types/paths to yoga

Teachers from various lineages have contributed to the evolution of yoga that is practiced in the West over the past hundred years. Here is an attempt to outline the paths to help you make your choice. The word ‘yoga’ was explained in the post ‘what is yoga’ . Now, lets define the words type and style before relating it to ‘yoga’.

Types versus Styles

Frequently, the words type and style are used interchangeably. This gets confusing for students who are sincerely trying to choose one in an effort to deepen their practice. Defining these words will help to clarify the meaning and intent of using them accurately.

Type indicates a category of people or things having a common set of characteristics or practices. According to Swami Adishwaranandayoga darshana, yoga philosophy prescribes four main paths to attain the knowledge of the Self through yoga, spiritual  union. Here,the words paths and types are used alternatively. For example, Rāja Yoga is a type of yoga, or a path that outlines the practices a student of yoga can follow.

Style implies a manner of doing something; designated with a particular name, description, or indicating title to a person or thing symbolizing exemplary practices. For example, Iyengar Yoga is a style of yoga, named after B.K.S. Iyengar. Although his basic teachings align to Rāja Yoga, here the practices have been taught a certain way by Mr. Iyengar and hence the style is named after him. (styles – another post)

the four main paths to yoga, spiritual union

Karma yoga            

Spiritual Union through action/selfless service

  • कर्म योग, the “discipline of action/service”is achieving ‘union’ by perfecting action through selfless service.
  • Karma is derived from Sanskrit kri, meaning ‘to do’. In its most basic sense karma simply means action, and yoga means union.
  • In Yoga philosophy the word karma means both action and the effects of action; i.e. the law of cause and effect. Karma yoga is described as a way of thinking and acting in accordance with one’s duty (dharma) without egotistical desires, likes or dislikes and without being attached to the fruits of one’s deeds .

Jnana/Gnyana yoga            

Spiritual Union through realized knowledge

  • ज्ञान योग is union through the path of ‘realized’ knowledge.
  • Knowledge used to achieve material desires is lower knowledge or ignorance, Avidya.
  • The knowledge that helps to overcome egotiscal desires to realize who we really are is true knowledge.
  • The veil of maya delusion, prevents us from knowing our real nature and the nature of the world around us.  Jnana yoga is the process of lifting this veil.

Bhakthi yoga          

Spiritual Union through devotion/surrender

  • भक्ति योग is spiritual union through the path of love, unquestioning faith and surrender (of ego).
  • Bhakthi is love for love’s sake without expectations or fear. It is the easiest way for the layman to realize spiritual union as it doesn’t involve extensive yogic practices.
  • The term Bhakthi comes from the root ‘Bhaj’, which means ‘to be attached to God’.

Rāja yoga

Spiritual Union through the Royal Path of self-control and meditation

  • राज योग Rāja yoga was first described as an Eightfold or Eight-limbed (aṣṭānga, ashtanga) path in the text Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali.
  • Also known as Classical (Paarampariya पारम्परीय) Yoga or Classical Aṣṭānga yoga. 
  • The term Rāja Yoga is a term introduced in the 15th-century text Hata Yoga Pradipika and popularized by Swami Vivekananda in order to distinguish it from the school of Hata Yoga expounded by Yogi Swatmarama
  • It is a complete path with clear guidelines, and encourages learning by way of discipline, experimentation and reflection.
  • As we pursue Rāja Yoga thoroughly, we will discover that it is inclusive of the above paths within its Eight- Fold Path.

Frequently asked question – what is the difference between Hata Yoga and the four main types?

Hata yoga  – Yoga of physical movement/force

  • Note: The popular word “hatha” is actually  pronounced as “haṭa” or “hua“in Samskritham.
  • हठयोग haṭayoga, or haṭa vidya (हठविद्या), is a system of yoga described by Yogi Swatmarama, a sage of 15th century India, compiler of the Haṭa Yoga Pradipika.
  • Sanskrit term haṭa हठ, refers to the use of persistence or force; haṭayoga is translated by the Monier-Williams dictionary as “a kind of forced yoga or abstract meditation (forcing the mind to withdraw from external objects)
  • This is based on asana, pranayama and shatkarma, cleansing practices – is a preparatory stage of physical purification for higher meditation. This must be followed by practices listed in Rāja Yoga.

Kriya Yoga

Kriya Yoga (क्रिया योग) is a comprehensive spiritual path based on the 8-fold path and specific Kriya  pranayama techniques. This ancient system was revived by Mahavatar Babaji through his disciple Lahiri Mahasaya.

Kriya Yoga was brought to the west in 1920 by Paramahamsa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi.

The Kriya yoga system consists of a number of levels of pranayama, breathing practices, mantra, chants, and mudra, energy seals intended to rapidly accelerate spiritual evolution and evoke profound tranquility and spiritual union. There are similarities to the pranayama taught in Rāja Yoga. 

A few other paths to yoga.

  1. Kundalini yoga              yoga through energy awareness

कुण्डलिनी योग, Kundalini yoga is a combination of physical, mental and spiritual disciplines focussing on the expansion of sensory awareness to achieve Spiritual Union. Kundalini is untapped energy, prana at the base of the spine that can be drawn up through the body awakening each of the seven chakras, energy centers

Each Kundalini asana series is done with a specific breathing technique that intensifies the effects of the poses with the purpose of freeing energy in the lower body and allowing it to move upwards.

Kundalini energy is often represented as a snake coiled at the bottom of the spine at the first, Muladhara Chakra. Spiritual Union happens when this energy reaches the crown, Sahasrara Chakra at the top of the head.

2. Tanthra yoga          yoga through rituals 

तन्त्र, Tanthra means theory, system, series of the spiritual disciplines based on power (shakti), as the Divine Mother. Tanthra scriptures are usually presented as a dialogue between Shiva and Shakti explaining the divine play of Shakti, feminine energy and Shiva, male energy.

Most misunderstood of all the paths, Tanthra Yoga is about using ritualistic forms of worship to experience what is sacred and to liberate the practitioner from ignorance and rebirth. Although sex is a part of it, it is not the whole of it since this path aims to find the sacredness in the act of procreation.

Tantra Yogis must possess purity, humility, devotion, dedication to the Guru, and truthfulness among other qualities to attain spiritual union.

3. Manthra yoga         yoga through vibration of chants

A मन्त्र manthra is a sound, syllable, word, or group of words that is considered capable of “creating spiritual transformation”.

Simply, a manthra is a sound vibration. The word “manthram” is a Samskritham word consisting of two syllables: “mun” (mind) and “thra” (deliverance). In the strictest sense, a mantra is pure sound vibration that delivers the mind from its material inclinations and illusion. 

Chanting is the process of repeating a manthra. This act of silently (Japa) chanting mantras and merging with the vibration is Manthra Meditation. 

4.    Nāda Yoga        yoga through sound 

नादयोग, Nada yoga  is based on the premise that the entire cosmos including human beings, is made of sound vibrations called nāda. This system promotes that sound and music are something more than sources of pleasure.

Nāda Yoga divides music into internal music, anahahta, and external music, ahatha.

Ahatha music made by external objects is conveyed to the hearing consciousness via the ears. Here, mechanical energy is converted to electrochemical energy and transported to the brain where the sensations of sound is translated to music.

Anahatha music is defined as the unstuck sound, which is heard in the heart chakra, – not by the way of a sensory organ.The anahatha concept implies listening for one’s own sound vibrations. This inner sound is sacred and will open the chakras, energy centers, creating yoga, spiritual union.

And finally ….

There are other misconceptions about yoga, for instance – if yoga is a religion. Mostly, yoga is a system of disciplines/tools to spiritualize daily living. Currently, yoga is being practiced by Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and others.

Hopefully the above information is helpful to make your choice of a ‘yoga path’ less confusing. It is also important to trust yourself, trust your teacher and know that although there are different paths to attain yoga, dedicated practice is imperative.


Adishvaranada, Swami.2006. The Four Yogas – A Guide to the Spiritual Paths of Action, Devotion, Meditation and Knowledge. Skylight Paths Publishing, VT

Easwaran, Eknath. The Mantram Handbook. Nilgiri Press. Blue Mountain Meditation Center, CA.


2 thoughts on “types/paths to yoga

  1. Asha

    Informative as always Mythri. Wondering if food (selection, consumption) is part of any yoga theory or philosophy. I know Gita chapters deal with food (Saatvic)- with reference to spiritual enlightenment and union with soul, spirit, environment and so on.

    Liked by 1 person

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