To this list we must add as a branch of its own Guru (goo-roo) Yoga, the Yoga of dedication to a Yoga master.
The seven branches and Guru Yoga are described in the following sections.
To get a sense of the nature of enlightenment, sit in a warm room as still as possible, with your hands in your lap. Now sense your skin all over; it’s your body’s boundary separating you from the air surrounding you. As you become more aware of your body’s sensations, pay special attention to the connection between your skin and the air. After a while, you realize that no sharp boundary really exists between your skin and the outside air. In your imagination, you can extend yourself further and further beyond your skin into the surrounding space. Where do you end, and where does the space begin? This experience can give you a sense of the all-comprising expansiveness of enlightenment, which knows no boundaries.
Bhakti Yoga: The Yoga of devotion
Bhakti Yoga practitioners believe that a supreme being (the Divine) transcends their lives, and they feel moved to connect or even completely merge with that supreme being through acts of devotion. Bhakti Yoga includes such practices as making flower offerings, singing hymns of praise, and thinking about the Divine.
Hatha Yoga: The Yoga of physical discipline
All branches of Yoga seek to achieve the same final goal, but Hatha Yoga approaches this goal through the body rather than through the mind or the emotions. Hatha Yoga practitioners believe that unless they properly purify and prepare their bodies, the higher stages of meditation and beyond are virtually impossible to achieve — such an attempt would be like trying to climb Mt. Everest without the necessary gear.
Hatha Yoga is very much more than posture practice, which is so popular today. Like every form of authentic Yoga, it’s a spiritual path.
Jnana Yoga: The Yoga of wisdom
Jnana Yoga teaches the ideal of nondualism — that reality is singular, and your perception of countless distinct phenomena is a basic misconception. What about the chair or sofa that you’re sitting on? Isn’t that real? What about the light that strikes your retina? Isn’t that real? Jnana Yoga masters answer these questions by saying that all these things are real at your present level of consciousness, but they aren’t ultimately real as separate or distinct things. Upon enlightenment, everything melts into one, and you become one with the immortal spirit.
Karma Yoga: The Yoga of self-transcending action
Karma Yoga’s most important principle is to act unselfishly, without attachment, and with integrity. Karma Yoga practitioners believe that all actions, whether bodily, vocal, or mental, have far-reaching consequences for which they must assume full responsibility.
Good karma, bad karma, no karma
The Sanskrit term karma literally means “action.” It stands for activity in general but also for the “invisible action” of destiny. According to Yoga, every action of body, speech, and mind produces visible and also hidden consequences. Sometimes the hidden consequences — destiny — are far more significant than the obvious repercussions. Don’t think of karma as blind destiny. You’re always free to make choices. The purpose of Karma Yoga is to regulate how you act in the world so that you cease to be bound by karma. The practitioners of all types of Yoga seek to not only prevent bad (black) karma but also go beyond good (white) karma to no karma at all.
Mantra Yoga: The Yoga of potent sound
Mantra Yoga makes use of sound to harmonize the body and focus the mind. It works with mantras, which can be a syllable, word, or phrase. Traditionally, practitioners receive a mantra from their teacher in the context of a formal initiation. They’re asked to repeat it as often as possible and to keep it secret. Many Western teachers feel that initiation isn’t necessary and that any sound works. You can even pick a word from the dictionary, such as love, peace, or happiness, but from a traditional perspective, such words are, strictly speaking, not mantras.
Raja Yoga: The Royal Yoga
Raja Yoga means literally “Royal Yoga” and is also known as Classical Yoga. When you mingle with Yoga students long enough, you can expect to hear them refer to the eightfold path laid down in the Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali, the standard work of Raja Yoga. Another name for this yogic tradition is Ashtanga Yoga (pronounced ahsh-tahng-gah), the “eight-limbed Yoga” — from ashta (“eight”) and anga (“limb”). The eight limbs of the prominent traditional approach, designed to lead to enlightenment or liberation, are as follows:
✓ Yama (yah-mah): Moral discipline, consisting of the practices of non- harming, truthfulness, nonstealing, chastity, and greedlessness
✓ Niyama (nee-yah-mah): Self-restraint, consisting of the five practices of purity, contentment, austerity, self-study, and devotion to a higher principle.
✓ Asana (ah-sah-nah): Posture, which serves two basic purposes: meditation and health.
✓ Pranayama (prah-nah-yah-mah): Breath control, which raises and balances your mental energy, thus boosting your health and mental concentration.
✓ Pratyahara (prah-tyah-hah-rah): Sensory inhibition, which internalizes your consciousness to prepare your mind for the various stages of meditation.
✓ Dharana (dhah-rah-nah): Concentration, or extended mental focusing, which is fundamental to yogic meditation.
✓ Dhyana (dhee-yah-nah): Meditation, the principal practice of higher Yoga
✓ Samadhi (sah-mah-dhee): Ecstasy, or the experience in which you become inwardly one with the object of your contemplation. This state is surpassed by actual enlightenment, or spiritual liberation.
The sacred syllable om
The best known traditional mantra, used by Hindus and Buddhists alike, is the sacred syllable om (pronounced ommm, with a long o sound). It’s the symbol of the absolute reality — the Self or spirit. It’s composed of the letters a, u, and m and the nasal humming of the letter m. A corresponds to the waking state, u to the dream state, and m to the state of deep sleep; the nasal humming sound represents the ultimate reality.