Essay by Joan Dobbie

Essay by Joan Dobbie

The word YOGA comes from the Sanskrit word "yuj" that literally translates to mean “yoke.” Like two oxen yoked together. It means “connection.” And it also means work, or practice. (The oxen are yoked to do work, after all.) Yoga philosphy, developed over the centuries through philosophical thought combined with physical and meditative practices, contends that all the living universe is connected. Just as the individual cells in a body are part of that whole body, each living body (and all the universe is alive) is part of the vast universal body. It is an illusion, a fantasy (“maya” in sanskrit) that we are separate isolated beings out of touch with one another. The goal of yoga is to give us actual experience of our connectedness to one another and all the universe. This is the experience of enlightenment. There are, contends yoga philosophy, many ways to break out of the fantasy of isolation, many different kinds of work that can be done, and each of these is a different kind of yoga:

Bhakti yoga, the yoga of love and devotion. A devout Christian, for example, who loves Jesus with all his/her heart, would be considered a bhakti yogi. A devout Hindu whose devotion to his/her guru (teacher) would also be a bhakti yogi as would be a mother whose devotion to her children overreaches her love of self, or a wife who gives all to her husband, or an orthodox Jew whose life is devoted to love of the unfathomable Lord.

Japa yoga is a way of reaching connection through chanting holy names or songs of praise. A gospel Christian who sings out his/her love of Jesus would be practicing japa yoga, as would a Bhuddist monk who chants to the vast void before silent meditation. A Rastafarian who sings out to his Jah is practicing japa yoga. I would contend that in his own way, the wild northern wolf, howling at the midnight moon is also practicing japa yoga.

Karma yoga has to do with reaching this sense of connection through good deeds and ceremony. A karma yogi or yogini might be devoting hours each week doing charity, serving the homeless on thanksgiving, or chaining him/herself to a thousand year old redwood that is about to be destroyed in honor of the almighty dollar. A Karma yogi/yogini may have a separate meditation space in his/her home, and each morning, cut a rose and place it in a vase by the eastern window to greet the new day. A Catholic nun, whose day begins, ends and is in all ways a life of ceremony and service, would be considered a karma yogini, as would be a Muslim who prays 5 times each day at the appointed time.

Jnana yoga has to do with the mind. It is the path of the intellectual. A janana yogi/yogini reaches that sense of connection through study and the reading of holy scriptures. An orthodox Jew, for example, who studies the Talmud, who has, since he was three years old, devoted his life to this study, is immersed in jnana yoga. A Hindu who studies the Upanishads, the Vedas etc., the holy writings of India is practicing janana yoga. I would contend that the aetheist, studying philosophy of the ages, is in his/her way, practicing jnana yoga.

Raja yoga: Raja (King’s) yoga is by some considered the highest yoga. It is the yoga of meditation and has to do with gaining the sense of connection through silencing the mind’s chatter until the practitioner sees beyond individual isolation to universal oneness. Silent prayer (when it is not about requests for physical gain) is a form of Raja yoga, as is sitting meditation in whatever tradition it is practiced.And, in fact, just as sitting still for hours on end can serve to bring one beyond the individual sense to the sense of the universal; its opposite, dancing, as seen in the practices of many native American tribes, or in the eastern world sufis, or in Western traditions, of Hasidic Jews, can do so as well. In fact, hatha yoga, the physical exercise so popular nowadays in our western world is a form of raja yoga, a meditation or prayer of the body:

Hatha yoga: Hatha yoga (sometimes known as “sun/moon yoga”) has to do with balancing out the physical body, the masculine and feminine aspects of ourselves, by balancing out the hormonal and nervous systems, while stretching and toning the muscles, the ligaments, the flesh and fluids of the body. A side effect of hatha yoga is that it makes the body healthier, and sometimes last longer. But this is indeed a side effect. The goal of hatha yoga, as with all yogas, is to give the practitioner a sense of connection beyond individual to universal experience.

Tantric Yoga: Since it makes use of the physical body as an instrument of yoga, there are those who say all hatha yoga is a kind of tantra. But usually, when people speak of Tantric Yoga, they are speaking of a particular yogic practice that literally makes use of the sexual energy to waken the “shakti” or “kundlini energy” asleep in the tailbone and bring that energy up into the higher chakras or energy realms of the body, and again, gain universal awareness.

These are yoga styles. Nowadays there are many, many styles of yoga, often named either after a particular Swami or teacher (Swami is a Hindu religious title) who teaches a particular style of yoga, or named by a teacher who teaches a particular style. Thus, what we call “Sivananda Yoga” is the yoga as taught by disciples of Swami Vishnudevananda, whose teacher was Swami Sivananda. And what we call “Integral Yoga” is the yoga as taught by disciples of Swami Satchitananda, whose teacher also was Swami Sivananda. Swami Vishnu and Swami Satchitananda were brother disciples of Swami Sivananda; their two styles of yoga are similar, but not identical.

Followers of the teacher, Iyengar, practice “Iyengar yoga; ” followers of the teacher Desekachar, practice “Desekachar yoga.” And so forth.

And there are other styles of yoga, nowadays, that have gone far afield from the hindu roots of the practice. YogaFit, for example, is a style of yoga that is taught in health clubs and puts heavy emphasis on the physical movements of yoga practice. It is yoga as work-out. Bikram Yoga, does come from India and is taught by followers of a teacher named Bikram. This style of yoga also emphasizes the physical workout aspect of yoga, and is practiced in a very warm room, around 105 degrees (with fans to keep the air circulating).


Different practicing styles match different personalities. If you are new to yoga, try this, try that, then settle on your favorite. Or, never settle. Every style has its own specialness to offer. In my experience, every style of yoga, and every teacher of every style of yoga, is a little different than every other, and nearly every teacher insists that his/her style is either the only proper style, or at least the best, and all, each in its own way, is wonderful! You can’t miss.