The History of Yoga: A Breakdown of Traditional and Modern Schools

Yoga is a meditative practice that invites you to access your true nature by developing compassionate self-awareness. It facilitates a homecoming process where we can drop out of the narratives that keep us locked in unhealthy cycles of thought and behavior and into a state of peacefulness and security. Essentially, this practice provides a path for waking up. However, in the modern world, the practice of yoga has become less about awakening to pure consciousness and instead emphasizes the cultivation of greater presence and harmony with life as it is. This expanded intention of the practice, although not complete, still represents the foundational principles of knowing oneself deeply and learning to bring wisdom to the way we think, speak, and move. Despite the common misconception that yoga purely consists of physical postures, there are many forms of yoga and their expressions vary depending on the lineage in which they originated. 

There are several different schools of yoga ranging from its emergence in India 5,000 years ago to its global influences today.  Scholars, teachers, and practitioners alike have continued to debate the foundational schools of yogic practice as well as its newer iterations. However there are certain schools that most teachers highlight as integral to understanding the general teachings of yoga. The traditional schools of yoga are split into two main sectors: Prana Samyama Yoga and Bhavana Yoga. Prana Samyama Yoga focuses on the attainment of transcendence through expansion and control of one’s life force, and this sector is split into four different schools: Hatha, Raja, Mantra, and Laya. Bhavana Yoga is grounded in the cultivation of feeling states and specifically focuses on a particular attribute or quality of a person as the path to achieve realization. This sector is split into three primary schools: Bhakti, Karma, and Jnana (Gyan).

Hatha Yoga is the practice that is most commonly practiced in the west -- it is a breath and body-based practice  that aims to restore balance within the mind and body through aligned movement. This form of yoga is designed to prepare the practitioner for deep meditation. Raja Yoga is known as yoga of the mind, and this practice focuses on regulating the mind and body to create harmony between the physical, spiritual, and mental dimensions of human life. Self-discipline is highly emphasized in Raja Yoga. Mantra Yoga is the yoga of sound in which the practitioner focuses on a mantra to engage the mind and offer a connection point for the divinity within. Mantra Yoga is a vibrational practice that uplifts energy and fosters an expansive stream of awareness. Laya Yoga, the last of the four, is a practice that aims to withdraw the senses from the external world and invite the awareness to rest in pure consciousness (one’s internal world). Laya Yoga can lead to a state of deep realization (samadhi) and is known to awaken the spiritual energy within.

Moving into Bhavana Yoga, the first school is Bhakti Yoga, or the yoga of devotion. This practice, like other forms of yoga, is a path to self-realization and transcendental awareness, but achieves this state by engaging in devotional practices that emphasize a personal relationship with the divine. Karma Yoga, the yoga of action, is the path of selfless service toward others (compassionate action) and is considered to be one of the most practical and effective means of spiritual development. Jnana (Gyan) Yoga is the yoga of knowledge or intellect, and this path focuses on understanding the true nature of reality through the practice of meditation, self inquiry, and contemplation. This practice highlights the importance of self-study as a way to elevate consciousness. 

The modern applications of yogic teachings may sound more familiar, and these schools include Ashtanga, Iyengar, Vinyasa, Yin, and Sivananda Yoga. Ashtanga Yoga is the practice of integrating the eight limbs of yoga, first developed 5,000 years ago by Maharishi Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras, to transcend suffering and facilitate awakening. This practice synchronizes breath with movement to create balanced energy. Iyengar Yoga is a practice that focuses on three aspects: alignment, sequencing, and timing. Unlike Vinyasa, the poses of this practice are held for longer periods of time with the aim to achieve stability in a pose, then safely intensify the depth of the posture. As a result, this helps the practitioner develop strength, flexibility, and sensitivity between the body and the mind. 

Vinyasa Yoga focuses on moving the body with conscious awareness by combining posture with breath in a flow-like manner.  Vinyasa Yoga abides by the parameters of steadiness, comfort, and smooth, long breathing, and emphasizes external movement as a representation of one’s thoughts and emotions. Yin Yoga is a slower, more meditative flow that invites the practitioner to turn inward and tune into the mind and the physical sensations of the body. This practice targets one’s deep connective tissues, like the fascia, ligaments, joints, bones, therefore stretching and lengthening  those rarely-used tissues while strengthening  deep breathing through discomfort. Sivananda Yoga provides a pathway to knowing the true, spiritual nature of the self by combining posture (asana) with breath (pranayama) and relaxation to offer indirect regulation of the mind. Sivananda Yoga highlights the importance of self-mastery as a mechanism for self-healing and actualization. 

It's clear to see how the various styles of yoga encompass aspects of the mind, body, and spirit, and with precise intentions -- it’s no wonder that this practice has supported large populations across the globe. Next time you’re thinking about taking a yoga class, it may be helpful to reflect upon what the desired outcome is, whether it’s strengthening your mind-body connection, developing wisdom, or connecting with a larger source, and identify the best style for that. With more knowledge, we can embody appreciation toward the practice by acknowledging the science behind its presence. As a result, we’re likely to feel much more connected to the practice and ourselves.