Are you getting the most out of your yoga practice?
On this page you’ll find a summary of the various yoga styles – when they are taught according to their original traditions. This will help you gain a deeper perspective and understanding.
First, it helps to understand the meaning of the term yoga.
Yoga is an ancient Sanskrit word. It derives from the root ‘yuj’ which means ‘to yoke or connect.’
Yoga therefore means “union.”
But with what? Union with your true self, the whole world, or the divine deity, or all of the above. When this happens, you experience inner peace, harmony, and divinity. It’s a blissful experience.
Traditionally, this is the goal of yoga. The experience of divinity within a world of apparent chaos.
Then why practice all those physical postures?
It was simply for the purpose of toning your body’s muscles so that you could sit still and painlessly during long hours of meditation and prayer. Sitting still was your first step towards quieting your mind and observing your thoughts. This was the first baby step in your journey towards union and inner, divine bliss.
Nevertheless, yoga is great for your body and health! There is no reason not to practice it exclusively for those reasons, if you so wish. Spirituality is not the only thing that makes our world a better place. So do healthy people. Healthy people can help others.
‘Ashtanga’ is a Sanskrit word that means ‘eight limbs.’ In other words, it is a yoga tradition that follows eight steps. It was expounded by the famous yogi Sage Patanjali more than 2000 years ago.
Patanjali’s eight-fold school of yoga became the gold standard that most later yoga traditions echo in many ways till the present day.
But it is often wrongly assumed that Patanjali was the Father of Yoga. More accurately, Patanjali was the classical compiler of previously scattered yoga practices. In this sense, his work is seminal.
Nevertheless, Patanjali was preceded by Shadanga (‘six limbs’), Asparsha (‘untouched’), Vedic (‘of knowledge’), and possibly other yoga traditions which are now lost. These last three yoga traditions are extremely ancient and rarely practiced today. I will explain them to you last.
In traditional scholarship, the very first expounder of yoga is considered to be a mystical being called Brahma. This being represents the entire transcendent foundation of the physical universe!
Before the arrival of Patanjali’s Ashtanga yoga, there seems not to have been any comprehensive, written documents describing the various criteria required for a successful experience of inner harmony.
Patanjali brought the various techniques together in an authoritative manual. It is called the Yoga Sutra. It comprises nearly 200 short verses. They outline the eight limbs or steps.
Right at the beginning of the Yoga Sutra in verses 2 and 3, Patanjali clarifies two important things: the definition of yoga and its aim.
1. Definition: “Yoga is the complete restriction of the whirls (activity) of the mind.”
2. Aim: “When that restriction is achieved, one’s divine nature appears.”
Traditionally, the ultimate aim of all yoga is to dissolve the mundane ego – the source of all misery. Our mundane ego comprises a false identity that has been concocted by the story of our physical life. When this false ego is dissipated, your true, divine, and infinitely blissful self shines through. Your authentic self is revealed.
To experience this blissful nature you need to pay a relatively small price, says Patanjali: climb up the eight steps of a physio-psychological mountain:
1. Moral Discipline
2. Voluntary Observances (like fasting)
3. Correct Posture
4. Controlled Breathing
5. Sense Withdrawal (of our 5 senses)
The first step, Moral Discipline, is considered indispensable.
It includes five subcategories: non-harmfulness, truthfulness, non-stealing, chastity, non-greed.
You’ll notice that the very first of these moral disciplines is non-harmfulness.
In Sanskrit the word is ‘ahimsa.’ It is often mistranslated as non-killing. But it means much more than that. It actually means ‘non-hurting’ of any creature whatsoever through thought, speech or action!
The second criteria is Voluntary Observances. There are five subcategories: bodily purity, contentment, austerity, study of scripture, and devotion to the Lord.
This devotion to a higher Being is of great importance in Patanjali’s Ashtanga yoga.
Without the Lord’s grace, completing the eight steps is considered impossible. Ultimately, the experience of the divine self and of God within the spirit is a matter of God’s grace alone, says Patanjali. The belief that one is divine, immortal, and pure bliss but not God, is an important component of Ashtanga yoga. God is within your soul and within everything.
“Correct Posture,” the third step, concerns the various physical exercises. They are not very vigorous or strength-building. Their focus is to make the body supple so that one can sit comfortably in meditation.
Meditation leads to natural and internal Ecstasy. It’s about inner balance, peace, and wisdom. Reversal of many health problems is a happy by-product. This is the core lifestyle of an Ashtanga Yogi or Yogini (female).
‘Hatha’ is a Sanskrit word that means ‘forcefulness’ or ‘strength.’ It also represents the combining of dualities to create that strength. ‘Ha’ means sun and ‘tha’ means moon. (The combination of these dualities is akin to the combination of yin and yang.)
Hatha yoga is a relatively recent yoga tradition. It appeared around the 15th century. It’s major proponent was a yogi called Swatmarama. The major difference between his school and that of the much more ancient eight-fold Ashtanga yoga is that it does not emphasize the first two steps: moral discipline and restraint.
As such, Hatha yoga does not explicitly advise its practitioners to lead a moral life, live austerely, or to worship a higher Being or God. Its aim is simply to experience the divine self. Nevertheless, some later texts of Hatha yoga do advise that a successful practice may be impeded without a moral life.
The separation of yoga from moral teachings and a devotional outlook has made Hatha yoga popular amongst many people. This can be viewed positively or negatively depending on a person’s personal perspective. No harm, no foul seems to be the unspoken rule of Hatha yoga.
Another major difference between Hatha and Ashtanga yoga is that the former aims to build strength and stamina through its various postures. Moreover, it recommends various procedures for inner and outer body cleansing that are intensive.
Originally, the practice of Hatha yoga was supposed to lead to the divination of the body. The physical body itself would be transformed from a defiled, mortal bag of skin into a divine and immortal light. This belief, however, is no longer opined in Hatha yoga classes for obvious reasons.
Comparitively, Ashtanga yoga is more moderate – some would say more balanced. It focuses on creating a more flexible and supple body for the purpose of sitting in long periods of meditation. Additionally, its practitioners would transcend their defiled and mortal body to discover their inner, divine, and immortal selves.
This more ‘reasonable’ belief espoused by Patanjali has spread throughout all yoga traditions today, including Hatha.
Hatha yoga comprises the following steps:
2. Breath Control
3. Sense Withdrawal
Hot or Bikram Yoga
This is a modern representation of Hatha yoga (‘hot’ is apparently a play on the term hatha). It was conceived by Bikram Choudhury.
However, depending on the local teacher, there isn’t always an emphasis on spirituality or moral teachings as there is in Ashtanga. Nevertheless, such values can be taken as a given in almost any yoga class.
Bikram Yoga adheres to a specific sequence of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises.
It is also well known for the requirement that it be practiced in a very warm environment. This recreates the sometimes very warm environment in which yoga was developed in India. The heat induces sweating which helps purge the body of poisons. Additionally, the extra heat softens your muscles. This makes them more flexible and conducive to practicing various yoga postures.
This is also a modern representation of Hatha yoga.
‘Vinyasa’ is a Sanskrit word that literally means ‘connection.’ Simply then, Vinyasa yoga means ‘connected yoga.’
Instead of each posture being practiced in distinction to the other, each posture is made to lead or “connect” to the next. As such, each posture becomes connected with the former and latter poses. They follow a rhythm. In particular, the rhythm is that of one’s breathing. Typically, whilst bending down one breathes out, and whilst straightening up one breathes in. This coordination of breathing and movement constitutes a type of dance and also doubles as a slow work out. Calming, meditative music is often played in the background.
Vinyasa yoga is becoming increasingly popular for its fun and relaxing nature.
This adheres to a more traditional form of Hatha yoga. However, it has new inclusions. These are the use of physical apparatus to help practitioners to balance and accurately align their body.
The instruments or props used are usually very simple: belts, blocks, and blankets.
The advantage of Iyengar yoga is that many postures that would be well beyond the ability of most people come within reach, at least partially. Elderly or injured people are able to benefit from helpful postures that they would otherwise be unable to perform.
This is similar in theme to Vinyasa yoga but is modeled on a few Ashtanga yoga postures. It is more akin to a vigorous workout and is often referred to as ‘gym yoga.
ANCIENT YOGA TRADITIONS
This is possibly the most ancient form of yoga known. It began in India at least 1500 BC or maybe as early as 3000 BC. It was a very mystical and secretive tradition. The Sanskrit word ‘Veda’ means knowledge. All that we can find about Vedic yoga is a few passages in the ancient Rig Veda literature that speak cryptically about yoking the mind to the Divine.
To this extent, Vedic Yoga continues to be practiced today through Patanjali’s Ashtanga yoga.
Shadanga is a Sanskrit word that means ‘six limbs.’ In other words it is a yoga tradition that follows six steps. It is a very early treatise on yoga that is spiritual like Vedic and Ashtanga.
Shadanga yoga is found in the Maitrayaniya Upanishad (6.18-19). “The rule for effecting this union with the self is this:
1. Breath Control
2. Sense Withdrawal
Such is said to be the sixfold yoga. When a seer sees the brilliant Maker, Lord, Person, the source of the creator God Brahma, then, being a knower, shaking off good and evil, he reduces everything to unity in the supreme imperishable.”
Yoga by this name is rarely practiced today. However, it is devotional like Ashtanga. This six step practice is not philosophically identical to Hatha yoga. Shadanga explicitly mentions the existence of God the creator.
Asparsha Yoga (Wisdom or ‘Jnana’ Yoga)
‘Asparsha’ is a Sanskrit word that literally means ‘untouched.’ It implies something that is intangible, nonphysical, divine, and transcendent. This tradition is based on the Mandukya Upanishad and an ancient commentary called Mandukya Karika.
Asparsha yoga relies on the recitation and philosophical meaning of the mantra Om. The school is synonymous with that of Jnana yoga. In other words, the belief that “transcendent wisdom is itself yoga.” This philosophical method of practicing yoga is very much alive today.
Its wisdom refers to the experiential knowledge of one’s true divine nature. It doesn’t refer to those who parrot knowledge without personal experience.
Additionally, it commonly doesn’t recognize the existence of a God the creator who is distinct from ones self. As a predominantly philosophical and mystical tradition of yoga it doesn’t actively incorporate the usual exercises and postures many people are interested in today.
CONCLUSION – Which yoga tradition is for you? Ashtanga, Hatha, Hot, Vinyasa, or Iyengar?
The answer depends on two things:
1. What do you want to gain from your practice? Health, tranquility, divine experience, or all of the above?
2. How authentic and skilled is your teacher?
a) If you simply want to get better health, any of these traditions – Ashtanga, Hatha, Hot, Vinyasa, or Iyengar – will help. Remember, always consult your doctor first.
b) If you want to experience profound peace, then you will need to practice breath control and meditation. Again, all of these traditions (except Vedic and Asparsha) offer these.
c) If you want to experience your divine, blissful self, and possibly a higher Being or God within – the divine source of the universe – call it God, Jesus, Buddha or anything else – Ashtanga yoga will probably be the best way to go. Simple sitting postures, breath control, meditation, and devotion are emphasized.
Breath control calms the mind. Meditation focuses the mind. After that, devotion takes you beyond the mind to the transcendental.
Whatever your goals, if your teacher is authentic, he or she will explain the various criteria and beliefs of the tradition they teach.
The good news is, there are many great teachers out there. Good luck!
Review from scientific writer for the CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY
Monograph Series and the fine journal
THE SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN – “REALLY LIKED IT … AUTHENTIC.”
Prof Pankaj S. Joshi. Expertise: general relativity, cosmology, stellar evolution, naked singularities, black holes.