Traditional Yoga Types


Understanding the modern, as well as the traditional yoga types can be very confusing, even for the seasoned yoga practitioner.

I’ve created a guide to help you sort it all out. On this page you’ll find a list of the various traditional forms of yoga, with some general descriptions for each.

On the next page you’ll find an even longer list of the ever-growing number of different types of yoga being practiced today, with brief summaries of each of those as well.

Traditional Yoga Types
Bhakti Yoga Japa Yoga Kriya Yoga Mudra Yoga Tantra Yoga
Classical  yoga Jnana Yoga Kundalini Yoga Raja Yoga Yantra Yoga
Hatha Yoga Karma Yoga Laya Yoga Patanjali Ashtanga Yoga

Traditional Yoga Types

Bhakti Yoga

‘Bhakti’ is the Sanskrit word which means ‘devotion’. Bhakti yoga, then, is the ‘yoga of devotion’, or the ‘yoga of universal love’.

The essence of bhakti is the cultivation of a humble nature along with a devoted service to the Divine (God, or the highest nature). The bhakti yogi, through overflowing and indiscriminate, self-less love, breaks the bonds of the ego and in this way experiences the unity of all things.

As one of the four traditional branches, or types of yoga, bhakti yoga has a special place in the history and culture of India – where the origins of yoga lie – with some of the greatest Hindu mystics, such as Jayadeva, being bhakti yogis.

Read more about Bhakti Yoga…

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Classical Yoga

Classical yoga refers to an approach to yoga in keeping with the traditional spiritual teachings of India. This spiritual tradition recognizes that transcendence is an evolutionary process that comes from an exploration of the ‘self’ on all levels – the physical, mental, emotional, and higher spiritual.

Classical yoga is not so much seen as one of the branches, or styles of yoga, so much as it is an approach to yoga that honours the traditional spiritual goals of this ancient science, and follows the methodology devised by the Rishis, the great sages and saints of old, for attainment of the highest state of self-awareness.

Classical yoga acknowledges yoga as a ‘way of life’. Its practice is built upon a firm foundation of moral and ethical living. Along with the physical practices for the purification and conditioning of the body and the mental practices for the refinement of the mind, it also involves the cultivation of a lifestyle conducive to health, harmony and transcendence on all levels.

Therefore, any yoga style that rightly claims the designation of ‘classical’ has its philosophy, regardless of approach, firmly rooted in the ancient spiritual culture of India.

The term Classical Ashtanga Yoga is also often used, which is synonymous with the ashtanga yoga system as codified by Sage Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. This classical text outlines an 8-fold path for guiding the student to the ultimate goal of yoga… self-realization.

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Hatha Yoga

‘Hatha’ is one of the most recognizable and popular ‘yoga words’ in the West today. Of the traditional branches of yoga, hatha yoga is the one that has given rise to the majority of the modern styles of yoga that most people are familiar with today.

This term ‘hatha’ is now often used in very generalized ways, referring to physical yoga practices of some form or another, namely the practices of yoga asanas (poses), and pranayama yoga (breathing).

But traditional hatha yoga is a holistic yogic path that includes the moral disciplines of yama and niyama, physical exercises such as asanas and kriyas, as well as pranayama. The hatha yoga predominantly practiced in the West today, however, consists of mostly asanas and some breathing exercises.

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Japa Yoga

The word japa comes from the Sanskrit root ‘jap’, which means ‘to utter in a low voice’ or to ‘repeat internally’. In this type of yoga, the primary practice is the repetition of a specific word, mantra or bija (seed sound) such as the Pranava AUM

‘Japas’, as these utterances are called, can be performed in three different ways:

  1. Verbally (vacika), which is known as Japa Yoga
  2. Silently, which is called Ajapa Yoga
  3. Or both verbal and silent – verbally on the exhale and mentally (silently) on the inhale, which is referred to as Ajapa-japa Yoga

If a particular mantra, bija or symbol is written over and over again, this is known as Likhita Yoga. In this practice, the student practices mauna (silence) while concentrating intently upon the meaning of the mantra (word or symbol) as they write it.

Of these yoga styles, the written mantra is considered more powerful than verbal (japa) mantra, and silent (ajapa) much more powerful still.

This type of yoga is very potent for mental purification and is considered to be the best yoga practice for the current age of Kali Yuga.

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Jnana Yoga

Jnana (or gnana) means ‘wisdom’, and so jnana yoga can be loosely translated to mean the ‘yoga of knowledge’.

Not one of the common types of yoga today, this is the yoga of the Upanishads and that style of yoga which most closely approaches the ancient Indian philosophy of Vedanta

Read more about Jnana Yoga…

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Karma Yoga

Of the different types of yoga, karma yoga has been approached by the budding spiritualist more than most. This term karma yoga is often used to refer to the giving of one’s time or professional services for a good cause.

It is seen often is modern yoga retreats or ‘ashram-like’ settings, where residence are asked to contribute to the general daily workload of maintenance, various chores, etc. But this is more aptly termed Seva Yoga, or the yoga of ‘selfless service’.

Karma yoga represents a very disciplined and selfless approach to life, whereby every action is performed for the benefit of all beings, and not for personal gain.

Read more about Karma Yoga…

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Kriya Yoga

Among the common types of yoga today is kriya yoga, the ‘yoga of purification’.  This yoga style is most commonly taught as a system of practices for bodily cleansing and purification…

… But purification in kriya yoga is something that happens on many levels, including the energetic as well as the mental and higher psychic planes.

The common techniques for the purification of the body are known as kriyas, which includes practices for purifying the nadis (subtle energy channels). So in effect, this type of yoga actually falls within the discipline of hatha yoga.

But kriya yoga, in its essence, refers more so to a process of purification at the higher level of the mind. Within the Ashtanga Yoga system of Patanjali, this relates closely to the first two of the eight limbs – namely yama and niyama, the morals and ethical restraints in that it pertains to the re-organization of one’s attitudes and beliefs, and the purification of the mental plane.

Other forms of kriyas also function further at the level of pratyahara (sense withdrawal), to help guide the senses away from the outer world so that the yogi may then proceed into the higher inner stages of yoga.

The term today also refers to a system introduced by Paramahansa Yogananda and his kriya yoga line of teachers. It is distinguished by a unique style of kriya pranayamas for the purpose of controlling and raising the ‘life-force’.

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Kundalini Yoga

Kundalini yoga is the type of yoga that endeavours to arouse the latent power known as kundalini, which resides at the base of the spine, and direct it upward. Due to the powerful nature of kundalini, this style of yoga must only be learned and practiced under the guidance of a qualified and experienced master.

Before one can safely arouse and control this colossal force, however, their body, both physical and energetic, must be adequately prepared or else irreparable damage may occur. So the style of yoga known as kundalini yoga contains a carefully developed system of kriyas and prakriyas, and also involves training in the awareness and control of the higher energies.

Once the student is properly conditioned, the kundalini force can then be carefully brought under the control of the mind by even higher disciplines, which include advanced pranayamas, (breathing techniques), dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditations).

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Laya Yoga

Laya Yoga is one of the yoga types that fall within the tantra school of yoga. In style of yoga, the energies associated with the various chakras (centers of force) are gradually assimilated through the ascent of the kundalini energy.

The Sanskrit term laya means ‘absorb or dissolve’. So, from a metaphorical sense at least, we can see laya yoga as the ‘yoga of absorption’ or absorbing of the lower nature by higher divine spiritual forces. In this state of absorption achieved in laya yoga, one experiences ananda (bliss) and the experience of transcendental consciousness.

Laya yoga is viewed as a mystic tradition, which involves the use of special mantras, yantras, and mudras, along with intensive meditations to dissolve the mind into transcendental bliss.

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Mudra Yoga

The Sanskrit word ‘mudra’ comes from the root ‘mud’, which means ‘to commune’ or to ‘bring together’.  It literally means ‘joining (of the Lower Self with the Higher Self)’.

The word mudra itself is simply translated to mean ‘gesture’ or ‘seal’.  Though these are typically thought of as specific hand positions, mudras can take form using many body parts and positions, such as a gesture of the fingers, the hands, the neck and throat, within the oral cavity, the anus, or the entire body.

Though you may hear the practice of mudras referred to as mudra yoga, their practice does not really represent a style of yoga per se, but rather a facet of yoga common to many aspects of the tantric and hatha yoga traditions.

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Patanjali Ashtanga Yoga

The term ‘Ashtanga Yoga’ refers to an eight-fold path, as organised by Sage Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, to outline the certain steps or ‘levels of progress’ that one must follow on the yogic path in order to reach the ultimate goal of Self-Realization (or Realisation of God).

These eight stages, or aspects of yoga are 1 Yama (morals); 2 Niyama (ethics); 3 Yoga Asana (posture); 4 Pranayama Yoga (breathing); 5 Pratyahara (sense withdrawal); 6 Dharana (concentration); 7 Dhyana (meditation); 8 Samadhi (absorption).

A great deal of confusion often resides around the term ‘ashtanga’ today, as many practitioners and teachers now use this same word to refer to a popular gymnastic/cardiovascular group of yoga practices being taught today (known as Ashtanga Vinyasa). However, this system of exercise is not what is traditionally meant by the term ‘ashtanga yoga’ and one should be aware of this to avoid confusion.

For a comprehensive exploration of the Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali, see our Ashtanga Yoga Main Page…

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Raja Yoga

Raja Yoga is classified as one of the four types of yoga (or traditional branches) under the Vedic system. It is a graduated system of yoga which takes the student through the necessary levels of physical, mental and psychic preparations to the highest state of ‘Self-Awareness’.

Read more about Raja Yoga…

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Tantric Yoga

Of the types of yoga being practiced today, tantra has certainly gotten its fair share of attention and controversy.

Tantra is the ancient Indian science of energy activation and control. Its philosophy is based on the Shiva-Shakti principle of polar energies, which is similar to the concepts of solar and lunar energies in hatha yoga. However, the term tantra is often misunderstood and carries with it several, often negative, connotations today.

There are two major tantra yoga types – the vama marga (left hand path), which deals with the principles of energy in a materialistic, exoteric and literal manner; and the dakshina marga (right hand path), which deals with these same forces in a subtler, esoteric and more refined manner.

The dakshina margis interpret the directives of the classical tantric texts (the Tantras and Agamas) in a metaphorically sense, working with a system of practices to awaken the latent kundalini energy. Along with these, certain internal rituals and symbolic concentrations and meditations are used which harmonize of all the energies of the being and lead to transcendence to higher states of awareness.

The vama margis interpret the teachings of tantra in a more literal sense, and hence engage in an entirely different set of practices and rituals. In this way, the vama margis do break many social taboos, and their actions and motivations are, as a result, often misunderstood. But this is a dangerous path for the uninitiated, because without proper understanding and guidance, these practices are often misunderstood and grossly misused.

Tantra has its own secret language and without a proper understanding of it, the student can easily lose him/herself in the body rather than transcend it. It’s for this very reason that the practice of tantra should never be approached except under the guidance of a qualified and experienced master.

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Yantra Yoga

Of the different types of yoga that fall within the traditional realm, yantra yoga is perhaps one of the most esoteric. The word yantra comes from the Sanskrit root word ‘yan’, which means ‘change’. ‘Tra’ refers to a ‘tool’, and so the word yantra can be literally translated to mean a ‘tool of (for) change’.

The term yantra is most commonly used in connection with complex geometrical forms (rupa) which serve as meditation devices (mandala dharana). These geometric structures impart a hidden or concealed meaning and serve as keys to unlock latent human powers and energies. When one has the key to the meaning encoded within the geometric/mathematical structure of a yantra, powerful knowledge is gained.

But this type of yoga is an even more arcane science than that. Yantra yoga is the science of ‘number’, ‘name’ and ‘form’ of all of manifestation. It can also be seen as a subset of vedic astrology (jyotish), which interprets the inherent mathematical/numeric structures that are the fundamental organization of the Universe, recognizing those same forms, structures and relationships which also lie deep within the collective unconscious of man.

A spiritual exploration through mathematics, this type of yoga is a sophisticated meditation upon numbers which systematically analyses the world through numbers, names and forms, and explores their relationships.

Yantra yoga, then, can be rightly called the ‘science of being hidden behind form’. It provides a method by which to know one’s self better, to understand one’s purpose in life, and to learn to live ‘in tune’ with the ever-changing cycles of nature, rather than ‘out of tune’ with them.

the late Swami Gitananda Giri Gurumaharaj, of Pondicherry India was the foremost exponent of this esoteric science of yantra yoga.

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