The term Hatha Yoga has been commonly used to describe the practice of asana (postures). The syllable ha denotes the pranic (vital) force governing the physical body and tha denotes the chitta (mental) force thus making Hatha Yoga a catalyst to an awakening of the two energies that govern our lives. More correctly the techniques described in Hatha Yoga harmonise and purify the body systems and focus the mind in preparation for more advanced chakra and kundalini practices. The Hatha Yoga system includes asana along with the six shatkarmas (physical and mental detoxifying techniques), mudras and bandhas (psycho-physiological energy release techniques) and pranic awakening practices. Fine tuning of the human personality at increasingly subtle levels leads to higher states of awareness and meditation.
Raja Yoga usually refers to the system that is described in the Yoga Sutras of Sage Patanjali. In this ancient text Sage Patanjali describes eight stages of yoga which are known collectively as Raja Yoga. Raja Yoga is a comprehensive yoga system which deals with the refinement of human behaviour and personality through the practice of the yamas (restraint) and niyamas (disciplines); attainment of physical health and vitality through asanas (postures) and pranayamas (pranic breathing techniques); management of mental and emotional conflicts and development of awareness and concentration through pratyahara (sensory withdrawal) and dharana (concentration); and developing the creative aspect of consciousness for transcendental awareness through dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (absorption in the universal identity).
Bhakti Yoga is the path of channeling the emotions and feelings to realise the transcendental and divine nature inherent in every human being. Many people describe this as the yoga of devotion and give it a religious bent, however, it is through Bhakti Yoga that it becomes possible to experience the unity of all life. The validity and depth of Bhakti Yoga can only be understood by realising the experiences of union that masters have had over the course of their lives.
Jnana Yoga is the process of converting intellectual knowledge into practical wisdom. It is a discovery of human dharma in relation to nature and the universe. Jnana Yoga is described by tradition as a means to obtain the highest meditative state and inner knowledge. Jnana literally means ‘knowledge’, but in the context of yoga it means the process of meditative awareness which leads to illuminative wisdom. It is not a method by which we try to find rational answers to eternal questions, rather it is a part of meditation leading to self-enquiry and self-realisation.
Karma Yoga is a system which develops immunity to the reactive and negative components of an action. This awareness of action leads to a greater ability to manage mental associations in the form of desires, ambitions, ego and other personality complexes. The aim of Karma Yoga is to gain freedom from the bondage of karma which restricts and inhibits dynamic, creative and constructive expression in life. In the Bhagavad Gita Sri Krishna has emphasised the need for action as a means to become truly human and attain divine grace. Karma Yoga is a sadhana and not a practice. The state of Karma Yoga can be attained through seva (selfless involvement in all activities), the spirit of which can be imbibed under the guidance of a competent master.