discipline involving fairly complex rituals and detailed visualisations of deities. These deities are either visions of the divine or the equivalent of Christianity’s angels and are invoked to aid the yogic process of contemplation.
Another name for Tantra Yoga is Kundalini Yoga (pronounced koon-dah-leenee). The latter name, which means ‘she who is coiled’, hints at the secret ‘serpent power’ that Tantra Yoga seeks to activate: the latent spiritual energy stored in the human body.