Branches of Yoga

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we introduce the diverse branches of yoga.


Become familiar with the major branches or paths of yoga and their origins.


Examine the primary focus and underlying principles of Bhakti, Jnana, Raja, TantraandHatha Yoga. Describe how Hatha Yogais distinguished from other branches and how Hatha Yoga, Tantra,andRaja Yoga are related. Explain the causal forces that sparked the rise of Tantra and the primary philosophical underpinning of the philosophy.

Bhakti: Yoga of Devotion

  • Bhakti Yoga is known as the Path of Devotion.
  • It is one of the yogic paths explained by Krishna in The Bhagavad Gita.
  • Bhakti Yogis see the Divine in all.
  • Bhakti Yogis invoke love and a feeling of closeness to the Divine through thought, word and deed.
  • Bhakti Yoga practices include Mantras and Kirtan.

Blossoming of Love

Bhakti is love of God but also the expression and blossoming of love in all your relationships. The divine light of God resides in all that is alive, or for that matter, even that which we consider inanimate. Through our relationships with others, we discover our higher self. – Deepak Chopra & David Simon

Karma: Yoga of Action

  • Karma Yoga is known as the Path of Service, the Yoga of Action and Union Through Action.
  • It is one of the yogic paths explained by Krishna in The Bhagavad Gita.
  • Karma Yogis practice yoga through actions intended to transcend self and influence destiny.
  • This yoga is based on karma, or the law of universal causality, which states that what we experience today was created by actions in the past and that our present efforts create our future.
  • The principles of Karma Yoga are to act responsibly, unselfishly, without attachment, and with integrity.
  • Volunteering and other forms of selfless service are examples of Karma Yoga. Off the Mat Into the World and other Yoga Service and outreach organizations are examples Karma Yoga.

All Action Belongs to the Supreme Being

The ultimate expression of Karma Yoga is the recognition that all action belongs to the Supreme Being… True practice of Karma Yoga leads to spontaneous detachment from outcome and one-pointed focused mindfulness as you perform your actions… The Karma yogi knows that God is performing the action and takes care of the results. – Deepak Chopra & David Simon

The Fast Lane to Spiritual Fulfillment

The Bhagavad Gita touts karma yoga — the Hindu path of service to others — as the fast lane to spiritual fulfillment. So comprehensive are its benefits that one of India’s most widely respected gurus, Neem Karoli Baba, gave just one instruction to his devotees: “Love everyone, serve everyone, remember God” — six words that encompass the whole tradition. – Alan Reder

Jnana: Yoga of Wisdom

  • Jnana Yoga is the Yoga of Wisdom or Knowledge.
  • Jnana Yogis use intellect and reasoning to transcend limitations of the “I” mind and discover the natural state of yoga.
  • It is one of the yogic paths explained by Krishna in The Bhagavad Gita.

You Become One with the Immortal Spirit

Jnana Yoga (pronounced gyah-nah) teaches the ideal of non-dualism — that reality is singular and your perception of countless distinct phenomena is a basic misconception… Jnana Yoga [says that] 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. – For Dummies

Raja or Classical: Yoga of Patanjali

  • “Raja” means “royal” and thus this is known as the Royal Path.
  • Often, Raja Yoga is described as the teaching outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. Or, when differentiated, Patanjali Yoga may be known as Classical Yoga and considered a subset of Raja Yoga.
  • The Raja Yoga practices are the The Eight Limbs of Yoga: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi.
  • In Sanskrit, the Eight Limbs of Yoga are known as ashtanga yoga (different from the style, Ashtanga Yoga, founded by Pattabhi Jois).

Raja Yoga Bigger Than Patanjali Yoga

Patanjali yoga is widely identified as being the same as Raja Yoga (the royal path of yoga). We, however, prefer to define Patanjali Yoga as a specific system within the wider framework of Raja Yoga (which includes the following systems: Kundalini Yoga, Kriya Yoga, Mantra Yoga, Dhyana Yoga, Patanjali Yoga)… Specifically, Patanjali Yoga is that systemwhich consists of eight stages: yama, niyama, asana, pranayma, pratyhara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. It is therefore widely called ashtanga yoga (the yoga of eight stages). – Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Practices that Take Awareness Inward

Raja yoga is the path of union through practices that take your awareness inward. The essence of Raja yoga is an integration of body, mind and soul through procedures that enhance mind-body coordination… Raja yoga helps you practice the other yogas with greater ease, effortlessness, and joy. When you feel physically vital, emotionally stable, and psychologically centered, your ability and desire to love and express authentic compassion expand. – Deepak Chopra & David Simon

For Those Drawn to Meditation

Raja yoga attracts individuals who are introspective and drawn to meditation. Members of religious orders and spiritual communities devote themselves to this branch of yoga. However, even though this path suggests a monastic or contemplative lifestyle, entering an ashram or monastery is not a prerequisite to practicing raja yoga. – Maria Carrico 

Tantra: Liberation in the World

  • “Tan” means “to extend”, “expansive,” or “whole.”
  • Tantrikas seek liberation in the world. Tantric practices are designed to realize through experience that everything is divine and connected.
  • Tantra arose in reaction to patriarchy, dualism, and atheism.
  • A key philosophy of Tantra is nondualism, or the idea that “one’s true essence exists in every particle of the universe.”
  • Practices include pranayamamantramudra, and yantra.


Passed on Through Siddha Yoga

Until as recently as a hundred years ago, Tantra was a practice that was shrouded in mystery because it was passed down orally from teacher to initiated student… But the second half of the 20th century brought a group of dedicated teachers who started to make the teachings better known… Swamis Muktananda and Chidvilasananda spread their approaches to Tantra through the Siddha Yoga tradition in the West. Today their students—like Rod Stryker, Sally Kempton, and John Friend…are fervently leading a Tantric renaissance in the West, and translations of influential texts such as Spanda Karika, Vijnana Bhairava, and the Shiva Sutras have become widely available in English. –  Nora Isaacs 

Denial of the Body & the Feminine

Tantra arose out of the seeds of Samkhya, Classical Yoga, and Buddhism but it quickly surpassed all of these philosophies. Where the earlier schools were patriarchal and either dualistic or atheistic, Tantra embraced the feminine, the principle of unity, and offered a way for anyone to practice… The goal of the practice of Tantra Yoga is, fundamentally, to release Shakti, and move her up the central channel of the body, to meet with Shiva who is waiting for her just above the crown of the head. Of course, like all yogic teachings, there are some schools that claim the exact opposite is what must happen: Shakti must descend to the waiting Shiva. In either case, the tools mostly used to awaken and move the sleeping Shakti are the tools of pranayama… Pranayama, however, is not the only tool available. Tantra has a broad offering of techniques and practices. They include mantra, mudra, yantra, and pancha-makara (the Five-Ms). – Bernie Clark

A Continuity Between Ordinary Life & the Infinite

The essential idea of Tantra is that everything in the universe is an expression of the divine and thus can be tapped as a source of divine consciousness and being… At the heart of tantra is the idea, born of experience, rather than grand philosophical speculation, that there is a continuity between what seems the ordinary realm of human life and the infinite… The philosophy of tantra identifies the path of freedom not through renunciation of human desire and experience, but indeed largely through it. – Mark Stephens

Nondualism: The Divine Exists in Everything

“There are widely different Tantric texts,” says meditation teacher Sally Kempton, “and different philosophical positions taken.” …One core aspect of Tantric philosophy that’s taught in the West, however, remains consistent: That aspect is nondualism, or the idea that one’s true essence (alternatively known as the transcendental Self, pure awareness, or the Divine) exists in every particle of the universe. – Nora Isaacs

Liberation Possible in the World

In the nondualist belief system, there is no separation between the material world and the spiritual realm. Although as humans we perceive duality all around us—good and bad, male and female, hot and cold—these are illusions created by the ego when, in fact, all opposites are contained in the same universal consciousness. For Tantrikas, that means that everything you do and all that you sense, ranging from pain to pleasure and anything in between, is really a manifestation of the Divine and can be a means to bring you closer to your own divinity. “In Tantra, the world is not something to escape from or overcome, but rather, even the mundane or seemingly negative events in day-to-day life are actually beautiful and auspicious,” says Para Yoga founder Rod Stryker… “Rather than looking for samadhi, or liberation from the world, Tantra teaches that liberation is possible in the world.” – Nora Isaacs 

Tantra: Expanding Consciousness & Liberating Energy

Tantra is the science of expanding the consciousness and liberating the energy. Tantra is the way to attain freedom from the bondage of the world while still living in it. The first step in tantra is to know the limitations and capacities of the body and mind. Next it prescribes techniques for the expansion of consciousness and the liberation of energy whereby individual limitations are transcended and a higher reality experienced. – Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Hatha: Yoga Through the Body


  • Hatha Yoga is the branch of yoga that works through the body, rather than through the mind or emotions.
  • Primary practices of Hatha Yoga include asanapranayamabandha and mudra.
  • Much of the popularized yoga in the West today is Hatha Yoga
  • Mark Stephens notes that many Hatha Yoga traditions attribute their roots to Raja Yoga when in fact, he proposes, the origins are more tied to Tantra. Bernie Clark agrees, noting that “Hatha kept many of the practices that Tantra developed, but just as Tantra discarded what it didn’t like of Classical Yoga, Hatha also dropped the unsavory parts of Tantra. Hatha Yoga focused its practices on building a healthy body, one that would be perfect for the higher practices of meditation and samadhi.” – YinSights 2007

Meaning of Hatha

‘Ha’ and ‘tha’ mean the union of the sun and the moon, union of prana and apana vayus. ‘Hatha’ means any tenacious practice till the object or end is achieved. – Swami Sivananda 


According to the original texts, there are three purposes of Hatha yoga: 1) the total purification of the body, 2) the complete balancing of the physical, mental, and energetic fields, and 3) the awakening of pure consciousness through which one ultimately connects with the divine by engaging in practices rooted in the physical body. – Mark Stephens

Preparation for Raja Yoga

  • “Traditional Hatha Yoga is intended to lead to Raja Yoga, ‘Royal Yoga,” the goal of which is the highest state of consciousness known as samadhi.” (Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga,
  • Swami Sivananda writes, “Raja Yoga begins where Hatha Yoga ends. Raja Yoga and Hatha Yoga are interdependent. Raja Yoga and Hatha Yoga are the necessary counterparts of each other. No one can become a perfect Yogi without a knowledge and practice of both the Yogas. Hatha Yoga prepares the student to take up Raja Yoga.”


Some listings of yoga branches will include these:

Guru Yoga

  • Dedication to a master

Mantra Yoga

  • Using sound to focus the mind