Yoga is an ocean fed by many rivers, each one fed by many streams. The range of techniques and tools of yoga is impossible to enumerate or classify extensively, however historically there have been five main branches of yoga: Raja Yoga, the Royal Path with emphasis on meditation: Jana Yoga, The Path of Wisdom, with emphasis on self-enquiry; Hatha Yoga, The Path of Energy, with emphasis on energetic balancing: Bhakti Yoga, The Path of Devotion, with emphasis on worship; Karma Yoga, The Path of Action, with emphasis on service.
Most typically when people think of yoga, it is Hatha Yoga that comes to mind and it's physical postures. Practiced at its highest level, hatha yoga uses anatomical, physiological, neural, energetic, emotional, rational and intuitive aspects of our being to access our spiritual nature. While Hatha Yoga is a river in itself, it is one that has generated many rivulets; the different schools of yoga which all have their own distinct styles. These differences are mainly on emphasis. What they all have in common is the use of the physical body, especially through the yoga postures known as asana.
The Effects of Yoga
"With regular practice amazing things began to happen. After a few months, my chest started to open up. My friends and family noticed that my chronically slouching posture from years of studying and computer work, was improving. The knots that I had thought were a permanent fixture in my upper back slowly melted away. I didn't get injured as often as I used to. In the five years before starting yoga, I gave up basketball due to heel spurs and I lost a year of playing tennis due to an inflammation of my elbow. I'd noticed the twinges of pain that heralded a rotator cuff problem in my shoulder. Chronic pain in my Achilles tendon had me worried that I'd suffer the same kind of rupture I'd seen my best friend go through. All these problems are better now, and I suspect that if I'd been doing yoga all along, I might have avoided many of them completely. Perhaps even more profound than yoga's physical effect on me were the mental and psychological benefits. Once I developed a regular practice, I noticed a change in outlook. Problems didn't seem to get to me as much.... I signed up for my first yoga class in the same spirit that I'd brought to salsa dancing and Tai Chi. It was something interesting I'd heard about and decided try. I didn't come in with any kind of faith that yoga would change my life." Timothy McCall, M.D. author of Yoga as Medicine
Physical Benefits of Yoga : Increased suppleness is one of the most immediate benefits of asana practice. In yoga postures, every muscle in the body, even those we never normally use, are systematically stretched. In asana, muscles are given a maximum stretch, which can only be achieved by working slowly and gradually. With stretches held gently, muscle fibres lengthen and become more elastic. As muscles are increading in flexibility they are also developing strength. The body itself is the gymnasium in which the muscles develop. Each posture uses certain muscles to support, lift, or stretch the body against the force of gravity and it's own resistance. Yogas' manner of developing muscle strength and flexibility is unique. Strength is developed through improving muscle efficiency, so that muscle bulk does not increase. Instead muscle is toned even and balanced throughout the whole body. Stamina is developed through the holding of postures, especially the standing and inverted postures. If postures are connected through the use of flowing viniasa sequences, cardiovascular stamina is also rapidly developed. By working evenly throughout the body, left and right, front and back, asana practice can realign the skeletal system. This is done by loosening joints and evenly stretching the muscles releasing residual tension. Posture improves and an agile strength and lightness in the body emerges. The effort required to establish and hold postures demand the use of our lungs and the deepening and lengthing of the breath. In doing this we begin to re-activate dormant lung tissue and set up new, more benefical patterns of breathing. Many yoga postures work specifically to open the chest and the practice of pranayama further develops respiratory capacity. When streching, twisiting, bending forward and backwards, various organs are stretched, squeezed or relaxed. In the process they are rinsed in fresh blood leading to improved metabolic function. Blood and Lymph circulation may also be improved by muscle stretching and especially the inverted postures. Improved respiration also enhances blood circulation, as the action of the lungs also support the heart in pumping blood around the body. Overall yoga practice promotes good health. By promoting the health of the organs, including glands of the immune system, the body's ability to resist disease is enhanced.
Psychological Benefits of Yoga: Working with the limitations of our mind and body is difficult. The resistance to postures and even to sitting still can be considerable. Through persevering we learn the joy of overcoming our limitations and not giving in to difficulty. This develops an attitude we can carry into our everyday lives. In effect we can develop a new found strength, appreciating ourselves more and improving our self esteem. Yoga can bring about deep relaxation. Because the postures work deeply into muscular tissue, entrenched habitual tension can be released. As muscular and emotional tension are released we become calmer. We face the world with less anxiety and apprehension, allowing us to enjoy the passing moments of our life more fully. As this begins to happen we may find that we become less compulsively attached as so often our attachments are ways of avoiding our feelings of tension and anxiety. Through this seeing into our patterns of habitual response to life and its situations we can begin to relax more deeply and make friends with ourselves in a very deep way. We get to know ourselves more deeply, become more comfortable within ourselves and more true to ourselves. To feel more open and spacious in ones physical form has a corresponding effect on ones mind. As we stretch our muscles we release subliminal tension that we have been carrying around with us, thus making us feel better.
There are six contemporary Indian yoga masters whose teachings have spread widely in the West, with an initial emphasis on the yoga postures and breathing techniques. Four were students of the same root guru, Krishnamacharya, and regard themselves as teaching Ashtanga Yoga in the spirit of Patanjali (the historical author of the Yoga Sutras/Scriptures). Of these, two - B.K.S Iyengar and Desikachar have developed their own distinctive approaches to yoga postures. The others Pattabhi Jois and B.N.S Iyengar both of Mysore, teach the classic Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga with only superficial contextual modifications. Sivananda and his disciple, Satyananda, were not direct students of Krishnamacharya. Sivananda placed emphasis on the relaxing effects of breathing and meditation techniques within a broad approach to yoga.
Iyengar Yoga: Iyengar Yoga is a physical, slow form of yoga that emphasizes alignment, especially through the use of the classical standing poses. This emphasis ensures that the unusual use of the body demanded by Asana is not harmful. A direct adaptation of the yoga he was taught by his guru Krishnamacharya, B.K.S Iyengars approach to yoga is unique. In order to make it more accessible and to allow for individualized therapeutic application, Iyengar pioneered the use of props to assist students. Blocks, blankets and belts may be used to help open up your body and adapt to more difficult postures. Iyengar yoga is a powerful yet safe approach to asana, very good for improving posture, alignment, toning and steadiness of mind.
Ashtanga Yoga: Ashtanga yoga is a system of yoga transmitted to the modern world by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. This method of yoga involves synchronizing the breath with progressive series of postures-a process producing intense internal heat and a profuse, purifying sweat that detoxifies muscles and organs.
Vinniyoga: Developed by T.K.V Desikachar, son of Krishnamacharya, Vinniyoga emphasizes step by step progression toward a goal, using the breath as a key and a guide. This allows for particular emphasis on remaining relaxed and sensitive to what one is doing. The asana and pranayama practices are strung together into individually tailored sequences that suit the specific requirements of a given individual at a given moment.
Sivananda Yoga: Sivananda Yoga is a holistic practice that incorporates the 12 basic/intermediate asanas with variations, pranayama, relaxation, and meditation.
Satyananda Yoga: Satyananda Yoga is a system of yoga that is firmly grounded in tradition and adapted to suit the needs of contemporary living. It includes Hatha, Raja, Karma, Jnana, Mantra and Bhakti Yogas as well as other branches and presents them in a unified package that is flexible enough to be applied according to individual needs. Satyananda Yoga is a systematic, step-by-step approach to yoga, that aims to integrate of all aspects of our being.
Unexpectedly, perhaps, the key to the practice of Hatha Yoga is not so much the technical emphasis of various schools, but the attitude and intention of the teacher and the student. The fact is that the different technical aspects of Hatha Yoga are not separate from each other. Therefore the so called different styles of Hatha Yoga are not absolutely distinct from each other. In fact they can complement and even support each other.