The Four Different Types of Yoga

For the most part, when we in the West talk about yoga, we’re generally referring to Hatha yoga—the combination of asanas (positions) and pranayama (breath control) most commonly taught in American yoga studios.  But yoga is actually part of a much broader system, of which Hatha is only a part.  There are four distinct yoga systems, or sadhanas, and each one offers something different to the practitioner.

Hatha yoga is actually considered a means of preparing for the more spiritual or meditative yoga practices.  The term Hatha yoga comes from the Sanskrit words “ha,” meaning sun, and “tha,” meaning moon; accordingly, Hatha yoga is all about balance.  By bringing together opposite energies, the practitioner can achieve greater health and self-discipline.  Once the body is “tamed” through Hatha, aspiring yogis can move to Raja (or “king”) yoga, a more advanced technique which focuses on mastering the mind through meditation, postures and breathing.

Jnana yoga is yoga that strives for self-knowledge.  This “path of inquiry” is the practice most commonly associated with great thinkers like Ghandi and even the Buddha himself.  Students are taught to sit quietly and working at challenging and disregarding their previous abstract notions and beliefs.  Through self-questioning, practitioners can come to understand the separation between their bodies and souls, and thus achieve a greater understanding of what is eternal (real) and temporal (unreal).

Bhakti yoga strives towards loving-kindness and devotion to a personal form of God.  “Bhakti” is a kind of selfless love based on sacrifice and acts of generosity, with the erasure of the personal ego as a primary goal.  Bhakti yogis’ path consists of three stages—being a servant of God (Dwaita), a child of God (Vishistadwaita), and, finally, becoming one with God (Adwaita).  Bhakti yoga not only asks individuals to dedicate themselves to the divine, but also to make the separation between God’s higher and lower natures, and to strive to understand more complex forms of consciousness and truth, while still being engaged with our world.

Karma yoga is the path of action; that is, divorcing one’s actions from selfish motivations.  It emphasizes calming the mind and connecting with God as a prerequisite to action.  Focusing on potential rewards for our actions can lead to greediness and a sense of unfulfillment if we don’t get what we want.  Karma yoga encourages us to be in the moment, to “work when we work” and “play when we play,” and to seek refuge in a sense of inner peace and stillness, instead of speculating about the future.

Together or separately, these practices can benefit aspiring yogis both physically and mentally.  In all forms of yoga, the body and mind are strongly connected, and focusing on one will necessarily help the other.  Physical balance, strength and peace are incomplete without their emotional and spiritual counterparts, and working towards achieving both will help the practitioner lead a healthier and more peaceful life.