How Many Branches of Yoga Are There? Exploring the Various Practices

Yoga in the western world is widely known as a luxury workout, a far cry from its spiritual roots. While yoga may seem simple on the surface, it goes far beyond the poses and flows you complete in a session. The tree of yoga is ancient, with deep, strong roots, six towering branches, and eight outstretched limbs.

This article offers a peek into the complex world of yoga and its complex parts, so continue reading to learn more!

What Are The Main Branches Of Yoga?

In the towering tree of yoga, you’ll find much more than the poses and sequences of your favorite yoga class. Although these poses are essential, they represent a tiny piece of the tree, like the leaves fluttering in the breeze.

The fundamental parts of the tree, including the outstretched branches and limbs, create yoga as we know it today. However, since yoga has been widely decolonized, many individuals are unfamiliar with these parts of yoga (especially in western society). In the yoga tree, you’ll find six main branches: Raja yoga, Bakhti yoga, Jnana yoga, Karma yoga, Tantra yoga, and Hatha yoga.

1. Raja Yoga

To start, let’s look at raja yoga, which is also called Classical Yoga. Its name translates to “royal,” “chief,” or “king,” creating the implication of its place in the hierarchy as the best or highest variety. Raja yoga has close ties with Patanjali’s Eightfold Path of Yoga, which we discuss in the following sections.

This branch of yoga prioritizes mediation and contemplation as an effort to fully realize the self. It helps participants control their intellect and thoughts via meditation, working toward a connection with a higher being or consciousness by detaching from the ego-based self. Instead, there’s a switch toward identifying with the true universal self.

While many folks generally associate soothing poses and sequences with yoga, this branch focuses on internal functions. Because of this, raja yoga has little outward spiritual expression, as participants must have immense self-discipline to focus on the interior practice.

2. Bhakti Yoga

The spotlight in Bhakti yoga illuminates the path of devotion. The emphasis rests on devotional love for and surrendering to God, making it a branch firmly rooted in religious beliefs. Bhakti yoga dates back to around 300 B.C. when it was mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita.

The name is derived from the root word ‘Bahj,’ which essentially translates to ‘to share.’ Although Bhakti yoga is tied to devotion to God, it can also represent the heart, love, and devotion toward a chosen deity. The deity or God is an ingrained part of Bhakti yoga, as all actions are dedicated to such.

There are several limbs on the branch of Bhakti yoga, each representing a different action in practice. These limbs include:

  • ‘Sakhya’: ‘Friendship’ wherein the Divine elevates the devotee to ‘friend’ status
  • ‘Shravana’: ‘Listening’ to sacred scriptures
  • ‘Smarana’: ‘Remembrance’ of the divine via meditation
  • ‘Kirtana’: ‘Singing’ devotional songs
  • ‘Dasya’: ‘Slavish’ devotion to the God or deity
  • ‘Atma-nivedana’: ‘Self-offering’
  • ‘Pada-sevena’: ‘Service at the feet of the Lord’ or ritual worship
  • ‘Vandana’: ‘Prostration’ before the image of God

3. Jnana Yoga

This branch of yoga shifts the focus to wisdom and knowledge, primarily realizing one’s true self. Jnana yoga dates back to around 400 B.C. when it was popular among priests and scholars. It was widely renowned as one of the most direct paths to insight and illumination, but a difficult path requiring much focus and self-discipline.

Jnana yoga involves the dedicated study of scriptures, hence its connection to priests and scholars. In addition, this branch involves a consistent inquiry into the nature of the self. Given its ties to the mind due to its cornerstones, it’s often referred to as the yoga of the mind, making it a suitable choice for intellectually inclined individuals.

4. Karma Yoga

Karma yoga represents the path of selfless action and is contemporarily referred to as the ‘Religion of Love.’ It dates back to around 300 B.C. and is the primary focus of the Bhagavad Gita.

In this branch, ‘Karma’ stems from the root verb ‘Kri,’ which translates to ‘to do.’ Selfless service, or service without the expectation of benefitting, is the heart of Karma yoga. It’s regarded as a substantial piece of Indian thought since this practice is said to achieve union with ‘the divine’ or a higher power. It achieves this by way of action as an offering to God.

Karma yoga revolves around precise awareness of thoughts, words, and deeds, suggesting we surrender attachment to potential consequences. Instead, it prioritizes focus on the moment in action, including thought, word, and deed, for a keen mindful approach. This form of yoga enables practitioners to experience these moments fully.

Generally, yogis practicing Karma yoga actively work and act to support and benefit the people and world around them. The goal of these efforts is to facilitate a unified and enlightened world.

5. Tantra Yoga

Tantra yoga embodies another branch of the tree, illuminating the pathway of ritual. It dates back to 500 B.C. when it originally began as a religion. It served as the primary belief system in India for over a millennium, although it was much less extreme. The introduction of Tantra yoga as a belief system was the first time the physical nature of the human body became a vital part of the yogic context.

Up until this point, yoga centered around non-physical actions, including worship, visualization, and meditation. Since Tantric yoga is associated with the human body’s physicality, many folks misconstrue its intentions as ‘spiritualized sex.’ However, this conception of Tantra yoga isn’t entirely the truth.

Although this branch of yoga does include a ritualistic act of fornication, it’s a rare occasion and is reserved for specific individuals. This is where the misunderstanding and misinterpretation stem from, as consecrated sexuality is included but isn’t the primary focus. In contrast, many tantric schools recommend a celibate lifestyle, which further disputes the common misconceptions.

6. Hatha Yoga

Hatha yoga revolves around anything that uses the physical body. It dates back to around 1100 A.D., so it’s considered the most modern branch of yoga.

It’s known as the yoga of force, and many teachers communicate this by comparing it to balancing the Sun and Moon energies within each individual. They teach the name ‘Ha’ to mean ‘Sun’ and ‘Tha’ to mean ‘Moon,’ creating the idea of balancing the energies.

Although balance and equilibrium are critical parts of physical yoga practice, Hatha yoga goes beyond this. In essence, it represents the physical body and mind and any changes via experimentation, physical ‘force,’ and movement.

This branch of yoga is most commonly practiced, especially in the western world. You might participate in Vinyasa yoga, Hatha yoga, Power yoga, or another class involving physical flows and sequences. These types of yoga stretch from the basics of Hatha yoga, so if you’ve participated in one of these classes, you’ve likely done Hatha yoga.

What Are The Limbs Of Yoga?

Yoga Outside

Aside from the primary branches of yoga, we see eight limbs of Yoga Sutras, or scriptures, which outline the yogic theory. Their writer, a sage named Pantajali, wrote them sometime around 500 B.C. when India’s medieval age was in full swing.

These sutras outline eight limbs in the yogic theory, each offering teachings on a different facet of yoga. Each limb of the yogic sutras includes different principles and standards.

When learning each limb of the Yoga Sutras, it’s essential to understand them in the intended order. Here’s how they go:

1. Yamas

This limb, known as Yamas, represents the principles that teach us how to interact with those around us. They teach critical lessons on how to treat those in our lives and around the world. These principles include:

  • Ahimsa: This principle, meaning non-harming, indicates a behavior that reflects support and nourishment to life forces around us. Instead of condemning those around us, we should uplift and liberate all individuals from harm.
  • Satya: Translating to truthfulness, this principle teaches us to be true to ourselves. Although we all wear masks or personalities that can change depending on our surroundings, we should show our true selves to the world instead of constantly upholding an illusion.
  • Asteya: This principle refers to stealing. It teaches us to respect the energy, time, and resources of individuals around us by not stealing from them. We create and uphold the boundaries we (and those around us) set.
  • Brahmacharya: Also known as abstinence, this can be applied as complete celibacy. However, we can also implement it by treating our primal life forces as sacred. This principle asks us to use the sexual energy we carry in ways that align with other aspects of yoga philosophy.
  • Aparigraha: This principle centers around hoarding, as greed is commonly referred to as the root of all evil. Greed proliferates and causes individuals to collect and hold onto wealth, material items, and people, which can perpetuate harm. In this principle, we trust that we’ll have enough to get by, allowing our temporal items (money, items, etc.) to ebb and flow in our lives.

2. Niyamas

The limb encompassing Niyamas outlines the standards of self-discipline. Like Yamas, this limb is further divided into sections (standards), including the following:

  • Saucha: This standard represents cleanliness, which includes several types. It says we should maintain good bodily hygiene, eat clean, and keep our space clean. In addition, it can encompass our thoughts, meaning we should promote pure and positive thoughts surrounding ourselves and others.
  • Santosha: Contentment is the key focus in this standard, as it encourages contentment in what we have. While we’re conditioned to strive to want more constantly and might be dissatisfied with our current situation, it’s good to feel content in our current place.
  • Tapas: This standard circles around heat. We strive for mastery by repeating our practice until we approach perfection, which can create burnout and pain (or heat). This standard reminds us that this is part of the process and encourages growth and development from such.
  • Svadhyaya: Self-knowledge steals the spotlight in this standard, outlining a process of striving to learn of our consciousness. Since yoga in the western world is highly externalized to focus on outward appearance, this is lost in many practices. However, an authentic yoga experience has nothing to do with external perceptions of us but instead embodies a direct inquiry into our inner world.
  • Ishvarapranidhana: This tenet of Niyamas represents a complete surrender to the divine, whatever that might mean to you. It asks you to seek a supreme divine being and connect through practice.

3. Asana

This limb of yoga focuses on Asana, or the physical practice of yoga postures. This is a crucial part of Pantajali’s teachings, as he taught the importance of taking time through each pose. Taking your time allows you to be fully present in each movement, focusing on both the internal and external aspects, including each breath.

He taught the physical aspect of yoga should be movements full of ease and joy, creating a tie between physical movement and internal awareness. In the western world, yoga is often used as a workout. We push our bodies to the limit, spending hours sweating and burning our muscles. However, this can be harmful and lead to injuries, so the sutras instruct to use yoga in a relaxed state to intertwine the body and mind.

4. Pranayama

Breath control, or Pranayama, is a cornerstone of many yoga varieties. According to yoga theory, our breath is what we use to absorb and interact with energy swirling around us. By using breath control in mindful practice, we can rejuvenate our bodies using this life force, possibly changing how our central nervous systems react to stressors.

Breathing exercises vary based on the type of yoga, but the original sequence is a 1:4:2 ratio. Inhale for one second, hold your breath for four seconds, then exhale for two seconds.

5. Pratyahara

Pratyahara represents the feeling of withdrawal. It allows us to disconnect from external factors that could distract us, like people talking around us, the music in the room, or the lights above us. The technique centers around the journey inward, encouraging us to find true peace.

The withdrawal process can be tricky for some folks, especially when many external factors distract you. Generally, it’s easier to be successful in this technique when you limit these factors. For example, you could practice in a quiet, dimly lit room with your eyes closed, as this may help you direct your attention inward and search for that feeling of peace.

6. Dharana

In a world of instant gratification and short attention spans, concentration, or Dharana, can be difficult. Turning our focus to a single point can be tricky, but it can aid in the process of deep meditation and inward evaluation.

Some folks find it easier to choose a focal point to help them concentrate, such as a candle, a deity statue, or a speck of paint on the wall (or any other unmoving object). It can help train the mind to focus, enabling better concentration throughout yoga and meditation.

7. Dhyana

Meditation and yoga go hand-in-hand. In some cases, they can be confused with the other, as some types of yoga incorporate meditative techniques for deep focus on concentration. Dhyana, or meditation, allows us to turn our focus inward and use other yoga tenets to improve.

It can be difficult to experience and achieve meditation, especially when new to the practice. So, many individuals find it easier to engage in a few other tenets of yoga, including pranayama, pratyahara, and dharana.

8. Samadhi

Lastly, samadhi represents enlightenment. The final stage of this journey through the eight limbs leads us to enlightenment. It‘s the switch from doing to being, allowing us to remain in the present moment indefinitely.

This doesn’t mean you need to remain still or in the same place. Instead, it refers to a detachment from the past and future. For example, when you complete an action, you don’t focus on the outcome. You complete your actions with love and remain entirely in the moment instead of dwelling on what could be or what was.