Depending on which scholar you’re talking to, the word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yujir (yoke, bind together or union) or yuj samādhau (concentration).
Hatha yoga is a precisely defined set of bodily postures, along with breathing and mental exercises designed by Patanjali. Taken together, these are said to ultimately connect the ego and soul with God.
Although hatha yoga is fashionable in the West, there are other important Hindu yogas. And the entire idea of yoga runs far deeper than stretch suits and inflatable balls.
For the traditional Hindu, yoga means any technique or practice that links individual will to the Divine Will.
The Bhagavad-Gita, one of the most revered books in Hinduism, outlines four different but related types of yoga.
- Jnana yoga is the yoga of divine knowledge
- Raja yoga is the yoga of right rule
- Karma yoga is the yoga of sacred duty or action (this relates to another important Hindu concept, dharma)
- Bhakti yoga is the yoga of pure devotion to God
Depending on where a seeker is in his or her spiritual journey, these four different yogas can intermingle in different degrees and combinations.
For example, a hard working businesswoman (karma yoga) does puja in the morning (bhakti yoga). On returning home after work she meditates on spiritual lessons learned from the day’s activities (jnana yoga). At night she participates in a women rights group to help eradicate sutee (raja yoga). In addition, she may practice the bodily and contemplative postures of hatha yoga to ease her stress.
Another aspect of yoga relates to Tantricism and is both championed or possibly denounced among the Hindu faithful. This type of yoga is called kundalini yoga.
Kundalini yoga involves awakening the spiritual “serpent power” said to reside in the base chakra. Through intense and prolonged training with a spiritual master (guru), the seeker learns how to channel this power up along the spinal column so it resonates within each of the seven chakras. Some stress the importance of moving beyond the lower chakras, but most advocate achieving balance among all of them.
Believers in this mythological system of the body say the most noble chakra is located at the top of the head (crown chakra). When this chakra activates and is properly balanced with all the other chakras, one is said to be in a state of samadhi—that is, complete and perfect union with God.
It’s worth nothing that different schools say different things about the chakras. The main point of difference seems to be the precise number and location of the chakras. So modern people grasping onto some simplified chakra theory as if it were the gospel truth might do well to brush up on the history of religions. Otherwise, a given chakra theory might become just another New Age dogma, influencing a person’s thinking just as forcefully as any other kind of religious teaching.