Feel Good Yoga Victoria Logo

Branches of Yoga

Although there are many paths of Yoga, they are anything but mutually exclusive.  It is common for practitioners to start on the physical path, such as Hatha Yoga and while liberating the body become more open to liberating the spirit and the mind.  Yoga is like a tree with eight branches.  Though each branch is special and unique in character, it is also part of the same tree and all paths of Yoga lead to some degree of peace, fulfillment and greater awareness.  Here are the main branches of Yoga:

Bhakti Yoga

Bhakti Yoga is considered the Yoga of devotion.  Singing and chanting is a common way for the bhakti yogi to express this devotion and experience oneness with all creation.  Other practices include making flower offerings and meditating on a divine being.  The bhakti yogi sees the divine in all beings and strives to cultivate an attitude of tolerance and acceptance for anyone they come in contact with. Mahatma Gandhi is probably the most famous of the bhakti yogis although Martin Luther King Jr. is another example.

In their complete surrender to the divine, the bhakti yogi must also surrender all things related to the ego.  People with a high degree of emotional sensitivity are often drawn to this type of Yoga.  Although pure and well-placed devotion can be a beautiful form of Yoga, blind devotion can be dangerous.  In order for devotion to be a true form of Bhakti Yoga it must be of a sort that encourages compassion, respect and understanding for other traditions and faiths.

Guru Yoga

Guru Yoga is a type of Yoga where the teacher is the paramount focus of the spiritual practice.  In some ways it is related to bhakti Yoga in the sense that you are expected to honor and meditate on your guru until you have a sense of merging with them.  For this type of Yoga to be effective the guru is expected to be enlightened. Because the guru is thought to have a connection to ultimate reality, merging with them through absolute devotion is thought to bring enlightenment to the guru’s devoted followers.

People considering the practice of this type of Yoga should be wary. “Gurus” who claim to be able to pass on enlightenment who ask disciples to engage in sexual relations or require devotees to give them large sums of money are just a few of the possible telltale signs that they are not truly enlightened and do not truly have the well-being of their followers in mind.

Hatha Yoga

Hatha Yoga is the Yoga of the will and physical discipline.  It involves cultivating one’s energy through asana and pranayama.  The goal of all paths of Yoga is to achieve enlightenment, but Hatha Yoga differs from all other types of Yoga in that it approaches this enlightenment through physical techniques instead of the mind or the emotions.  The belief of the Hatha yogi is that unless the body is properly purified and prepared, the higher stages of concentration, meditation and ecstasy are impossible to achieve.

Jnana Yoga

Jnana Yoga is the Yoga of knowledge which allows the yogi to cultivate a sense of discrimination between true spiritual reality and the illusions of the material world.  A fundamental aspect of this approach is the concept of non-dualism.  In Jnana Yoga, it is of central importance to realize that reality is singular and that our perception of multiple and distinct phenomena is the basic misconception that is at the root of all suffering.  So what about the pen you are writing with or the floor your chair sits on? How can we say that these are not real?  According to the Jnana Yoga masters the answer is that these things are real at a base level of consciousness, but are not ultimately real or separate or distinct things. Upon achieving enlightenment, everything including the practitioner becomes one with the immortal spirit.

Jnana Yoga is the path of discriminating wisdom such as it is presented in the Upanishads.  They might read and memorize ancient yogic writings and then try to apply these truths to their lives.  It is more of a philosophical path of Yoga and can be very difficult since the mind must be clear in order to practice it. Jnana yogis use the power of right discrimination (Viveka) and dispassion (Vairaga) to lift the veils of illusion and allow a better understanding of their own natures.

Karma Yoga

Karma Yoga helps the practitioner achieve enlightenment through selfless work that is done without thought of personal reward.  The Karma yogini seeks to rid themselves of karma (both black and white) by acting unselfishly, without attachment and with integrity.  Those who practice Karma Yoga believe that all our actions have far-reaching consequences for our eternal destiny regardless of whether these acts are physical, spoken or even un-acted upon thoughts.

In the Bhagavad-Gita Lord Krishna teaches Arjuna the art of working selflessly for the divine without any expectations for reward.  Through her compassion and service to the poor of India, Mother Teresa of Calcutta is one of the better-known examples of Karma yoginis.  Many people feel overwhelmed when they first embark on a path of Karma Yoga, but in order to practice Karma yoga we don’t necessarily have to deny our own needs or give all our money to the poor. Our Karma practice can start with a smile or a kind word or anything large or small that does not promote our own self-interest.

Japa Yoga

Japa Yoga is mantra Yoga – the Yoga of reciting sacred syllables with the goal of reaching perfection and enlightenment.  This type of Yoga uses potent sounds, tones and syllables to harmonize the body and focus the mind.  The japa yogi might use a traditional mantra or a mantra of their own creation to free themselves from the cycle of negative thoughts, desire and aversion which torment most people. Traditionally, practitioners of mantra Yoga might receive a special mantra from their teacher as a formal means of initiation. They are asked to repeat this mantra as often as possible and to keep it secret. Many Western teachers don’t even pick Sanskrit words as mantras for their students.  Words such as love, peace or happiness are also acceptable.

The most well-known traditional mantra is the sacred syllable “om”.  This syllable is said to correspond to the sound of the universe vibrating and is thought to be a symbol of the absolute reality, the Self or Spirit.  It is composed of the letters a, u, m.  ‘A’ corresponds to the waking state; ‘U’ corresponds to the dream state; ‘M corresponds to the state of deep sleep; and the nasal humming sound of the letter ‘M’ is said to represent the sound of ultimate reality.

Raja or Ashtanga Yoga

Raja Yoga involves mastery of the mind and senses in order to achieve Samadhi.  There are many facets to this type of Yoga.  It essentially involves the mastering of all aspects of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga.  The words Raja Yoga literally mean “Royal Yoga”.  This type of Yoga is also known as classical Yoga and involves an eightfold path, designed to lead to enlightenment or liberation.

Tantric Yoga

Tantric Yoga is a complex and often misunderstood branch of Yoga that can be traced back to the Common Era and was quite widespread at around 1000 CE.  In the West and even in India, Tantric Yoga is often perceived to be a Yoga of spiritualized sex.  While Tantric Yoga embraces the physical body and some sexual rituals are used in certain branches of Tantric Yoga, these sexual rituals are usually not of primary importance and are not even practiced in the majority of schools.  A more accurate way of viewing Tantric Yoga is as a spiritual discipline that requires complex rituals and visualization of deities. These deities are considered to be missions of the divine or are sometimes the equivalent of Christianity’s angels and are meant to aid in the yogic process of contemplation.

There are as many types of Tantrism as there are types of Yoga, but the three main schools are Kaula, Mishra and Samaya.  Mishra and Samaya are considered by many to be higher schools of Tantrism. Kaula Tantra is the school that is divided into a right-handed path and a left-handed path.  Right-handed rules of Tantric involve years of celibacy, fasts and strict purities such as not looking at the opposite sex for 40 days, wearing no shoes, sleeping without a bed, waking at two o’clock in the morning to begin prayers that are not finished until sunrise, etc. Right-handed tantra emphasizes inner union through meditation.  Left-handed rules of Tantrism involve things like sitting in graveyards for rituals (smashan sadhanna), sitting on dead bodies (sava sadhanna), drinking from the skulls of humans and ritualistic meat eating, alcohol consumption and copulation.  However, it is important to note that even left-handed tantra is 99% ritual and 1% sex.  All Tantra is first and foremost inner sex, the union of body, mind and spirit.

So it is important to realize that a clear distinction exists between traditional Tantra and what we call contemporary Western “Neo-tantrism.”  The former is a rigorous spiritual discipline and involves much renunciation and ritual; the latter focuses on sexual fulfillment, seeking to combine it with spiritual ideas and aspirations.

Kundalini Yoga

The name kundalini means “she who is coiled” and hints at the secret “serpent power” that Tantric Yoga seeks to activate.  This secret power is the latent spiritual energy or primal universal energy force stored within the human body.  Kundalini Yoga practitioners seek to awaken the kundalini by purifying the nadis (energy pathways).  Gopi Krishna is one of the more famous kundalini yogis and his autobiography is a must read for those interested in delving deeper into this branch of Yoga.

Yantra Yoga

Yantra Yoga is a lesser known branch of Yoga that requires the practitioner to focus their mind on geometric mandalas that are said to be representative of the Cosmos. Yantras are widely used in Tantric worship where they are treated as the “body” of one’s chosen deity. They are drawn on paper, wood and cloth or inscribed on metal and other materials or even constructed in three dimensions out of clay.

In the higher stages of this Tantric ritual, the Yantra must be completely internalized or in other words, perfectly visualized. Yantra Yoga consists of the gradual dissolution of this inwardly constructed Yantra, together with the dissolution of the individuated consciousness. If successful, this exercise will catapult the practitioner into pure Consciousness and liberate them from the many dualistic misperceptions that tend to plague the unenlightened mind. The Tantric system employs a large number of Yantras and traditionally there are 29 recognized Yantras or geometric devices.

Laya Yoga

Laya Yoga involves absorption in God to experience ultimate bliss. In some ways this type of Yoga is similar to Jnana Yoga in that the main precept is to eliminate a sense of separateness from absolute reality. However, Jnana Yoga tends to approach this concept of non-duality from a more intellectual perspective. Laya Yoga can also be seen as a way to describe various Tantric meditation approaches that seek to dissolve the conditional mind through breath control and Yoga mudras or seals. For instance this might involve visualizing God or Shiva in his brilliant, phallic form in the kama-rupa at the base of the spine. After six months of this practice certain Laya-Yoga Masters claim the practitioner can enjoy powers (siddhi) and longevity of up to 300 years.