Yoga is both a physical and a spiritual ritual used to increase the body’s flexibility while calming the mind. This mind/body duality is signified by the name itself: “yuj” is a Sanskrit verb meaning “to unite.” When Westerners consider what is yoga, they are generally thinking of Hatha yoga, which literally means “forceful” yoga and incorporates poses with regulated breathing. However, there are now a wide range of different disciplines that have grown more popular in the U.S., including “hot” yoga practiced in studios with temperatures up to 105 degrees. Despite the different techniques and names, yoga is fundamentally a way of treating the body with respect by listening to it through meditation, challenging it through the poses and using breathing to make everything come together.
The concept of what is yoga can be likened to a tree with six branches:
- Hatha yoga
- Bhakti yoga
- Raja yoga
- Jnana yoga
- Karma yoga
- Tantra yoga
Again, Hatha yoga is what Westerners typically think of when they hear the word “yoga.” This branch includes Iyengar, which focuses on the poses and their duration; Ashtanga, or power, yoga that flows in a structured manner; Vinyasa, which focuses on controlled breathing; Kundalini, with an emphasis on spiritual awareness through breathing and Bikram, or hot, yoga.
Bhakti yoga is a devotional practice and the most popular yoga form in India. Adherents believe that in order to understand the self one must see the divine in all things and all people.
Raja yoga is a religious or spiritual observance based on the eightfold path of yoga described in the Classical Yoga Sutra scripture. The eight limbs of this “royal” path include:
- Yama, ethics,
- Niyama, study,
- Asanas, positions,
- Pranayama, regulated breathing
- Pratyahara, inwardness
- Dharana, concentration,
- Dhyana, meditation and
- Samadhi, self-realization.
Jnana yoga devotes itself to the mind and is the combination of knowledge and thought. Although the discipline is based on Hindu writings, devotees of this practice immerse themselves in other spiritual and philosophical texts to grasp a non-dualistic world view.
Karma yoga is founded upon the sacred Bhagavad Gita text which teaches that every action has an effect and to make the right decision you need to take your own selfish desires out of the equation.
Finally, tantra yoga makes the individual the basis for realizing the universal through practical, day-to-day living. To understand what is yoga is to see how meditation, the poses and controlled breathing offer a window to the soul and beyond.