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The Different Types of Yoga | A Brief Overview

Updated on June 15, 2009

Yoga is an approach to life that is meant and designed for everyone. Although newcomers to yoga typically join a yoga class based upon accessibility of the classroom or the convenience of knowing others in the class, eventually a yogi must select a system of yoga that is specifically refined to their needs. Whether you are new to yoga and just setting foot into the wonderful world of yoga for the first time, or you are a devoted practitioner of the yogic science, understanding and knowing the full philosophical background and history of yoga will help you in preparing and deepening your spiritual practice. Not every system of yoga will work for you, and knowing the varieties of yoga available will give you the opportunity to select a practice that fits your character and needs best while also fulfilling your spiritual aspirations. If you would like to experiment with some of the different techniques of yoga you may want to explore which has a variety of free lessons on yoga.

Brief Introduction to Yoga

The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root word of yuj, which has literally been translated as “to control,” “to yoke,” or “to unify.” Put into context, yoga is a philosophy and practice that leads one towards the control of the mind and yoking or unification of the individual consciousness with the cosmic.

Yoga as a practice system is derived from many centuries of spiritual study and philosophical inquisition, and although most people would consider that yoga as originated from the south eastern part of Asia now known as India, many spiritual saints claim that it was once a part and parcel of all religions. This belief that yoga is a universal form of spiritually that was once practiced throughout the world does not go without logical explanation as archeological research and findings have shown practices similar to those performed in yoga were also practiced in the continents of South America and Europe, especially the practice of the yoga asanas or postures. Yoga has also greatly impacted eastern religions as well, forming the foundation for religious philosophies like Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Hinduism.

Although there are many hundreds if not thousands of branches of yoga, 6 primary systems of yoga were outlined by the mystic Patanjali somewhere between 2-6 A.D. Patanjali, the founder of Samkhya philosophy, defined the 6 major systems of yoga as Raja Yoga, Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Kriya Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Hatha within his authored text the Yoga Sutras.

Aside from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, other texts which are considered to be significant contributions to the philosophical structure of yoga include the Vedas, Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Shiva Samhita, as well as various philosophies from Tantra. Together, these texts encompass the general body and science of yoga philosophy and cover a historical timeframe of nearly 2,000 years, the first major texts (the Vedas) being written 600-1000 BC and the most present written in and around the 16th century (including parts of Hatha Yoga philosophy).

Bhakti Yoga

Bhakti Yoga is a form of yoga in which the yogic practitioner focuses on the element of devotion within their life and spiritual practice. A strong sense of faith is needed in Bhakti Yoga, and one should be willing to surrender themselves to God or the higher forms of creation within their spiritual practice. As one might guess, many of the practices and techniques outlined in Bhakti yoga are focused upon devotion and self-surrendering. The most prominent techniques used in Bhakti yoga are kirtan (chanting/song), japa (mantra repetition), and meditation on the divine.

Bhakti Yoga is a path of yoga for the strong of heart and those that are well connected to their emotions and feelings. Love is given emphatic importance in the practice of Bhakti yoga as one devotes their whole being to the prayer and practice. It is said that Bhakti Yoga is commonly represented in the form of human relationships as the practitioner focuses upon their object of worship as a lover, friends, partner, or master.

The object of focus for a Bhakti Yogi will not always be the same; some will focus on their guru or teacher, others God or the Divine, and in other cases it may be the universe or cosmic force. No matter what the object may be, the practitioner devotes herself to the object of concentration until she has merged with her object of devotion, relinquishing the bonds of ego.

Hatha Yoga

The word Hatha is composed from the Beeja Mantras, that of ha and tha (although it is also that that the two words mean sun and moon). In the Hatha yoga texts it has been explained that ha represent the vital force, or the pranic body, while tha is an element of the mental force. With this in mind, the practice of hatha yoga is one of purification and preparation; it is a purification practice in the sense that the techniques are designed to help eliminate imbalances within the mind, body, and energy channels or nadhis. It is also a preparation practice as hatha yoga considers techniques like the yoga postures (asanas) and breathing practice (pranayamas) as preliminary disciplines for the more subtle and refined practices like meditation and concentration.

The modern day practice of Hatha Yoga that is being used through the world is generally limited to only the physical practice of yoga known as the asanas; yet this is not the full structure of Hatha yoga. Hatha yoga embodies a wide variety of practices including Shatkarmas (body cleansing), Pranayamas (nadhi cleansing), Mudras (energy channeling), Bundhas (energy locks), and other techniques which lead towards Samadhi (self-realization). Yet many of these practices are not used by the general practitioners who claim to practice Hatha Yoga, and for this reason the application of Hatha Yoga has been associated with only the postural qualities of yoga.

A significant aspect of Hatha Yoga that differentiates itself from other systems of yoga is that Hatha Yoga believes in a sequential purification of the human-being. We begin by first cleansing the organs, then purifying the body, then gradually working towards balancing the energy channels, which will lead to purification of the mind. Like Raja Yoga, Hatha yoga has moral codes of conducts which are practices prior to the more advanced spiritual techniques; however unlike raja yoga these moral standards are not necessary, and a practitioner can begin their spiritual search without them.

The major text for Hatha Yoga is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Although undoubtedly a significant contribution to the science of yoga, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is the youngest of the major yoga texts with its most recent author contributing to its development in the 15th or 16th century.

Raja Yoga

Raja Yoga means “royal yoga,” or “royal union” and is one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy composed by Patanjali in his yoga sutras. The primary principle of raja yoga is liberation through the vehicle of the mind, and therefore significant emphasis is given to the use of the mind for undergoing spiritual transformation and growth. Although a highly effective system of yoga, offering the most rapid transformation in the shortest period of time, raja yoga requires a great deal of both stamina as well as mental calmness. Without these two qualities it is very difficult to practice raja yoga, and one who tries to undertake the study of raja yoga without a strong foundation will suffer greatly. This is because raja yoga develops psychic, physical, and spiritual powers which can be overbearing, causing significant damage to one that does not possess a sound body and mind.

Raja Yoga is typically divided into eight limbs, or stages, which are as follows:

  • Yama- code of conduct and self restraint

  • Niyama- religious observances, devotion to ones practice, and discipline

  • Asana- formation of a stable seat for both the mind and the body

  • Pranayama- regulation of breath which leads to a unification and balance between the body and the mind

  • Pratyahara- withdrawal of the sensory organs of perception from the external environment including all five senses (six if you include the mind)
  • Dharana- concentration

  • Dhyana- meditation

  • Samadhi- self realization, or a super conscious state of being

The primary vehicle for Raja Yoga is the mind. Therefore the practices like yama, niyama, asana, and pranayama are all designed to help purify the body and tame the mind for the more advanced practices of pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and Samadhi.

Karma Yoga

Karma yoga is the path of yoga in which “discipline of action” is give utmost importance. The primary feature of Karma yoga is the adherence to ones duty known as dharma while maintain a mental and spiritual detachment from the fruits of one actions. Karma yogis are the modern day humanitarians who live to serve the world without consideration for their own personal needs or desires. Karma yoga is considered to be one of the more effective systems of yoga for those living in Kali yuga, one of the classifications of time periods of which we are currently a part of. Karma yoga does not require the practice of techniques like asanas, pranayama, and meditation but rather focuses on doing actions without the thought of self gain or self benefit. In Karma Yoga, one gradually dissolves his or her ego until they eventually merge with the divine. This merging is natural and spontaneous and does not put the student in danger of psychological or physical disorders or dysfunctions.

Karma yoga was first introduced in the Bhagavad Gita with the two following statements:

Therefore, without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme.


Therefore, o Arjuna, surrendering all your works unto Me (Lord Krishna), with full knowledge of Me, without desires for profit, with no claims to proprietorship, and free from lethargy, fight.

In these two quotes we see the body of Karma yoga; devotion without expectation of reward or familiar. In return, one does the service of the divine and ultimately merges with the cosmic consciousness.

Jnana Yoga

Jnana Yoga is the path of knowledge and wisdom. The primary purpose of this system of yoga is to fulfill the needs of those who approach things intellectual and require explanation for the events that occur in spiritual growth and transformation. Through study and contemplation, the Jnana yogi pursues self realization through knowledge, exploring all of the aspects of yoga using her mind and intellect.

In a modern age, many people need Jnana yoga in one form or another due to the rational nature of the western mind. Due to the prominence of scientific logical and rationalization, it is difficult for the modern mind to accept the mystical aspects of life without evidence and logic. While not everything in yoga can be explained in this manner, there are many aspects of the practice which can; modern discoveries in physics and human psychology are gradually drawing parallels between eastern mysticism and western science.

In Jnana yoga there are believed to be four guidelines which lead to salvation:

  1. Viveka- Discrimination: Viveka refers to the ability to discriminate between the real and the unreal. In this context the real is Brahman or the eternal and the unreal is all other things.

  2. Vairagya- Dispassion: Vairagya means detachment from all objects. This detachment is a state of mind and should not be confused with disassociation.

  3. Shad-sampat- Six Virtues: The six virtues or Shad-Sampat are: tranquility, dama (sensory control), uparati (renunciation), titiksha (endurance), shraddha (faith), and samadhana (concentration).

  4. Mumukshutva- longing for liberation: Mumukshutva requires that the student express a strong desire for liberation. Without such motivation the Truth cannot be realized.

Kriya Yoga

Kriya Yoga is a system of yoga that revolves around the purification of the chakra system and is primarily concerned with the kundalini energy, or vital force, within the body. Kriya yoga was initially a widespread practice that was usually conducted through the science of tantra. Although kriya yoga and tantra yoga were substantial practices within the science of yoga, they were eventually abandoned as many people feared they were unorthodox and pursued unconventional means towards self-realization. It wasn’t until modern times, around the mid 1800’s, that kriya yoga was revived through Mahavatar Babaji.

Kriya yoga is said to be a system of yoga in which rapid transformation of the mind, body, and spirit occur. This happens through the activation of kundalini energy which is considered to be the primordial energy within the universe that is present within ever being. By awaking this energy, the chakra, or energy centers, running along the spine are awakened which causes rapid spiritual transformation.

Swami Yogananda, one of the prominent teachers of Kriya yoga in the past century, taught that kriya yoga is a study of spirituality that has woven its way throughout the history of yoga. Yogananda taught that Kriya Yoga was referred to in the Bhagavad Gita by Krishna who said:

Offering inhaling breath into the outgoing breath, and offering the outgoing breath into the inhaling breath, the yogi neutralizes both these breath; he thus releases the life force from the heart and brings it under his control.

It is within this quote that we find the final practice of Kriya yoga which is the cessation of breath. It is believed that once the breath is conquered, the life force is also conquered as they are inevitability interlinked with one another. Once one is able to gain control over the life force, then he/she becomes immortal, insusceptible to the pains of life and death.

Kundalini Yoga

The final major system of yoga we will be discussing is Kundalini Yoga. Kundalini Yoga shares many similarities with the practice of Kriya Yoga, the difference being that Kundalini Yoga is perhaps older and can be considered a direct branch of Tantra Yoga. Kundalini Yoga is specifically concerned with the Kundalini energy which was mentioned in the previous section as the primordial force. Kundalini Yoga is an advanced system of yoga that is usually guided under the instruction of a spiritual master. As the techniques require a great deal of control and energy, Kundalini Yoga is typically only taught to students who have made substantial advancements in their practice of yoga.

The techniques taught in Kundalini yoga are designed to awaken the kundalini, also known as the serpent energy. Once this energy is released, the process of awakening various levels of consciousness begins. As the energy rises through the chakra, or energy center, starting from the base of the spine, consciousness is lifted into higher dimensions. Once the energy has risen to the top of the charka column the state of self realization is experienced as the individual consciousness is merged with the cosmic.

Techniques used in Kundalini yoga include asanas (poses), meditation, pranayama (breathing practices), and rituals all designed to awaken the kundalini energy. Once the energy is released, then the practices are designed to control and direct the energy through the various chakra centers.

Improper training in Kundalini Yoga is dangerous. If a practitioner attempt to pursue the path of kundalini yoga on their own or follows an incompetent teacher, than they are no doubt exposing themselves to many potential problems. Western psychology has even dubbed a turn for those who have become psychological patients through the practice of yoga as victims of Kundalini Syndrome. Symptoms of Kundalini Syndrome include mania, depressions, hallucinations, and even schizophrenia.

About The Author

Swami Omkarananda is a disciple of Swami Tureyananda. As a devoted student of spirituality, Swami Omkarananda is working to help distribute the right teachings of yoga for people seeking the spiritual life. Originally from the United States, Omkarananda now lives in India, working with school to encourage the use of yoga in daily classroom activities to promote the health and vitality of students in both private and governmental schools.When not active at the schools, Omkara works with disciples at the Tureya Foundation's Community in India, teaching courses in Vedanta and the traditional practices of kriya yoga.


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    • profile image

      shipra pathania 

      6 years ago

      awesome sir.....knowledge of full yoga...thanks

    • Greenheart profile image


      8 years ago from Cambridge

      Thanks Omkarananda.

      I practice a form of bhakti-yoga with my Guru,Adi Da.

      He has called the practice many things.Once he called it Ruchira Buddha bhakti yoga.I understand it to simply be about love,of the Guru,the ancient way of being distracted by the Guru's Grace.

      Happy new year.


    • Bloggify profile image


      9 years ago

      Excellent hub !


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