The 6 branches of yoga

As our idea of this ancient practice is being diluted down to 90 minutes of contortion, colourful leggings and coconut water, it's time to rediscover what this whole yoga thing is all about.

6 branches of yoga

As you’re likely to have heard before; the word yoga is often translated as ‘union’ or ‘connection’ – as in connecting to the true Self, God or consciousness. Yoga can also mean separation – as in separating the real from the unreal, truth from ignorance and the true Self from the Freudian ‘ego’. 

Whilst there seems to be a ‘new yoga’ almost every day (Doga, Voga, SUP Yoga, Naked Yoga and so on) and even though they may all be relevant to healing and serving each person (or animal!) who practises them, these all tend to focus on the asanas (the physical postures) and could all be classed as Hatha yoga – as we’ll explain later.

However, there is so much to learn about when it comes to yoga and you may even be surprised to know that asana is not only a very tiny part of it, but a tiny part of just one tiny branch of yoga. 

You may be surprised to know that asana is not only a very tiny part of yoga, but a tiny part of just one tiny branch of yoga.

Here we’ll look closely at the six most widely practised ancient branches or paths of yoga. More than just different styles of physical yoga, these ‘branches’ have different histories, philosophies and intentions to each other – although it is possible to practise more than one together. Let’s dive in, uncover the true depths of the practice that has existed for thousands of years, understand where yoga comes from and the different branches this ancient tree has.   

Key terms: Dualism, Non-dualism, Brahmins and Householders

In this piece, I refer to a few terms you may not have come across before: ‘Dualism’ and ‘Non-Dualism’, ‘Brahmins’ and ‘Householders’. 

Dualism refers to a belief system that separates nature (known as Prakriti) and consciousness. You could also think of this as separating us and everything around us, and God. 
Non-dualism is, of course, the opposite. It denotes that everything is One; that nature, consciousness, the divine and ourselves are all made up of the same thing and that there is no separation between anything or anyone.

In the context of Indian social tradition, someone who is considered a ‘Brahmin’ is thought to be of a high caste. These people are often born into affluent families and usually have well-paid and respected jobs. Many years ago, Brahmins would have been royals, priests or scholars.

A ‘Householder’ refers to someone most likely just like you and me; a person in the world with a job who works to maintain their livelihood and their family and who grapples with the daily challenges of life.

The six branches of yoga

1. Raja yoga

Meaning: ‘Royal’, ‘Chief’ or ‘King’, alluding to being the ‘best’ or ‘highest’ form of yoga. Closely linked to Patanjali’s Eight Fold Path of Yoga, Raja yoga is also known as ‘Classical Yoga’. 

This path is precise and contemplative. It aims to ‘control’ the intellect and thoughts through meditation. A connection with ‘God’ or ‘consciousness’ is worked towards by un-identifying with the ego-based self and identifying with the universal true Self. As a primarily interior practice with little outward spiritual expression, it is thought that Raja yoga requires much self-discipline. 

  • Primary practices: Meditation, Svadhyaya (self-inquiry and study of texts) and Tapas (self-discipline), Brahmacharya (purity)
  • Dual or Non-Dual belief: Dual
  • Originally intended for: Brahmins. This type of practice was originally intended only for high caste royals who had the time, the education and the means to practise this.  

2. Jnana yoga

Meaning: Wisdom or knowledge. This is the yoga of ‘knowing’, of realising the truth of oneself. First mentioned around 400BC, this is thought of as one of the most direct paths to insight and illumination, but also as one of the most difficult. Priests and scholars are most likely to be considered Jnana yogis through their practise of constant inquiry. Study of philosophical and yogic texts, along with discrimination and inquiry are the ways these practitioners understand the depths of the body, mind and spirit. 

  • Primary practices: Meditation and Svadhyaya 
  • Dual or Non-Dual belief: Either,dependent upon the practitioner’s perception and perspective. Jnana Yogis are often relatively ‘open minded’ and inquisitive about life and the process of yoga. 
  • Intended for: Brahmins

3. Tantra yoga

Meaning: The root word of Tantra is ‘Tan’ meaning ‘to expand’ or ‘to weave’. It explores all aspects, sensations and energies that weave through the body and mind and actually began as a religion around 500BC. For over 1000 years it was the primary belief system of India in its less extreme forms and is the first time the physicality of the human body started to become important within a yogic context. Before this, much of a yoga practice was based upon worship, visualisation and meditation.

Many people confuse Tantric yoga with ‘spiritualised sex’ – however, this isn’t the case. Whilst Tantra yoga includes many rituals, the ritualistic act of fornication is only reserved for a very rare ceremony for certain people. The fact that this branch of yoga permits mindful, purposeful and meaningful sex as opposed to no sex at all is probably why it has come to be known in such a way. Much of Tantra is kept in obscurity, with the practices and rituals passed along secretively through oral tradition from guru to shishya (‘student’ or ‘disciple’).

“One should never seek to practise classical Tantra without a guru, because no Tantric texts exist which provide thoroughly accurate details of any ritual. Each text omits an essential step, or includes false information, and only through a guru can the reality, handed down from teacher to disciple over generations, be known” – Robert E. Svoboda (exert from Aghora At The Left Hand of God). 

  • Primary practices: Mantra, Yantra, Kriya, Pranayama, Asana, Meditation, Visualisation
  • Dual or Non-Dual belief: Non-Dual. Tantra is essentially the original form of non-dualism, and ‘one-ness’ is very much a part of this branch of yoga. A large part of Tantra is focused upon the more subtle elements of the body, mind and life. Chakras, nadis, yantras, kundalini, and invocation of deities are a large part of Tantric yoga practices. The emphasis on ‘expansion’ can be expressed by the practitioners of Tantra experiencing life’s fullness, expanding the mind beyond ordinary limitations.
  • Intended for: Householders

4. Hatha yoga

Meaning: ‘The Yoga of Force’. Many teachers equate Ha to mean ‘Sun’ and Tha to mean moon, and reason that the physical yoga practice is intended to ‘balance’ the Sun and Moon energies within us. Whilst the physical yoga practice is intended to bring about a state of equilibrium within the human organism, the real meaning and essence of Hatha yoga is to change the physical body and mind by way of experimentation, movement and physical ‘force’. 

Hatha yoga is anything that uses the physical body. It is what you are most likely to practise in class in some form, whether it’s called Hatha yoga, Vinyasa yoga, Power yoga or any of the other many styles of physical yoga. First mentioned and practised around 1100AD, it is the most ‘modern’ branch of yoga. This branch of yoga is – in a way – actually derived from Tantra and the most widely celebrated ‘inventor’ of Hatha Yoga is Gorakshanath, who is considered a Maha-Yogi, or ‘great Yogi’. 

When it comes to Hatha yoga, liberation is attained through cultivating a Yoga-Deha – otherwise known as a ‘Yogic Body’ (probably a little different to what we might consider a ‘yoga body’ to look like nowadays!) – which is immune to disease and free from limitations that ordinarily bind human beings. 

  • Primary Practices: Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Meditation, Purification rituals, Bandha, Mantra, Kriya (anything related to the physical body).
  • Dual or Non-Dual belief: Non-Dual
  • Intended for: Householders

5. Bhakti yoga

Meaning: Devotion. First mentioned in The Bhagavad Gita around 300BC, the word Bhakti comes from the root word ‘Bhaj’, of which the essence is ‘to share’. This form of yoga is based upon the heart, love and devotion towards a chosen deity (Ishta Devata). Much like Karma yoga, dedicating all actions towards a deity or ‘God’ is an intrinsic part of Bhakti yoga. Much like other branches of yoga, Bhakti yoga has limbs (anga) for each practitioner to adhere to and take part in: 

Shravana’; or ‘listening’ to sacred scriptures
‘Kirtana’; ‘singing’ of devotional songs
‘Smarana’; ‘remembering’ the divine through meditation 
‘Pada-sevana’; ritual worship or ‘service at the feet of the Lord’ 
‘Vandana’; ‘prostration’ before the image of God; 
‘Dasya’; ‘slavish’ devotion to the Lord 
‘Sakhya’; ‘friendship’ through which the Divine raises the devotee to the status of a ‘friend’
‘Atma-nivedana’; ‘self-offering’. 

  • Primary Practices: Mantra, devotional rituals, meditation upon a chosen deity
  • Dual or Non-Dual belief: Dual
  • Intended For: Householders

6. Karma yoga

Meaning: The Yoga of Action, also contemporarily known as the ‘Religion of Love’. The word ‘Karma’ in this context is derived from the root verb ‘Kri’ meaning ‘to do’. First mentioned around 300BC, this form of yoga is the main focus of the Bhagavad Gita. Karma yoga is based upon selfless service and acting without expectation of benefitting. It occupies a large part of Indian thought and through this practice, union with ‘the divine’ is achieved through making any action an offering to God. 

Karma yoga suggests that we relinquish attachment to the consequences of our actions and instead focus on the moment in action. Awareness of each thought, word and deed and mindfulness are an important part of Karma yoga, which allows the practitioner to truly experience that moment-in-action. Through the practise of Karma yoga, yogis work and act to benefit the people and the world around them in order to contribute towards facilitating a unified and ‘enlightened’ world.

  • Primary Practices: Mindfulness, selfless service, ahimsa (non-violence
  • Dual or Non-Dual belief: Dependent upon the practitioner’s perspective
  • Intended for: Householders. Many great saints were thought of as ‘Karma Yogis’, such as Gandhi and Mother Theresa. 
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Emma NewlynEmma is a 500hr registered yoga teacher, writer and holistic therapist based in Sussex, UK. With a passion for yoga philosophy and Ayurveda, she loves bringing these ancient methods to the modern world in an accessible and easy-to-implement way through her writing and courses. Emma leads the Yoga, Ayurveda & Holistic Health course in person the UK and also online Modern Ayurveda & Holistic Health courses, giving students tools and techniques to enhance their health and wellbeing.