What is Yoga and what Yoga style should I choose?
Even though the number of yoga practitioners is already at 300 million worldwide, the origins of Yoga and its different branches are still a mystery for many.
Is there anything in common between the ancient sacred texts where yoga was first mentioned thousands of years ago and a yoga class with balancing poses with beer bottles or doing asana practice with goats? And does the modernisation of yoga mean we have completely lost our way and connection to its ancient origins?
In this post I will answer these questions and dig deeper into what yoga is, what's the difference between traditional and modern yoga and where should anyone new to yoga get started from.
What is yoga?
Yoga is a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices or which originated in India around 5000 years ago.
However, today there are probably as many definitions for yoga as there are different styles of it.
I find the best way to define yoga is to look at its Sanskrit meaning: “UNION”.
This union is understood most commonly as the union of our individual consciousness with the universal or supreme consciousness, but also as the union between the ego and the higher self, between the mind and the body, between the nature and human, between the polarities: sun and moon, feminine and masculine, or perhaps a union between all the above.
One of the most important defining factors of yoga is the transformation of the consciousness.
I see Yoga is the end result of the practise when this transformation happens, not the practise itself (even though I often use these words synonymously).
Even though a vast majority of yoga studios around the world is modern, there are still alive yoga traditions within the traditional school of yoga. These different lineages can vary from each other greatly. However, they also have many common features.
What connects these practises together is:
A living tradition that has been passed down from master to disciple
A definition of reality and a world view from a traditional yoga text which its the foundation of the practice
The knowledge is attained through initiation
The practises are metaphysical and spiritual rather than just physical
These are the main branches of yoga:
Yoga of knowledge or wisdom. This path is for the sages or scholars to reach the self-realization through development of the intellect and study of the scriptures and texts of the yogic tradition. The Jnana yoga is considered the most difficult and at the same time the most direct path.
Bhakti Yoga is the yoga of devotion and seeing the divine in all of creation. The yogi on a path of bhakti intends to cultivate acceptance and tolerance for everyone we come into contact with. This is the true path of love and service to the supreme. Bhagavad Gita mentions this path to be the highest of all.
Kriya Yoga is the yoga of action and was brought to international awareness by Paramahansa Yogananda. The Kriya yoga system consists of a number of levels of pranayama, mantra, and mudra based on techniques intended to rapidly accelerate spiritual development and engender a profound state of peace and divine harmony.
Karma yoga or the path of service, which is defined in the Bhagavad Gita.
The principle of karma yoga is that what we experience today is created by our thoughts and actions in the past. Being aware of ourselves as the creators of our reality, the focus becomes to consciously create a future that frees us from subconscious negative patterns.
Raja means “royal”. Meditation is the focal point of this classical branch of yoga. This approach involves strict adherence to the eight "limbs" of yoga as outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras:
Tantra is one of the most misunderstood branches of yoga due to misconceptions around its sexual nature. Tantra is a practice to experience the Divine in everything, so therefore sex is not excluded, but its definitely not the main focus of this practice. Tantra is the original non-dual philosophy where it sees all as god instead of trying to escape this reality. Tantra encourages a ritualistic approac to life and relate to the feminine principle of the cosmos, shakti.
Modern yoga is everything else except traditional. However, some debate that some most recent styles such as beer yoga or goat yoga shouldn't be called yoga at all.
I personally have nothing against doing yoga with goats or even beer but I see the point what some traditionalists have with this. But if thats the direction we take, can we really call any yoga thats purely physical as yoga?
Typically modern yoga is more focused in the asana practise and the physical fitness, stress relieving and relaxation techniques and doesn’t require its students to have any kind of master or guru, belief system or spiritual practice.
I don’t see this being something right vs wrong or good vs bad. I simply see these as two different types of practice that can benefit different people. I personally would like to see the spiritual aspects and traditional yoga gaining more ground in the west but I don’t think they need to compete with each other.
It's important to understand that yoga has become a million dollar business in the west, but it’s not all bad. I personally choose to just celebrate the fact how interest for mental and physical wellbeing is increasing in the west and I believe that any step that we take towards a more conscious, more loving and compassionate world is a step towards the right direction.
In my case for example, I probably would've never found my way to a spiritual practice if I wasn’t drawn to the physical side of yoga first. If a modern yoga class is the one that lights a spark inside you to explore the world of yoga further I think the class has served its purpose, no matter what type of class it is.
The only way I can see these negatively impacting is when the teacher misused their power over the students and spreads false information or teaches physically or mentally dangerous practises. Unfortunately we have various examples of this such as Bikram or other modern "gurus".
Most popular styles of modern yoga:
"Hatha" is an umbrella term for all physical postures of yoga. However, in modern studios it’s often used for a gentler beginner asana practise where poses are held longer and the pace is slower.
Hatha in the traditional sense has a bit different meaning than in modern day. Ha means ‘Sun’ and Tha means moon, the physical yoga practice (Hatha) is intended to ‘balance’ the Sun and Moon energies within us by physical postures, pranayama and meditation.
Astanga was founded by Sri Patthabi Jois in 1950 and its very demanding physical postures gained a lot of popularity all the way to this day. The practise follows a rigid series of postures combined with ujjaji breath.
Restorative yoga focuses on activating the parasympathetic nervous system and activating the body natural relaxation response. Restorative yoga uses many different props to support your body in the long holds with each pose. Great for anyone who needs a stress release.
Yin yoga is a slow-paced style with seated postures that are held for long periods of time. Yin was initially made for stretching both the deep connective tissues between the muscles, and the fascia throughout the body.
Vinyasa yoga was adapted from ashtanga yoga in the 1980s. It's one of the most popular styles of yoga today where the movement is coordinated with your breath and movement to flows from one pose to another in a fast pace.
After Bikram yoga got a bad name after its founder being convicted from sexual crimes many studios decided to change the name to “hot yoga”. Bikram yoga is generally taught in a 105 F degrees and 40% humidity and it follows a sequence of 26 x 2 poses which makes it an intense workout that is great for gaining flexibility and losing weight.
Founded by B.K.S. Iyengar, this type of yoga focuses on alignment and therapeutic aspects of the poses. In an Iyengar class, students rely heavily on using different props. Great for those who have injuries and need special props for their practice.
Most spiritual of all modern styles. However it's important to distinguish the Kundalini yoga mentioned in the ancient scriptures and the practise that is known as Kundalini yoga today. The latter is a variation by Yogi Bhajan in 1968 where he combined different vedic traditions and Sikh mantras.
Perhaps the most traditional of all these modern styles, Sivananda yoga (established in 1959) is based on series of 12 asanas. Its practice is not so revolved around physical practise and includes practices such as Pranayama, Asana, Proper Diet, Positive Thinking and Meditation.
What to Yoga style to choose?
The goal that you have with yoga is the best way to determining what style is best for you.
If your goal is to raising and expand your consciousness or to seek spiritual truths I would guide you towards traditional yoga and see which branch resonates with you the strongest. I believe that our intuition is a strong signal showing us the right way in every decision we make.
If you are looking to release stress, I would recommend trying the modern styles such as restorative yoga. If you are looking for more peace of mind and more flexibility, I recommend any form of Hatha yoga that resonates with you. Trying many different styles is a good way to find your calling.
Even though there is very little in common with the ancient yogis and the trendy yoga classes with different themes, I still think there is place in our world for both. Many can benefit from modern and traditional yoga and there is no need for competition between them.