Did you know that anime (Japanese animation style), which has been around for just about 50 years, has 22 different forms and innumerable characters and renderings? Contrast this with Yoga, which boasts of 5000 years of history, but all its forms can be part of your vocabulary by the time you finish reading this definitive yoga guide!
To make it easy for you, understand this. The word Yoga means joining, connection, or alignment. Of what, you wonder? Of the 3 principal aspects that make us up. The Body. The Mind. And the Spirit. So, depending on how we choose to unify these three, we can be drawn to one type of yoga or another.
There really are only 4 Yogas
Surprising as it may seem, this fundamental of Yoga has never changed ever since it was originally documented in the Upanishads (post-Vedic literature). And to compound that surprise, only a sub-stream of one of these four involves contorting the body in yoga-poster postures!
The four Yoga-types are:
In Sanskrit, the word Karma means action. When we perform actions in a way that we lose our identity (our ego), the work we do becomes selfless and a powerful means to connect and align body-mind-spirit. Karma Yoga is often a way of life for people, like mothers for instance.
Ideal for: Someone active and devoted to work without the expectation of compensation.
Bhakti means devotion, or complete faith in a deity, God-form, scripture, divine being, supreme consciousness, or other forms of energy. Unlike Karma, which is marked by action, Bhakti is marked by an emotional surrender, resulting in the identity/ego being subdued.
Ideal for: Someone who animatedly and consciously cherishes their object of prayer/devotion.
Jnana (pronounced Gyan) Yoga
Jnana Yoga helps convert intellectual knowledge into practical wisdom. It is fuelled by curiosity and directed at self-realization and inner unification. Jnana yogis use deep meditative processes to gain breakthrough insights that rational inquiry or analysis cannot produce.
Ideal for: Someone with a temperament of curiosity, and capable of deep meditation.
Raja Yoga is an all-encompassing, duplicatable system that helps refine the body, mind, and spirit individually and in conjunction with each other. It relies on 8 sequential aspects of practice, to build the necessary disciplines at body-mind-spirit levels. More on this follows.
Ideal for: Anyone looking for a readymade path for beginners who have none of the inclinations required for the preceding 3 yogas.
The 8 aspects of Raja Yoga: Ashtanga
Yes! Maybe you feel you are on familiar territory now. You probably have come across this word. Asht-anga. Literally, it means eight-limbs. And that is the generic basis of Raja Yoga practice as documented around 2 BCE by Patanjali, a great Indian Sage.
Please note that this must not be confused with the Ashtanga-Yoga form promoted by Pattabhi Jois, a Hatha Yoga practitioner of the 20th century, who set up a school with the name Ashtanga.
Hatha Yoga? That sounds familiar too, you say? Very likely, since this is the subset of Raja Yoga that deals with ‘Asanas’ and ‘Pranayama’, which are the parts that make yoga practitioners physically move and work out.
So what else do Raja Yoga practitioners do? Let’s go through the list of eight quickly, before we jump right into the popular schools and forms.
Yamas provide guidelines to control the conduct of a yogi. They include the qualities that yogis must adhere to, to align themselves from within. So that their body-mind-spirit combine stays in integrity. These qualities include nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, moderation (sexual included), and detachment.
Niyamas are observances or disciplines that help create habits. These include daily rituals and attitudes such as cleanliness, contentment, austerities (purifying practices), the study of spiritual scriptures, practice of awareness, and surrender to the presence of a divine force.
Asanas are the physical movements that help keep the body in great shape, to allow it to serve as a fit vehicle for the mind and spirit to work well, in the human quest for raising consciousness. The mind joins closely with the body in accomplishing the Asana exercises.
Prana-yama literally means breath-control, and comprises a variety of breathing techniques used to control the life force, or energy, which drives the spirit. The mind joins closely with the spirit in executing Pranayama exercises.
Pratyahara refers to the withdrawal of the senses for transcending nervous stimuli. This is a practice of sensory detachment through deep relaxation.
Dharana aims to bring the body-mind-spirit trinity into a state of concentration and focus.
Dhyana is deep meditation. Also called Chan in Mandarin and Zen in Japanese.
Samadhi is a state of bliss in which one transcends the Self and merges with the Divine.
Popular Schools & Forms
Very few schools cater to Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, and Jnana Yoga. These are therefore more like personal practices you can carry out under the guidance of a Guru.
Even with Raja Yoga, to the best of the author’s knowledge, very few schools cover all 8 aspects of the system. This is probably because of the physical disciplines involved with Yama and Niyama, and the mental and energetic intensity of the last four. There are several schools for Dhyana (Meditation) alone, but these are not generally referred to as “Yoga Centers.”
Hatha Yoga Schools
The largest number of schools and independent forms lie in Hatha Yoga practice, which, as mentioned earlier, concerns itself with Asanas and Pranayama for general fitness, rather than for overall unification and alignment. Here are the popular ones:
Ashtanga Yoga (Pattabhi Jois); Also Power Yoga
Students of this school are expected to memorize a series of movements in a specific sequence and repeat them till they perfect the flow. The specific alignments and forms are not considered as critical. Breathing forcefully is recommended, as also partner work and a flexible body.
Ideal for: Someone with good lungs, agility, memory, and the capacity to follow quick instructions.
Iyengar Yoga (BKS Iyengar)
Compared to the above, this is a more traditional style that focuses on one movement at a time, held for a minute or more, to enable focus on the form and stay attentive to alignment. Breathing is natural and postures often use gravity and self-opposition to build strength and flexibility.
Ideal for: Someone keen on understanding yoga postures and practicing intensely but unrushed.
Sivananda Yoga (Vishnudevananda)
Sivananda yoga classes are generally relaxing. The founder established 5 principles that include are Proper Exercise (asana), Breathing (praṇayama), Relaxation, Diet, and Positive Thinking/Meditation. A hatha yoga session averages between 90–120 minutes.
Ideal for: Someone who prefers an all-encompassing structure to follow step by step.
Integral Yoga (Satchitananda)
Integral yoga aims to develop every aspect of one’s being harmoniously. A vegetarian diet and abstinence from tobacco, alcohol and other stimulants are part of this regimen. Practitioners are encouraged to avoid over-exertion, allowing for a more meditative flow.
Ideal for: Anyone open to changing food habits. Good for the elderly as rest periods are advocated.
Bihar School of Yoga (Satyananda)
The Bihar school teaches traditional yoga in a modern style, for example making use of software apps to distribute knowledge of hatha yoga, and even jnana yoga and raja yoga. The philosophy is to make yoga not just a practice, but a lifestyle for integration of the personality and nature.
Ideal for: Someone looking for a choice of selections like a buffet. Especially GenZ and millennials.
Hatha Yoga Forms
The following forms pull from various schools as well as feed common practices into some other forms. Understanding them might help assimilate variations, as well as increase one’s preparedness to ask questions.
Hot Yoga; Also Bikram Yoga
Hot yoga is performed under hot and humid conditions, to induce sweating. The founder Bikram Choudhury suggested this to remove impurities through 24 asanas and 2 breathing exercises in a room at 41°C. Several western spin-offs of Bikram Yoga follow way more lenient regimes.
Ideal for: People seeking a Yoga+Sauna mix. Often this is called ‘Celebrity Yoga’ thanks to its patrons.
Anusara is a modern-day US version of Iyengar’s hatha yoga that focuses on alignment, but with more focus on the mind-body-heart connection. The word Anusara can imply ‘flowing with Grace/Nature,’ or ‘following your heart’, which paints a picture of the style.
Ideal for: People who want a freely flowing style that is based on clear structures and rest time.
Jivamukti Yoga draws from Sivananda and Ashtanga Yoga schools in a remixed US version. The five tenets of the Jivamukti method are Shastra (scriptures), Bhakti (devotion), Ahimsa (non-violence including veganism), Nada (chanting and vibrations), and Dhyana (meditation).
Ideal for: People looking for a holistic approach to Raja Yoga with Bhakti thrown into in a package.
Other Yoga Forms
In Sanskrit, the word kriya means activity. Since all yoga forms manifest through different activities, there can be different ‘kriyas’ propagated by different masters. In recent history, Paramahansa Yogananda brought together a particular mix of Raja Yoga actions under the name Kriya Yoga. Sri Sri Ravishanker advocates another set called the Sudarshan Kriya, which – similarly – lends itself to easy habit-formation thanks to clear-cut and self-administrable guidelines.
Ideal for: Anyone specifically drawn to the kriyas as packaged together. Not a yoga form by itself.
This is a synthesis of Bhakti Yoga (devotion and chanting), Raja Yoga (especially meditation), and includes Haṭha yoga techniques, Tantric visualization, and techniques for absorption of the individual into the cosmos. It focuses on awakening kundalini energy (at the base of the spine) through the regular practice of mantra, tantra, and yantra from Shaktism and Tantra schools of Hinduism.
Ideal for: Advanced practitioners of any yoga form who wish to move towards raising energy.
Swara yoga is a science of realization of cosmic consciousness through control and manipulation of breath. While Pranayama is only related to control of breath, Swara yoga, also associates breath to activities of sun, moon, various seasons, physical and mental conditions of individuals, etc., making it more comprehensive in theory and practices related to breathing.
Ideal for: Someone looking for yogic healing and alignment without Hatha yoga postures.
Mantra Yoga; Also Japa Yoga
Mantra yoga derives context from scriptures and is a Bhakti form based on chanting. Not only do chants carry vibrational energies across the environment and within the practitioner, but they also help direct the mind towards specific outcomes attributed to various mantras (chants).
Ideal for: Anyone open to recite lines in Sanskrit with devotion and belief in cosmic connection.
Aerial yoga is a hybrid type of yoga that combines traditional yoga poses, pilates, and dance with the use of a hammock hanging about one meter above ground level. The hammock acts like a swing to support the hips for forward bends and backbends, making difficult mat-based yoga postures easier.
Ideal for: People seeking a workout without the stress of working against gravity and self-opposition.
A non-traditional form, Acroyoga combines yoga with acrobatics and includes a recreational partner and/or group activities, drawing on traditions of circus arts, cheerleading, and dance acro. It is more vigorous than yoga as exercise and may lead to injuries.
Ideal for: Anyone who is immensely flexible, keen on partner contact, and favors acrobatics.
A form that closes in on the Samadhi state of Raja Yoga, Yoga Nidra (meaning sleep) is a state in which the body is completely relaxed, and practitioners become aware of their inner worlds through verbal instructions and withdrawal of 4 of the 5 senses (Pratyahara; without hearing withdrawal).
Ideal for: Seekers of non-meditative, non-hypnotic guidance for realignment. Proven to help in PTSD.
Based on Iyengar Yoga, Restorative Yoga sessions allow the body to slow down and relax in a small number of asanas; each held for long, sometimes for twenty minutes! This is often assisted with props such as folded blankets, blocks, and bolsters to allow the muscles to relax in their place.
Ideal for: People suffering from injuries, stress, or illness, to return to a better quality of life.
Prenatal yoga involves pelvic floor work, with a focus on breathing and bonding with the growing baby. It also helps mothers prepare for labor and delivery with supporting practices that include prenatal asanas, pranayama, meditation, Ayurveda, and mindfulness techniques.
Ideal for: To-be-moms… essentially!
Yin yoga incorporates principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine, with asanas that are held for up to 5 minutes each. The sequences of postures help stimulate the channels of the subtle energy body known as meridians (as in acupressure), also called nadis in Kundalini yoga.
Ideal for: Someone who has above-average physical endurance and sensitivity to subtler energies.
Note: A less-strenuous way to achieve a strong energy connection is Qi-Gong, which is Mandarin for ‘Energy-Work’. Readers may look up QiGong For Beginners here.
Hopefully, the above classifications and notes will help you understand how to direct yourself into the wonderful world of Yoga, which offers proven ways to counter all types of stress and consequent physical, mental, and emotional disturbances by establishing internal connection and alignment.