Yoga is an ancient tradition from the Eastern world, and these oldest practitioners tended to look at yoga as a tree with six branches. What all six have in common are the asanas (the physical positions and movements), Pranayama (the structured breathing or breath control), meditation and a strong moral code.
In Indian, “ha” means sun and “tha” means moon. Hatha yoga refers to these twin energy channels in the body. Its goal is to prepare the body for the more pure state of meditation to come in the 2nd branch. Hatha yoga was brought to us by an Indian yogi attempting to purify the body to make it fit for higher meditation. Western yoga is almost completely the Hatha yoga branch, and Westerners find mental and physical comfort in the first branch alone.
2. Raja Yoga
Raja and Hatha Yoga are highly interrelated. Raja means “royal” in Indian, and in the royal tradition, this branch of yoga has eight included branches as follows:
- niyama – self discipline – asana – positions – pranayama – breath control – pratyahara – sensory deprivation – dharana - meditation – samadhi – ecstasy
Raja yoga is often practiced by religious leaders and monastery dwellers. However, anyone can find benefits in the practice of raja yoga.
3. Karma Yoga
The basic teaching of karma yoga is that what we do and how we behave today will influence our happiness and fulfilment in the future, or a future lifetime. Understanding this cosmic principle helps us to create our current environment with love and positivity in order to forestall negativity in our future. Practitioners of karma yoga lead a life of selfless devotion and service to those less fortunate.
4. Bhakti Yoga
Bhakti is a Sanskrit term meaning love of God and mankind. Practice of bhakti involves controlling and channeling emotions and having tolerance for all who come into our lives.
5. Jnana Yoga
Jnana yoga is the branch of the intellect. Practitioners pursue scholarly paths, usually those of yoga masters or other spiritual traditions. In our Western religious culture, the Jnana yoga practitioner may be likened to the Jesuit priest, the Kabala scholars or Benedictine monks.
6. Tantra Yoga
Tantra yoga prioritizes ritual as the best way to experience the divine. The Sanskrit word tantra translates to weave or loom. Rituals in everyday life lead to a recognition of the divine in everyday life which leads, in turn, to a reverent attitude in everyday actions.
Tantra yoga is the most misunderstood of the six branches. The ancient book, “The Kama Sutra” is a well-known example of this misunderstanding of the real goal of tantra yoga. It is a book of sexual positions and techniques, and in Westernized yoga tradition, tantra yoga has become associated almost exclusively with these published sexual practices. Worldwide, however, most schools teaching this branch of yoga recommend celibacy.
When finally understood by Westerners, tantra’s ritualizations of everyday events appeal to them. Western civilizations tend to make rituals of everyday events anyway – births, deaths, weddings, going to church, forming clubs, and all the many various ceremonies and celebrations commonly held are all tightly related to tantra yoga rituals.
One of the best things about the six branches of yoga is that you are not limited to just one, or to a series. You can pick and choose what you want to practice when. Follow your own path using yoga as your toolbox.