“The practice of yogasana for the sake of health, to keep fit, or to maintain flexibility is the external practice of yoga. While this is a legitimate place to begin, it is not the end. Even in simple asanas, one is experiencing the three levels of quest: the external quest, which brings firmness of the body; the internal quest, which brings steadiness of intelligence; and the innermost quest, which brings benevolence of spirit.”
~ B. K. S. Iyengar, Light on Life
One of my all-time favorite children’s books is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. In the simple tale, the book’s title character gives all of her love, apples, shade, branches and even her trunk to her best friend as he goes through life from boyhood to manhood to old age.
I think of the big, old family tree of yoga as analogous to Silverstein’s unabashedly generous tree. It just keeps giving and giving, year after year, century after century, to all we faithful yogis and yoginis.
The breadth of yoga includes much more than the physical poses, breath practices and meditation techniques that are most commonly taught today. Movement, breath and mindfulness are wonderful, integral aspects of yoga, but so are a slew of other equally important aspects.
Did you know that Hatha Yoga is just one of six main branches of yoga? The other five are:
Raja Yoga: the “royal” path whose main focus is on meditation
Bhakti Yoga: the path of devotion, as exemplified by Gandhi and Martin Luther King
Jnana Yoga: the path of the sage or scholar who seeks union with the divine through study of scripture
Karma Yoga: also known as selfless service, this is the path of self-transcending action. It means volunteering our time and energy to help those who are in need, without expecting anything in return.
The Eight Limbs of Hatha Yoga
Classical Hatha Yoga (as opposed to the more modern, New Agey yoga) can be further broken down into eight limbs, according to the ancient Vedic texts, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
These eight limbs are:
- Yama: universal morality
- Niyama: personal observances
- Asana: physical postures
- Pranayama: breath control
- Pratyahara: control of the senses
- Dharana: concentration and development of self-awareness
- Dhyana: meditation
- Samadhi: union with the divine, or liberation
The yamas and niyamas make up the ten commandments of yoga. The five yamas are as follows:
Ahimsa: nonviolence, aka “thou shalt not kill.” But even more than nonviolence and even more than tolerance, ahimsa means developing true compassion for ourselves and all living beings
Satya: truth, aka “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Satya means speaking mindfully. Telling the truth but also knowing when to keep quiet. Ensuring that our words are honest, helpful, inspiring, necessary and kind before we say them.
Asteya: nonstealing, and furthermore, taking nothing that has not been freely given to you.
Bramacharya: sense control, aka “you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” Sometimes, bramacharya is thought to mean celibacy but in modern yoga community, it is usually thought of as mindful use of sexual energy, meaning sex between mature, loving partners within the context of a committed relationship.
Aparigraha: nongrasping, letting go of attachment to material things, emotional dramas and spiritual superiority. By remembering the nature of impermanence, we neutralize the desire to acquire and hoard wealth.
The five niyamas are purity, contentment, tapas (self-discipline in practice), self-study and celebration of the spiritual.
Asana, pranayama, sense withdrawal, concentration and meditation are all practices designed to lead us to ultimate Self-realization, or liberation.
What about all the other types of yoga you’ve heard of?
Anusara, Ashtanga, Bikram, Kundalini, Vinyasa Flow, Power Yoga, Yin, Jivamukti and many other lineages and variations all fall into the category of Hatha Yoga. These forms focus mainly on asana, with varying degrees of pranayama and meditation thrown in, depending on the individual teacher’s style.
Most of us hatha yogis could benefit from a deeper study and practice of some of the other branches and limbs of yoga.
By exploring the many branches of the tree of yoga, we may each find our ideal blend of physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual practices.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise