For the majority of Westerners, yoga begins with the physical asana (posture) and pranayama (breathing) practice. For this reason, in the West yoga has come to be loosely defined as primarily a physical practice. But the reality is, this aspect of yoga, which is known as Hatha Yoga, is only one of six main branches, or paths, of yoga. The other five include Jnana, Karma, Bhakti, Raja, and Tantra. Like a tree, each branch of yoga can grow and develop at the same time.
Jnana Yoga is the branch of knowledge, wisdom, introspection, and contemplation. The study of classical texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita, Mahabrata, Ramayana, the Vedas, and the Upanishads form the basis of Jnana Yoga.
Karma Yoga is the branch of service or action, often referred to as selfless service. The concept of karma refers to the effects of one’s past actions on future circumstances. The more we engage in selfless service, the better our karma and, thus, the better our future circumstances. The Bhagavad Gita discusses the philosophy of Karma Yoga and offers stories as examples of the practice.
Bhakti Yoga is the branch of devotion to God or a higher power. Bhakti is driven by divine love and involves our personal relationship with God and, thus, might be a different experience for each person based on his or her beliefs. The Bhagavad Gita, Bhagavata Purana, and Puranas texts all discuss the philosophy of Bhakti Yoga.
Raja Yoga is the royal branch, or classical yoga (also called ashtanga yoga). Raja yoga involves the eightfold path, or the eight limbs of yoga. The purpose of Raja Yoga is to calm the fluctuations of the mind as outlined by the Yoga Sutras, the classical text of this branch. Raja Yoga is sometimes viewed as an umbrella over Hatha Yoga because it encompasses the goals of Hatha Yoga.
Tantra Yoga is the ritual branch. A combination of practices and ideas, Tantra Yoga views the universe as the physical manifestation of pure consciousness—that which connects us all. Everything in existence is thus treated as such. Tantra Yoga recognizes the subtle energies behind all that is physical and mental, and creates rituals to honor these aspects of life.
Hatha Yoga is the physical and mental branch. Hatha Yoga involves asana and pranayama practice—that which we are most familiar with in yoga class. Hatha Yoga prepares the body and mind for Raja Yoga. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is the classical text on the philosophy of this branch.
Over the next six months, each branch of yoga will be discussed in more detail so that you gain a deeper understanding of the wider framework that is yoga. As you learn about the other branches of yoga, you might notice that you are already pursuing more than one branch. You may find that one particular branch—or many branches—appeal to you.