The Different Paths of Yoga Explained
by Martin Kirk and Brook Boone

In the West, yoga is often confused with Hinduism. It is understandable that people group the two together because they share a common culture, language, and terminology. Both traditions trace their roots back to the Rg Veda. The common basis for both traditions is the Sanskrit language. In India, many Hindus practice yoga, but not all yogis are Hindu.

Yoga is a philosophical system that prescribes a way of life and is actually just one of the philosophical schools recognized by Hindu orthodoxy as a valid representation of Vedic truth. There are many such schools that have played a role in the evolution of Indian thought. Each school is a form of philosophical thought that has evolved in India throughout the centuries. Several of these systems have been exported to the West, and particularly the United States, over the years. With the recent, unprecedented rise in the popularity of hatha yoga, it is important to identify the foundations on which modern yoga systems are based.

Among the exports of Indian thought, three philosophical traditions now form an essential core within contemporary yoga: Classical yoga, Advaita Vedanta, and Tantra. Every popular system of hatha yoga in the West today is grounded in the philosophy of at least one of these three schools. The work of Tantric scholar Douglas Brooks discussed next provides a foundation for understanding these three systems.

Classical Yoga

Classical yoga is the name given to those schools of yoga that consider themselves the most authentic representatives of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. It is a dualistic philosophy that draws a clear distinction between the two major "substances" of the universe, prakriti (matter) and purusha (spirit). In Classical yoga, matter and spirit are qualitatively different realities that never mix or join together. Spirit is absolute, unchanging and superior to matter. Matter is relative, changeable and inferior to spirit.
The essential nature of human beings is pure spirit, while everything in the physical world, including emotions and thoughts, is considered material. Human suffering is the result of confusing one's true nature with this lesser, material reality. The goal of Classical yoga is to separate these two realities, to extract one's true nature from the body/mind. It is designed to help students experience their immortal spirits. The goal of the yoga practice is to get into the body so you can get out of it. Sometimes, these practices include harsh discipline that requires students to push beyond the pain in order to realize that they are something other than their bodies or their feelings. Because the body is inferior, it must be disciplined into submission so that spirit may be realized. If you are in a yoga class with a Classical yoga influence, there will likely be a strong emphasis on controlling the body and mind through discipline. You may hear phrases like "push through the pain" when the postures become especially challenging. For the Classical yogi, the body and this physical life are problems to be solved. Birth is the result of a failure to realize our true nature in a previous life, and we are sentenced to come back again and again until we realize the truth. Freedom from the prison of embodiment comes when the seeker isolates the experience of pure spirit from the lesser realities of body, mind, and thoughts.

Advaita Vedanta

Vedanta means "conclusion or end of the Vedas," because this method is based on the last set of Vedic texts and teachings, the Upanishads. In contrast to the dualistic philosophy of Classical yoga, Advaita (nondual) Vedanta negates the concept of separate realities for matter and spirit. In Advaita Vedanta only spirit is real; matter is an illusion. Our experience of matter, our bodies, our thoughts and feelings, and embodied life itself are an error in perception that can be corrected. There is only one true reality, but it appears as many to the unenlightened mind. This reality is unchanging and constant. Anything that changes, therefore, must be unreal. Since there is only one reality, all difference, as we perceive it in our worldly experience, simply does not exist. If we have a favorite flavor of ice cream or color of the rainbow it is simply an error of judgment. No perceived differences are real. All human suffering comes from this error of perception.

For Vedantins, like Classical yogis, this embodied life is a problem to be solved. One of the primary strategies for overcoming erroneous thinking is referred to as neti, neti (not this, not this). The practice is to repeat phrases like "I am not my body, for my body changes," "I am not my mind, for my mind changes," "I am not my emotions, for my emotions change." Disciplined application of this approach is designed to bring true knowledge that will dispel the error in thought. Once the seeker acquires true knowledge, he or she becomes enlightened. An enlightened one may continue to inhabit the body but will have the awareness that the body, thoughts, and everything seen are just illusions. If you are in a hatha yoga class with an Advaita Vedanta influence, you may hear phrases like "you are not your body" or "you are not your thoughts."


Sometime around the fifth or sixth century B.C.E., there was another revolution in Indian philosophical thought regarding the nature of the universe and our relationship to it. It was a radical shift that gave rise to a body of texts, oral traditions, and practices known by the name Tantra, meaning "loom" or "weave." Rather than join the argument between Classical and Advaita Vedanta yoga concerning the nature of matter and spirit, the Tantras transmuted it by agreeing with both sides and adding a new twist. Like Classical yogis, the Tantras affirmed the existence of spirit and matter; however, neither was granted supremacy. Like Advaita Vedantans, they affirmed the supreme unity of all reality.How could this be? How could both of the previously dominant philosophies be true at the same time?

Tantric philosophers resolved the issue with a masterful weaving together of these two great teachings. In essence, they chose radical acceptance of all reality, both spiritual and material. The physical universe is explained as a diverse manifestation of the one supreme reality of divinity. The grounding matrix of physical reality (prakriti to Classical yogis) is the Vedantic supreme self. The world we live in is the manifestation of infinite forms of this supreme consciousness.

This was an incredible shift in the prevailing views, which considered the physical body as a problem to be solved and required self denial and intense discipline of the physical body in order to either rise above it (Classical) or realize it as illusion (Advaita Vedanta). In bold contrast, the followers of Tantric philosophy considered the body as a manifestation of divinity itself, worthy of celebration and honor, rather than the result of a mistake or failure from a previous lifetime. This viewpoint was nothing less than a radical acceptance of the body and all of life as divinity incarnate. Suddenly there was nothing to renounce and no failed past life causing one's current birth, only the choice of living fully in the reality one has received as a divine gift.

In contrast to the Classical and Advaita Vedanta adherents who renounced the world as inferior or illusion, the followers of this new path were primarily lay people. They were heads of households and businessmen living in the everyday world, earning their living and paying their bills. Tantric scholar Douglas Brooks has coined the term rajanakas to refer to this group. The term rajanaka means "sovereign over one's own life"; it indicates that these yogis used their practice to gain mastery over all aspects of their lives while still living in the secular world. The modern day hatha yoga school called anusara yoga, founded by John Friend, is based on the Rajanaka Tantra tradition and draws upon the rich Tantric philosophy without the use of ancient Tantric ritual. Needless to say, this fundamental shift toward Tantric thought affected the yogic practices of the day and continues to highlight the differences in the prevailing hatha yoga systems in the West. If you enter a yoga class based on Rajanaka Tantra philosophy you will likely hear phrases like "open to grace," "your body is a divine temple" and "shine out from your heart and express the divinity within you."

Paths of Yoga

Just as there are distinct philosophies and interpretations of the scriptures in world religions, different philosophies have formed in the world of yoga. Accordingly, the living science of yoga has been organized into many different paths or approaches over the centuries. It is no surprise that human beings, with so much diversity of thought and feeling, would find so many paths to their spiritual development in the realm of yoga. Yet, like many different paths to the top of the same mountain, all paths lead to the same goal. Many people find that, as they progress through their lives, more than one path speaks to their spiritual needs. The best yoga paths for you are simply the ones that appeal most to your heart.

There are a number of recognized paths of yoga, two of which are lesser known forms of yoga, but very empowering: bhakti and jnana. Bhakti yoga is the yoga of devotion. It emphasizes the opening of the heart to divine love, the union of lover (the yogi) and beloved (the divine). This devotional love is often translated into song or chanting, with ecstatic repetition of the names of the beloved, in gatherings called kirtans. One of the most popular kirtan artists in the United States today is Krishna Das, who is a bhakti yoga practitioner.

Jnana yoga is the yoga of wisdom. Jnana means "knowledge." This is a path of self-realization through the exercise of discerning the real from the unreal or illusory. It is a practice of discriminating between the products of nature and the transcendental Self, until the true Self is realized in the moment of liberation. This is a strictly nondualistic (Advaita Vedanta) path that requires the seeker to separate the real from the unreal, the Self from the non-Self. Since the mind is considered part of the unreal, one must use the mind to outwit the mind. The principle techniques of this path are meditation and contemplation.

Excerpted with permission from Hatha Yoga Illustrated by Martin Kirk and Brooke Boon, certified yoga instructors. Kirk studied with Anusara Yoga founder, John Friend. Boon is a Baptiste Power Vinyasa certified instructor. Learn more at