While yoga is a diverse system of practice comprised of many approaches to selfrealization, many authorities on yoga concur that there are four major branches of yoga that over time have served as a point of origin for developing a practice of yoga. In addition to these four branches, there are several other systems of yoga that have gained widespread interest and attention in building a yoga practice. These might be considered offshoots, or mini-branches, of the main four branches of yoga. The following descriptions will help you understand the four main branches of yoga, with some of their most important offshoots.
As most commonly presented, the four major branches of yoga are bhakti yoga, jnana yoga, karma yoga, and raja yoga. Understanding the nature of each can help you incorporate yoga into your life in the most meaningful way.
Bhakti Yoga: The Yoga of Devotion
Bhakti literally means “devotion” in Sanskrit. Bhakti yoga is known as the yoga of devotion. Following the path of bhakti yoga requires one to surrender oneself completely to a force or power greater than oneself. That power might be a deity, saint, revered teacher, or a quality, such as love. Through the force of opening one’s heart with undivided love and devotion to this higher force, one enters the grace of self realization. Faith, grace, and love are the hallmarks of bhakti yoga. Mahatama Ghandi and the Dalai Lama, with their open hearts and unswerving devotion to serve, are excellent examples of a bhakta, the term that describes a practitioner of bhakti yoga.
Jnana Yoga: The Yoga of Knowledge
Jnana literally means “wisdom” or “knowledge” in Sanskrit. Jnana yoga is known as the yoga of wisdom. Of all the branches of yoga, this path requires the greatest concentration of mental activity. Jnanins (“knowers”), or practitioners of jnana yoga, seek enlightenment through the power of mental discrimination and inquiry—learning to differentiate the real from the unreal, and the limited personal self from the unlimited infinite self that is the source of all being. Meditation is the most powerful tool used in the practice of jnana yoga.
Karma Yoga: The Yoga of Action
Karma literally means “action” or “cause” in Sanskrit. Karma yoga is known as the yoga of action. Following the path of karma yoga involves seeking liberation through one’s actions in the world. Devoting selfless service to others and practicing one’s tasks in life— professional, familial, and otherwise—with perfect awareness and mindfulness without regard for success or failure permits the practitioner of karma yoga to achieve enlightenment and self-liberation. Through karma yoga, even simple and routine tasks such as driving a car or mowing the lawn can be acts of yoga practice if they are offered selflessly and to benefit others in an act of service. Many people associate yoga with asceticism and withdrawal from the external world and the company of others. Karma yoga offers those who are interested in pursuing its path a way of practicing yoga actively in the world.
Raja Yoga: The Royal Yoga
Raja means “royal” in Sanskrit. Raja yoga is known as the royal road to yoga, or the yoga of enlightenment. Of all the branches of yoga, raja yoga is probably the best-known approach to yoga in the West. The practitioner of raja yoga follows a carefully prescribed path composed of eight practices, or limbs, known as ashtanga (“eight limbs”), to achieve self-realization. These limbs include many of the best-known and most frequently engaged yoga practices, including physical postures, breath control, and concentration. (These practices will be described in much greater detail in the chapters that follow.) Raja yoga is sometimes referred to as classical yoga because the practices that comprise it are detailed in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, one of the earliest extant texts on the practice of yoga. The four major branches of yoga form the overall umbrella under which all other yoga practices are subdivided. Each branch, however, need not be considered mutually exclusive. Some practices, such as meditation, are common to more than one branch of yoga. A follower of yoga can also engage in practices from more than one branch—a man can open the heart through bhakti yoga, engage the world mindfully and dutifully through karma yoga, seek mental discernment through jnana yoga, and engage in the liberating practices of raja yoga all at the same time. In fact, a devotee who follows the teachings of all the branches of yoga will find in yoga a nearly perfect system leading to right living, thinking, and self-realization.