There is yoga and there are yogas. To be more specific, it could be said of yoga, and the family of yogas it has become, what might be said of anything made manifest: “First there was one; then there was more than one.” Such proliferation could not really be dubbed beneficial or not any more than a cell dividing or a couple having children could be considered helpful or not. It’s simply a natural consequence of the life of something—anything—doing what it does, which is (among other things) to bloom out of innate simplicity into manifest complexity. Known history maintains that yoga was officially codified as a practice by a man named Patanjali who lived about 200 BCE. Although the Vedic Upanishads indicate yoga was practiced at least a thousand years before Patanjali was born, Patanjali has been given credit for getting yoga established in an official way because he was apparently the first person to write down a coherent description of it.
In his terse handbook, the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali laid out a set of disciplines he called ashtanga yoga, “the yoga of eight limbs.” This ashtanga yoga came to be known as raja yoga, “the king of yogas.”
The “eight limbs” or progressive steps of ashtanga yoga are yamas (restraints), niyamas (observances), asana (posture), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (mystic oneness).
Although ashtanga yoga was originally conceived as a one system, parts of it have been separated out to become yogas in themselves. Prominent among these are hatha yoga, highlighting body development; kriya yoga, emphasizing breath control; and jnana yoga, featuring introspection. Knowledgeable yogis also assert that karma yoga, focusing upon selfless service, and bhakti yoga, focusing upon devotion, were derived from the yamas and niyamas of Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga.
The spawning of these first spin-off yogas inspired the development of other yogas out of Pantajali’s original ashtanga yoga. These included japa yoga, nada yoga, and kundalini yoga. Through the passage of time, even more yogas came—many of them named after their teachers or the places they were originally taught. This snowballing multiplication of yogas continues today. But it all started with Patanjali and his ashtanga yoga.
The greatest good that has come from the proliferation of yoga into yogas has been its extensive development through specialization. The basic pranayama of raja yoga, for instance, which originally offered only a simple means of preparing for meditation by controlling breath to calm body, mind and emotions, got sophisticated into kriya yoga. Kriya yoga is a system of breathing exercises so elaborate and complete within itself it offers a path to God Realization through breath control alone.
The greatest harm that has come from yoga’s proliferation has been its frequent forfeit of original intent. Since the literal meaning of the word yoga is “to bind back,” as in binding back to source, it should not seem unreasonable that a practice called yoga should be yoga in the truest sense of the word. Yet, many of the specialized yogas that have developed out of raja yoga are not binding back to source as much as they are bounding forward toward some end or ideal within their own area of expertise. Hatha yoga, for instance, is often taught only as physical exercise for physical health.
The most intriguing evolution of raja yoga from its inception to the present has been its successful absorption back into itself of that which blossomed out of it into specialization. When this amalgamation of developed-new back into stable-old is allowed to occur wisely, which usually means under the guidance of a qualified teacher, those developed parts getting merged back do not change the original structure of that from whence they came as much as they support and enhance that structure. Thus, it may be said, in best-case scenarios, today’s raja yoga has not lost the house it built but has instead gained for that house a constructive reinforcement.
In yoga as in life, knowledge is power. Because this is true, we can be sure the foundational knowledge we bring to any yoga we practice will most certainly increase that yoga’s benefits tremendously. Yet, to maximize these benefits, we must assimilate this knowledge we bring with the desire we have. As of now, 39 steps into our journey, we have a fairly healthy stockpile of knowledge. What we might be lacking, however, is a clear and honest perception of exactly what we want out of our yoga practice right now.
It is not so important that we want yoga’s ultimate “binding back” right from the start of our practice. Higher desires cannot be forced. But they can be enticed. Yoga—however it is practiced and for whatever purpose—entices the high through an overall overhaul of the low.