I cannot tell you how frustrating I find this question! I get asked this a lot, and my response is usually ‘its Yoga’. Which is possibly not that helpful. I know that this question is usually asked in compete innocence. There are so many so called ‘types’ of Yoga being offered that it is no wonder people are confused. So I thought I would try to explain things from my perspective.
There are five types of Yoga, these are as follows:
- Raja Yoga – The ‘Royal’ path of Yoga, as detailed in Patanjalis Yoga Sutra.
- Bhakti Yoga – The Yoga of devotion, chanting mantra, devotional practices.
- Jnana Yoga – The Yoga of knowledge of study and learning
- Karma Yoga – The Yoga of action, selfless service
- Hatha Yoga – Physical Yoga, asana or postures
There is not any hot yoga, flow yoga, yoga with goats or any other somewhat gimmicky branded Yoga listed at all here. These five Yogas are the original approaches as detailed in the Vedanta. Vedanta means “That which, by being known, everything else becomes known.” “Veda” means complete knowledge and “anta” means end. Simply put, Vedanta means the culmination of Vedic wisdom or the final step on our spiritual journey. We don’t know how old the Vedas are or who wrote them. It’s said that this true knowledge of the entire creation was revealed to enlightened saints while they were deep in meditation. The Vedas are therefore said to be Shruti, Divine Knowledge, or knowledge that is heard from a divine source rather than learned from a book.
“Nowadays, the practice of yoga stops with just asanas. Very few even attempt dharana and dhyana [deeper meditation] with seriousness. There is a need to search once more and reestablish the practice and value of yoga in modern times.” (Yogacharya Sri T. Krisnamacharya)
Yoga is sacred. It has been taken and turned into an industry. The Hatha Yoga postures are what all physical Yoga practices consist of. It doesn’t matter about the name of the session, class, retreat or whatever it is, it is all Hatha Yoga if it is a physical process involving the postures. Sometimes Hatha is interpreted as the ‘easy’ or ‘gentle’ option. This is nonsense. All Yoga should be tailored for you as an individual. The teacher in any class should be trained and skilful enough to give you adaptations according to you own individual requirements. This cannot happen if the group is too large or if the practice approach is inflexible. To lead a whole group through a single practice without offering individual adjustments is madness (in my humble opinion!)
Recently someone I was discussing a private session plan with asked me the dreaded eternally arising question, ‘what type of yoga is it?’ I explained my approach and they eventually said, in complete confusion at my response, “I’ll take a vinyasa please.” It felt as though they were ordering a take away meal. This brings me to my next point. Vinyasa. This has fairly recently become quite a buzzword in the Yoga community, particularly in the west. Vinyasa, as translated by my teacher, Steve Brandon, is as follows: Vinyasa Krama is to learn Yoga techniques in a systematic and intelligent way. Vinyasa literally therefore means to structure your practice in a a way that is logical, thought through and planned with reasoning and progressive. It also encourages the practitioner to only go as far as they are able to in any one posture sequence, not pushing too far but also making adequate effort. It therefore means that the Yoga is suitable for you as an individual. Interestingly Steve also says this (we will save this topic for another day!):
Ayurveda is the healing science that originates from the same Vedic source and is aligned with the philosophy and spiritual orientation of Yoga. Understanding Ayurveda is required for the appropriate application of Yoga.
Hatha Yoga is only a small part of a complete Yoga practice. It is required to keep our physical body healthy so that we can practice other things with will be of benefit. Other ‘Yogas’ needs also be employed if we are to truly move on in this journey. These are the ones listed above. To be devoted (Bhakti), in whatever way that comes most naturally to you. To give selflessly (Karma), even if its only doing the washing up in a joyful selfless manner. To be continually open to learning and studying to improve your knowledge and awareness (Jnana), never ever believe that you know it all. And Raja Yoga, as described by Patanjali, which interestingly barely mentions the postures and focuses on the calming of the mind and on how we choose to live our lives. Food for Yoga thought. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had teachers who have passed on this understanding. I recall one of the first things we were told and discussed on our teacher training with Duncan Hulin was that all physical posture practice is Hatha Yoga.
I sometimes use humour to describe the present dilemma about the identification of Yoga. There are many burger options, McDonalds, Burger King, Wimpy, there are even now local independent trendy burger venues springing up all over the place! But they are all burgers. Yoga is the same (kind of!), there are many identities and brands, varying levels of quality and types of experience, but it is all Yoga. Let’s remind ourselves what it is actually about.
“The philosophy of yoga is to withdraw the mind from external activities, to draw its focus inwards, and to bring it into deep concentration.” (Yogacharya Sri T. Krisnamacharya)