What is yoga? Good question. And you’re not likely to get a concrete answer. When a philosophy has been around as long as yoga has, perhaps 5,000 to 6,000 years (even that is debatable), defining yoga is liable to be tricky.
The yoga that’s most popular in the West, Hatha Yoga, is one of five—or six—branches, depending on who you talk to. Each branch represents an aspect of human life. While many practitioners focus most of their energies on a single branch, there is overlap as well. For example, practicing raja yoga (meditation) may make us more conscientious about our actions (karma yoga). In the same way, hatha yoga or bhakti yoga (devotion) can make raja yoga more accessible. And so on.
Below are very brief synopses of the branches of yoga. Each branch could be an area for committed lifelong study, so these few sentences I offer do not do them justice. I encourage you to explore these branches on your own.
5 Branches of Yoga
- Hatha Yoga: This is the branch that most Western practitioners are familiar with. Hatha Yoga is the practice of physical postures combined with breathing practices. The intention is to harmonize the nervous system in order to create the conditions for the mind to settle. In subsequent posts, I’ll delve more deeply into this.
- Bhakti Yoga: This branch is most often associated with devotion, the ability to see the divine in all of creation. It is yoga of the heart. At an elemental level, it is also the practice of channeling our emotions in service of something larger than ourselves. Chanting—alone (bhajan) or in community (kirtan)—is fundamental to bhakti yoga, as a way to transcend the ego.
- Raja Yoga: Raja yoga is mainly concerned with the taming of the mind. Meditation, observing the mind and discovering its nature, is its fundamental practice. The intention is to gain liberation through seeing the illusory nature of our “mind stuff” so that we can unhook from delusion and dwell in the vastness of awareness.
- Jnana Yoga: This is the path of study and self-inquiry. In the same way that bhakti yoga is yoga of the heart, jnana yoga is yoga of the mind. It is sometimes to considered to be the most challenging path, because it requires years of intensive study. Jnana yoga is generally enjoyed by the more intellectually inclined.
- Karma Yoga: Karma means “action.” But that is only half of karma. The other, just as important, half is intention. Karma yoga recognizes the importance of harmonizing our actions with our intentions—aka integrity. Karma yoga also recognizes that all our actions have consequences. Selfless service is among the cornerstone practices of Karma yoga.
Again, I encourage you to look further into each of these branches, how they intersect, and how they might play out in your own life. These small descriptions do not come close to encapsulating the depth and breadth of these life practices.
If you want to take a really deep dive into learning about the yoga tradition and defining yoga read Yoga: Immortality and Freedom by Mircea Eliade. It is not light reading, but it provides an extensive history of yoga’s roots and its many, many branches.
This post is part of our Yoga 101 series, which will give a glimpse into the basics of yoga philosophy and practice. Next time, I’ll approach defining yoga from the perspective of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Stay tuned.