In the west, the primary form of yoga that most people know and practice is Hatha yoga, which includes the practices of asana, pranayama, and meditation. But Hatha yoga forms one of 6 branches of yoga, collectively known as ‘the yoga tree.’ This article forms the first in a series of seven articles explaining all about this tree and its 6 branches of yoga.
The 6 Branches of Yoga
Although Hatha yoga is the most widely practiced branch of yoga here in the west, there are other systems or ways of practice to achieve union or liberation. They are often likened to the branches of a tree in which yoga is the trunk and each of the yogic systems are one of 6 branches of yoga. The branches of the yoga tree are:
- Hatha Yoga (primarily asana and pranayama – the yoga of the body)
- Bhakti Yoga (devotional practice – the yoga of the heart)
- Karma Yoga (service-based action – the yoga of selflessness)
- Jnana Yoga (the study of the scriptures – the yoga of the mind)
- Tantra Yoga (sacred ritual – the yoga of divine feminine energy/Shakti)
- Raja Yoga (Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga – the yoga of transcendence)
I love the idea of the yoga tree because it conjures up an image in my mind of a beautiful ancient tree with a twisted trunk, sprawling roots delving deep into the earth, and branches spiraling up into the sky. In my imagination, I see that the branches all bear the same bounty of fragrant flowers turning into sweet ripe fruits. These are the fruits of practice and show that it doesn’t matter which branch you choose to practice, they all lead to the same end results – liberation from suffering and union with your higher self and Divine cosmic consciousness.
Choosing which of the 6 branches of yoga to practice is a deeply personal decision, and I talk you through it later in the article. You will find as you read about each branch that you recognize elements of them in your own life and practice. In fact, studying the yoga tree can be a beautiful way to discover new forms of spiritual practice that you maybe haven’t thought about or tried before.
Hatha yoga is the branch that most Westerners practice. It is the yoga of the body. Whether you practice yin yoga, vinyasa flow, Astanga yoga, or any other particular style of yoga, you are practicing Hatha yoga. All of the elements of your yoga class are part of Hatha yoga.
Hatha yoga incorporates all of the practices that correspond to the body:
- Shat kriyas (yogic cleansing – Trataka, Neti, Kapal Bhati, Dhauti, Basti, and Nauli)
- Bandhas (energy locks)
- Mudras (gestures)
- Mantras (sacred chants)
Each of the 6 branches of yoga has its own method of transcendence. Hatha yoga is the path to liberation and union through primarily physical means. Ha means ‘sun’ and Tha means ‘moon,’ and so Hatha yoga means to practice with the forces of the sun and the moon.
We transform the body and mind by exerting physical and mental force, cultivating the Yoga Deha (the yogic body). When done correctly, this enables the yogi to become radiantly healthy and free from disease.
Total health means freedom from the normal physical limitations, allowing the yogi to concentrate solely on meditation to gain union with the Divine and the higher self and thus achieve Moksha, or liberation. It is through the path of radiant health that the Hatha yogi harnesses the mind and can transcend the ego.
Bhakti yogis dedicate their time to devotional practice, seeing the Divine in all elements of life, and so Bhakti yoga is known as the yoga of the heart.
Of all 6 branches of yoga, Bhakti yoga is the most beautiful. Followers of this branch demonstrate their devotion to the Divine through every thought, word, and action, dedicating everything they do to their chosen deity. In this way, life becomes a sacred spiritual practice, with each moment bringing us closer to union and liberation.
Bhakti yoga involves the following practices:
- Pada sevana (devotional ritual)
- Smarana (meditating on the Divine)
- Kirtana (singing sacred mantras and songs)
- Vandana (prostration)
- Shravana (listening to sacred scriptures)
- Sakhya (devotional friendship)
- Atma nivedana (offering of the self to the Divine)
- Dasya (a slave-like devotion to the chosen deity)
Because Bhakti yoga is such a heart-based practice, it is excellent for channeling the power of the emotions. The emotional energy is the force behind this path to liberation.
Karma yoga is dedication to service-based action. It is known as the yoga of selflessness. The Law of Karma states that the seeds we sow in this life will affect our circumstances in future incarnations. Equally, the quality of our life today is a consequence of our actions in previous lives.
Ways to practice Karma yoga include:
- Donating to charity
- Helping a friend, colleague, or family member
- Teaching your skills for free
- Performing a random act of kindness
- Beach cleans and litter picking
- Running errands for a housebound neighbor
- Giving to a food bank
Any act of selfless service is considered Karma yoga and can help the practitioner to consciously create a life that is not driven by selfish action. In dedicating your life to the service of others you free your mind from the trappings of the ego, allowing you to come closer to the Divine.
Jnana yoga is the study of the ancient sacred scriptures and of the self, and as such it is known as the yoga of the mind. Practitioners of this branch of yoga devote their lives to gaining knowledge and wisdom through the words of the ancient sages and gurus so that they might realize the true nature of reality.
Jnana yoga is the path of the scholar, the pursuit of liberation through the cultivation of wisdom. Of all 6 branches of yoga, Jnana yoga is thought to be the most direct route to illumination and insight, but also the most difficult.
Jnana yogis study the ancient yogic texts, such as:
- The Vedas
- The Bhagavad Gita
- The Mahabrata
- The Upanishads
- The Ramayana
Monks, sages, and scholars epitomize the Jnana yogi. Jnana yoga is not simply the act of study, it also involves reflection, meditation, and contemplation of the sacred texts, questioning how they relate to the nature of the self and the human condition.
Tantra yoga is the practice of sacred ritual, and it is known as the yoga of Divine feminine energy/Shakti. Tantra is widely misunderstood as merely a sexual practice, but it is so much more than sacred sexuality. In Tantra yoga, the whole of life becomes a ritualistic practice, and everything, including sexual relations, is consecrated as an act of reverence. In fact, some schools of Tantra recommend celibacy.
Tantric yogis participate in sacred ceremony and ritualistic devotion to the Divine feminine principle personified as Goddess Shakti. Tantra yoga practices include:
- Devotional ritual
- Kundalini energy work
Tantra yoga focuses on the understanding and celebration of oneness with sacred universal energy or Shakti. The focus is on ritual practice as a vehicle to the expansion of consciousness that ultimately leads to union and Moksha.
Raja means ‘royal’ and of all the 6 branches of yoga, Raja yoga is said to be the highest form. It is often referred to as ‘classical’ yoga and is known as the yoga of transcendence. Raja yoga focuses on meditation as the path to liberation, and the way to ensure effective meditation is to follow Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga.
Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga system is as follows:
- Yama (ethics)
- Niyama (self-discipline)
- Asana (physical postures)
- Pranayama (breath control)
- Pratyahara (sense withdrawal)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (meditation)
- Samadhi (liberation)
The practice of Raja yoga involves the above steps and also an emphasis on contemplation and self-inquiry. The Raja yogi practices spiritual development via study, meditation, adherence to an ethical and moral code, purification techniques, physical asana practice, surrender, and contentment with their present circumstances.
The goal of Patanjali’s system is to control the mind and silence the thoughts so that the true Self can be revealed and understood. Through the recognition of one’s true nature, ignorance, and illusion (the ego) are dissolved, resulting in ultimate wisdom and the transcendence of suffering.
Which Branch Should I Practice?
Depending on what is going on for you at a particular time, or where you are on your spiritual journey, you will most likely be more strongly drawn to one of the 6 branches of yoga. The branch you are most drawn to is the one you should explore.
However, that doesn’t mean that you have to stick to just one. You most likely have already practiced elements of each branch. Studying yogic texts is Jnana yoga, asana practice is Hatha yoga, chanting a deity mantra is Bhakti yoga, volunteering is Karma yoga, meditation is Raja yoga, performing sacred ritual, or even celebrating a birthday, is Tantra yoga.
In fact, it is recommended that you take time to cultivate elements of each of the 6 branches of yoga, because they feed into one another and help to support and nourish all the different parts of your life.
Bhakti yoga helps you tap into your heart center and cultivate love and compassion. Karma yoga drives conscious, effective action. Raja yoga focuses your mind. Tantra yoga helps develop a sense of reverence and celebration. Hatha yoga helps keep you healthy. Jnana yoga cultivates wisdom and knowledge. All of these steps are important in the development of a meaningful life and spiritual progression.
The 6 branches of yoga are part of the yoga tree. These branches represent different paths or methods to Moksha. Although there are many practitioners who decide to dedicate themselves to practicing one particular branch of the yoga tree, combining aspects of each path can bring us immense benefits in all areas of our lives.
If you feel particularly drawn to practicing one branch more than the others, for example, most people in the west emphasize Hatha yoga, that’s totally fine, but see if you can bring in small elements from all 6 branches of yoga to enrich your life and accelerate your spiritual progress.
I hope that you have enjoyed this introduction to the 6 branches of yoga, and that it has inspired you to incorporate some of the practices into your routine. As always, if you have any questions at all about this topic, or anything relating to personal and spiritual development, please drop your question in the comments box below and I will get back to you. Alternatively, why not join me and your fellow Goddesses in our Sacred Circle?
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