There are many paths to choose from, and all the paths are equally valid.2
While most authorities on yoga generally agree that bhakti, jnana, karma, and raja are the four major branches of yoga, there are several yoga practices, or traditional approaches to yoga, that have gained prominence, and which might be considered offshoots of the major branches of yoga. You may, or may have already, come across the names of some of these offshoots. Being familiar with the following popular terms will help round out your understanding of yoga.
Kundalini refers to a powerful energy depicted as a serpent (from kundala, which means "coiled"). This energy is stored at the base of the spine, where it lies coiled like a snake. This energy is considered feminine. It lies dormant until properly awakened, at which time it rushes upward through the spine to join with the male aspect of consciousness at the crown of the head, where the union of the feminine and masculine aspects of energy leads to self-realization and enlightenment. Practitioners of kundalini yoga employ specific practices to aid the arousal of this energy. The movement of kundalini energy has been described by some as having the force of a streak of lightning.
The awakening of kundalini energy can be one of the steps on the path to enlightenment. For this reason, various practices have been developed over time to help practitioners cultivate the releasing of this energy as a way of attaining enlightenment. These practices can include physical exercises (asanas) and special breathing techniques (pranayama) combined with meditation and recitation of sacred sounds to raise and release the kundalini energy. Kundalini yoga has become so popular in the West that Chapter 7 is devoted to its practice.
Laya means "melting," "dissolution," or "absorption" in Sanskrit. Laya yoga is an approach to meditation that uses rites and special practices, such as breathing, to reach a state of total absorption.
Mantra means "thought" or "instrument of thought" in Sanskrit. (It is believed to be related to the same root that gave rise to the words mental and man in English.) Mantra yoga uses special sounds as instruments to focus and still the mind. The sages of yoga from time immemorial have maintained that the universe was born of vibration, or sound. Therefore, sound occupies a sacred role in yoga. Certain sounds are believed to have sacred powers. One of the most famous of these sounds is the universal, untranslatable Om. Because sound is so vital to the principles of yoga practice, Chapter 16 contains a special section on mantras and guidance on how you might begin to practice them.
Tantra means "loom" in Sanskrit. Tantric yoga uses a variety of practices such as external rituals celebrating the divine feminine principle as well as more internal practices such as meditation and mantra recitation to weave the way to enlightenment. Many scholars believe that the practices of tantra are very ancient. According to some, tantra developed as a reaction to classical yoga practices, which traditionally had been reserved exclusively for certain castes of practitioners, especially men.
Tantra is particularly appealing to men who enjoy communing with others. Rather than withdrawing into himself alone, a man can engage with others in order to achieve liberation. This union can entail sexual union. As a result of this fact, tantric yoga is sometimes mistakenly understood to apply only to sexual practices. Tantra, however, involves a much wider range of rituals that are practiced in a sacred, ceremonial way to imbue them with the power of transformation and self-realization. When tantric practices include sexual acts, these acts are engaged in as a means of achieving self-realization. Kundalini yoga draws on some of the practices that form part of tantra yoga.
Hatha literally means "violence" or "force" in Sanskrit. Hatha yoga is frequently referred to as the "forceful yoga." It generally refers to the practice of the physical postures, or asanas, of yoga. To many people, yoga is synonymous with the practice of these physical postures. A variety of approaches to executing these postures has developed over time; consequently, various approaches to hatha yoga have developed. The following chapters will help you better understand the most important approaches to hatha yoga.
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