For a novice, the initial impression is that yoga is a set of postures combined with breathing techniques. But talk to someone who has studied yoga intensely or practiced for years, and you’ll find a much more complicated and nuanced story.

Yoga began in northern India more than 5,000 years ago, teaching sacrifice of the ego through self-knowledge, action and wisdom. Its sole purpose was to experience spiritual enlightenment. The first systematic presentation of yoga (Raja or classical yoga) was written about 2,000 years ago  by Patanjali, the sage who wrote the Yoga Sutra. He organized yoga practice into an eight-limbed path of steps to enlightenment.

About 200 years later, yoga masters emphasized physical and spiritual connections and body-centered practices. This led to the type of yoga most commonly practiced in the West, called Hatha yoga. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, yoga masters began to travel to the West. When a studio opened in Hollywood in 1947, yoga gained a popular foothold. Many different schools or styles developed over the next seven decades, each emphasizing different aspects of the practice.

There are many types of yoga classes. Some concentrate on flowing postures. Others emphasize holding postures and paying attention to alignment. Some are vigorous and others more meditative.

Eight limbs of yoga—the steps to enlightenment outlined by Patanjali:

  • Yama: attitudes toward our environment
  • Niyama: attitudes toward ourselves
  • Asana: physical postures
  • Pranayama: breathing practices
  • Pratyahara: sense restraint
  • Dharana: concentration
  • Dhyana: meditation
  • Samadhi: complete integration, bliss

Six branches of yoga – the paths of yoga  (none are mutually exclusive):

  • Hatha yoga: the path of breath and postures. This is the branch most commonly practiced in the West.
  • Raja yoga: the path of meditation. It attracts individuals who are introspective and drawn to meditation.
  • Karma yoga: the path of service and self-transcending action. It is practiced when individuals selflessly serve others.
  • Bhakti yoga: the path of devotion and seeing the divine in all of creation. It provides an opportunity to cultivate acceptance and tolerance for everyone.
  • Jnana yoga: the path of the sage or scholar. It involves serious study and will appeal to those who are more intellectually inclined.
  • Tantra yoga: the pathway of ritual. The divine is experienced in everything one does, encouraging a ritualistic approach to life.