The 8 Major Yoga Styles And The Philosophy Behind Them…

The 8 Major Yoga Styles And The Philosophy Behind Them

The major yoga styles each have a unique aspect to them, making space for anyone to find something they like!

Hatha yoga – hatha yoga is the generic name for any yoga that emphasizes physical postures and breathing, as opposed to meditation, chanting breathwork, or anything else. If you see this as a class description it may mean that it is a basic class, or that it does not follow a certain rigid system, or that the postures will be taught one at a time, as opposed to flowing into each other.

Yoga flow –  yoga flow is much like hatha in that it may not adhere to a specific system, but the postures will be linked together in a choreographed flow of postures, making the class typically more athletic than a simple hatha class. (Although athletic should not be confused with advanced.) Vinyasa may be synonymous with yoga flow; however vinyasa flow is typically more athletic and will involve more sun salutations. The term vinyasa literally means sequenced in an appropriate way, but it has come to mean postures linked together with breath or postures linked to one another. In a vinyasa class, the teacher may say “take a vinyasa” which typically means to go from where you are through plank, chaturanga, upward dog or cobra, and back to downward dog.

Iyengar yoga – Iyengar yoga refers to the specific system of yoga created by B.K.S. Iyengar, a major pioneer in bringing yoga to the West as a physical practice. Iyengar was a disciple of T. Krishnamacharya, and as a youth was in very poor health. He practiced yoga for many years, healing his body, and using his practice as a laboratory for understanding precisely how the yoga postures work on the physical and subtle levels of the body. His system is considered the most precise in terms of alignment principles, is known for using many yoga props, and for being quite strict and rigid.

Ashtanga vinyasa yoga – ashtanga vinyasa yoga is a challenging and athletic system developed by the late Sri K.Pattabhi Jois, also a disciple of T. Krishnamacharya. Ashtanga yoga is the original vinyasa, or power yoga, and the form on which these two are based. There are six series of postures, each always practiced in the specific sequence, although the vast majority of practitioners will never get beyond the first or second series. The sequences are always practiced with sun salutations and a sequence of standing postures at the beginning, followed by the series itself, and a closing sequence at the end. Ashtanga is traditionally taught as a self-practice learned one-on-one with your teacher however “led” classes have become the norm. Power yoga was originally coined as a westernized term for ashtanga yoga, although it has evolved to be more synonymous with vinyasa, or a very athletic, flowing, sun-salutation-based practice, sometimes in a hot room.

Bikram yoga – bikram yoga is sometimes called “hot yoga” as it is practiced in a room of 95-105°F. It is a 90-minute class, and there are 26 postures always practiced in the same order, facing a mirror. It was developed by Bikram Choudhury and is now the only yoga system to be franchised and trademarked.

Kundalini yoga – Kundalini yoga was developed by the late Yogi Bhajan of the Sikh tradition. Kundalini is a highly energetic practice consisting of “kriyas,” or sequences of asanas and breathwork, intended to raise the practitioner’s consciousness and merge it with infinite, or divine, consciousness.

Anusara yoga – Anusara yoga was developed by John Friend, a former Iyengar teacher, who codified what are called Universal Principles of Alignment. It is a highly precise, physical system of yoga that is also strongly tied to Tantric philosophy, with a heart-based connection to the divine. Anusara literally means “flowing with grace.” Kripalu is a typically gentle form of hatha yoga focused on the subtle flow of energy, using the body as a vehicle to access spirit. Restorative yoga is a deeply therapeutic practice that utilizes supported, gentle postures held for long periods of time in order to cultivate a deep state of relaxation.

Yin yoga –  yin yoga is based on Taoist yoga practice. Seated or supine postures are held for a long time to get a very deep tissue stretch, often targeting the connective tissues within the joints.

The history of yoga

The history of yoga is vast and deep, giving a strong foundation for the experience of modern yoga today.

The Sanskrit word yoga has the literal meaning of “yoke,” from a root yuj meaning to join, to unite, or to attach. It is a physical, mental, and spiritual discipline that originated in ancient India. It is said and commonly accepted that yoga is thousands of years old. Whether it is 2,000 years old or 5,000 years old, or somewhere in between is unclear. What is clear is that the yoga people practiced thousands of years ago looked very different from what we do now in your typical yoga class. In the beginning, yogis (people who practice yoga are called yogis, or yoginis, which is the feminine form) were ascetics who left behind material wealth, spent hours or days in meditation, and attained spiritual gifts called siddhis which allowed them to do crazy things like levitate or bilocate (be in two places at once), as described in Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi . Within Hindu philosophy, the word yoga is used to refer to one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy. Yoga in this sense is based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Patanjali system is discussed and elaborated upon in many classical Hindu texts and has also been influential in Buddhism and Jainism. There are many other ancient texts that discuss yoga called the Upanishads, or in other words, the revealed word of God. The Bhagavad Gita is an important spiritual text which is considered an Upanishad, and which means Song of God. The Gita, as it is known for short, is a 700-verse Hindu scripture that is part of the ancient Hindu epic, but the Gita is frequently treated as a freestanding text. It is the most popular and beloved of yoga texts and was revered by the likes of Ghandi, Albert Einstein, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Carl Jung. The goals of yoga are varied and range from improving health to achieving moksha, or liberation from worldly suffering. But the yoga that is discussed in the ancient texts has to do with using meditation and devotion to achieve union with the divine, not with doing physical yoga postures. Hatha yoga, or physical yoga as we know it, is a system of yoga introduced by Yogi Swatmarama, a Hindu sage of 15th century India. The word hatha may esoterically be said to derive from the Sanskrit terms ‘ha’ meaning sun and ‘tha’ meaning moon. Thus, hatha yoga is known as the branch of yoga that unites pairs of opposites referring to the positive (sun) and negative (moon) energetic currents in the body. Swatmarama introduced his system to be a stage of physical purification and bodily practices as preparation for higher meditation. It is based on asanas (postures) and pranayama (breathing techniques.) Hatha yoga became popular in the West beginning in the second half of the 20th century, and is what we now consider “yoga.” The most comprehensive text of hatha yoga is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika compiled by Yogi Swatmarama, supposedly derived from older Sanskrit texts on yoga and on Yogi Swatmarama own yogic experiences. It includes information about shatkarma (purification), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing and subtle energy control), chakras (centers of energy), bandhas (internal “locks”), nadis (channels), and mudras (symbolic gestures), among other topics.

Yoga philosophy

Probably the most fascinating aspect of yoga is the philosophy that underlies it.

How the philosophy is applied in your teaching is up to you. While the yoga we practice in yoga teacher training or studios now is technically hatha yoga, part of what has made yoga so popular and beloved by so many people is the integration of the wisdom and philosophy of the various paths of yoga into the contemporary yoga experience. The best teachers weave techniques from the various areas of yoga into their classes. I love yoga philosophy and utilize its lessons in my teaching of the physical postures; some yoga teachers love chanting, and integrate that; some love the esoteric or subtle anatomy of the chakras, and teach them within the context of the yoga postures. This cannot be forced but needs to arise for each teacher in an authentic way. So find what you love and integrate it as you see fit. But first, teach sound physical sequences with good alignment instruction. Themes and philosophy are advanced teaching techniques which can be overwhelming for new teachers, and should really spring forth organically from your experience as a practitioner. Sadhana means practice and refers to the specific yogic techniques or spiritual disciplines one chooses to follow on a daily basis. Each of the yogic paths may lead to the same result—union with divine consciousness —but the techniques and one uses to get there may differ. The paths of yoga you should be familiar with are:

  • Hatha Yoga – the yoga of physical postures and breathing exercises, as previously discussed
  • Bhakti Yoga – the path of devotion to the divine, including prayer, ritual, and chanting
  • Karma Yoga – the path of right action, or selfless service, focused on the causes and effects of our actions
  • Jnana Yoga – the path of knowledge, through study, questioning, meditation, and contemplation
  • Raja Yoga – the “royal” path, or the path of meditation or self-control

The eight limbs

Raja Yoga consists of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga, or eight-limbed path. It has become popular to refer to the meditative path as Raja Yoga so as not to confuse it with the popular physical style of hatha yoga that is also called Ashtanga Yoga. Here, the eight-limbed path refers to the sadhana a yogi follows to achieve Samadhi, or bliss, as laid out by Patanjali in The Yoga Sutras. The eight limbs are:

1. Yama – code of conduct, or self-restraint

  • Ahimsa – compassion or non-violence
  • Satya – truthfulness
  • Asteya – non-stealing
  • Brahmacharya – moderation or sexual restraint
  • Aparigraha – non-covetousness or non-greediness

2. Niyama – observances or commitments

  • Saucha – cleanliness or purity
  • Santosha – contentment
  • Tapas – discipline or austerity
  • Svadhyaya – self-study and study of sacred texts
  • Ishvarapranidhana – surrender to a higher power

3. Asana – posture or physical activity

4. Pranayama – breathing practices to integrate mind and body

5. Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses

6. Dharana – concentration, one-pointedness of the mind

7. Dhyana – meditation

8. Samadhi – blissful awareness

The five koshas

According to yoga philosophy, human beings are made of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects that function together as a holistic system. The koshas are like sheaths or layers of human consciousness. The layers are visualized like the layers of an onion, from the dense physical body, inward to the subtle levels of the emotions, mind, and spirit. The five koshas are:

  1. Annamaya kosha – the physical self, or “food body”
  2. Pranamaya kosha – the energy body, composed of prana, or vital energy
  3. Manomaya kosha – the mind, including both the thoughts and the five senses
  4. Vijnanamaya kosha – the intellect and ego, the knowledge of our identity or “I-ness”
  5. Anandamaya kosha – the bliss body, a reflection of the Atman, or true Self The five koshas operate as one system, giving rise to the self and the multitude of ways we experience being human.


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