I often get asked by people what kind of yoga it is that I teach. I know what they mean but it got me thinking recently that there is a lot of misunderstanding about yoga. Usually the person wants to know if it is Hatha, Igengar or Ashtanga vinyasa. Similar postures are done in all of these classes, the difference is in how long you hold the postures, relative difficulty of individual postures and the number and how they are sequenced in a class. On that basis, I can usually give them an answer, in a few sentences, after asking a couple of questions.
Other styles of yoga have also become popular in recent years, for example, Bikram classes run for exactly 90 minutes and consist of a series of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises. It is done in a hot room and because of this is sometimes called hot yoga. Andy Murray helped to bring it to our attention, although it has been on the go since the 1970s. Bikram Choudhury who devised this form of yoga has caused some controversy recently by trying to copyright his sequence; this has caused some upset and the Indian government is trying to stop this from happening. Many people believe that this takes us far from the true spirit of yoga.
However that is only one interpretation of yoga which can in actual fact take several forms. In the west, we tend to have only a very limited understanding of what yoga is and the different forms that it can take. Our understanding is generally limited to a small part, of only one of the many forms, that it can take. Additionally, we think that yoga is something we do on a Tuesday morning or a Thursday night; for us it is something that we spend a little time on but hopefully still get some benefit from. To follow the path of yoga is a lifetime’s commitment which commits us to right action and devotion. The idea of devotion can seem like quite an old-fashioned concept and for many of us, it can appear too onerous in what it demands of us. In the end it is up to the individual to decide the level of commitment.
All this thinking gave me the idea for this month’s article however. The following is just some of the different forms of yoga that there are with a brief description of each.
Raja yoga is described by Patanjali, an Indian sage in his yoga sutras (a guide for living). There are eight stages in the practice of Raja yoga which I have described in a previous article. Briefly they are: yama and niyama which describes how we should restrain and discipline ourselves in order to behave well.
Asanas and pranayama are the practices of postures and breath control to achieve physical well-being and vitality. These are the practices which you would normally do in a yoga class. Some teachers will also cover other aspects of the practice of yoga in a class for example shatkarmas which are cleansing or detoxifying actions, mudras and bandhas, which work with the energy generated through our asana practice. In actual fact, these practices are Hatha yoga and within that there are different styles as described above.
We manage our mental and emotional well-being through the practice of pratyhara and dharana, which are practices to cultivate concentration and awareness. Finally we practice meditation or dhyana in order to achieve samadhi or absorption in the universe.
Bhakti yoga is a devotional form of yoga involving a believe in a supreme being; this could be Krishna, Christ, Buddha or Mohammed. The important thing for the follower is that there is a strong emotional tie which is directed to the guru/supreme being. Over time, through the practice of meditation, the bond becomes stronger, the practitioner loses her ego and eventually her identity and becomes bound up with the object of the meditation practice and achieves self-realisation.
In Karma yoga the path to the same goal of self-realisation is through good works. The act of work is a form of worship of the divine. However in doing this work, we are often attached to rewards, praise or recognition. To progress on the path of Karma yoga, we should not be attached to any of this, or indeed to the outcomes of the work. We should simply work to the best of our ability and do it humbly.
Tantra yoga is possibly the most misunderstood of yoga practices! Sorry to disappoint you but this too is a spiritual path towards enlightenment. The word itself means weaving, and deals with the forces and energies which drive us. It is an esoteric practice which has been much misunderstood of recent times. I am afraid that any further explanation is beyond me, but good luck if you decide you would like to know more. There is plenty of information out there but none of it, to me at least, is easily understandable and therefore I will not even try to explain more.
Increasingly Kundalini yoga is being bandied about. I was taught that this a form of spiritual awakening which could only happen after many decades of study and devotion and was handed down from a guru to an acolyte. Kundalini is believed to be a source of energy, located at the base of the body (represented as a coiled snake) which can be tapped into and released with expert guidance only. As the kundalini rises up through the body, it awakens the seven chakras (or wheels of energy) and thereby enlightenment is achieved. There are classes available nowadays which apparently focus on breathing, meditation, mudras and chanting.
This list is by no means definitive and is only a very short explanation of what is meant by yoga in the broadest sense. Each form could be a lifetime’s work I think, and maybe a few reincarnations might be useful to try out a few more!