Yoga, as defined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, is the stillness of mind’s fluctuations.  It is not something you do, rather, it is a state of mind where the person is experiencing union with the moment, with the action (or stillness) of that moment - and actually, both simultaneously.  It is not a state where you "tune out" or "zone out", but rather a state where you are completely plugged in.  Engaged with the moment fully, entirely, completely, 100 percent with the vibrancy of the experience. 

Karma Yoga is practicing the yoga principles (Yamas and Niyamas) in action, doing good for the sake of doing good, being a positive presence in the lives of others.  Karma means actions, generally referring to the moral force of one’s intentions.  We need to be totally detached from the fruits of our actions for it to be Karma Yoga.  It is selfless Yoga, our duty, without expecting reward or results.  There is also Jnana Yoga – yoga of learning and wisdom, Bhakti Yoga – Yoga of devotion and total surrender to God, and Kriya Yoga – purifying practices, it means Mindful Action.

Raja yoga is the “Royal Yoga” (Raj means king in Sanskrit), and means that whoever practices Raja Yoga practices all aspects of Yoga, the entire eight step path (eight limbs, Astangha) as outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali:

1. Yamas, or refraining from certain behaviors,: Ahimsa (Non-Violence), Satya (No-Lying), Asteya (non-Stealing, Brahmacharya (Non-Indulgence), Aparigraha (Non-Greed),

2. Niyamas, or observing certain covenants of correct action (thoughts are considered actions): Saucha (Purity), Samtosha (Contentment) Tapah (Discipline and staying with the practice even when it is hard or forcing you to face unpleasant truths), Svadyaya (Learning about the Self and other spiritual learning), Ishvarapranidhana (Surrender to the larger forces of Life (God).  Yamas and Niyamas must be practiced through actions, speech, and thought.

3. maintaining a good posture (Asana),

4. controlling the breath (Pranayama),

5. learning to withdraw the senses (Pratyahara),

6. concentrating (Dharana),

7. meditating (Dyana),

8. and finally achieving a balanced state of contemplation (Samadhi).

Yoga practice that incorporates all the eight limbs is Raja Yoga, or the Royal Yoga.  Hatha Yoga appeared much later than the initial Yogic practices, which were mostly meditation and reflection.  Hatha’s main goal is to bring a greater balance to the physical body, and through it – to the energetic and spiritual body.  Yoga believes that physical and spiritual aspects of us are inextricably intertwined, and by affecting one we are affecting the other.  Hatha Yoga has many practices meant to purify, cleanse, and rebalance the body, with the belief that a healthy spirit is easier to cultivate in a body free from disease and pain.  In the West Hatha Yoga has been adapted to the western type student, who is often mostly preoccupied with the body. There is a lot of disease in our society and Hatha Yoga brings relief.  Many people stop there, but whether they notice it or not, even a practice that is centered on the body inevitably leads to a more content life, because a person radiating physical health cannot help but also radiate positive energy and be happier.  One pitfall of that, however, is when people become too attached to the body, too focused on keeping it young, becoming in denial of the natural aging process.  That eventually causes suffering, as the person is unable to reconcile the aging body with their need to keep it perfect forever.  People become too focused on attaining perfection in poses, on adding more and more difficult poses to the things they can do, forgetting that Yoga is not what you do, but how you do it.  Being able to do simple things well, with a balanced state of mind, free from the ego’s grasping for achievement and simply enjoying the practice because it is sacred to you – that is a sign of a true Yogi.

Ego is a powerful force.  There are many schools of Yoga now which call themselves different names, such as Bikram, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Kindalini, Jivamukti, there are many.  Our society values leadership, which appeals to our ego on a profound level, so we get carried away by powerful personalities that present their way of doing things as the only correct way.  We get on the righteous band wagon and become attached to a certain way of doing things or to a certain teacher that appeals to us.  We believe that something in that person or that way of doing things is what makes us feel good.  But it is not Mr. Iyengar, Mr. Bikram, or Mr. Pattabhi Jois, who were and are great teachers or charismatic personalities in their own right, it is the practice of Yoga that makes us feel good.  And Yoga is Yoga, and under any other name it smells just as sweet, and it does what it is meant to do – reduces suffering. 

Unfortunately, some of these styles of Yoga create suffering instead of reducing it in some people.  We get carried away with the idea of how many calories we burn in a power vinyasa class, or the idea of achieving perfect alignment in an Iyengar class, or how much we sweat in a Bikram class, and by overindulging in one particular practice that may not even be appropriate for us, we often incur injuries and setbacks.  And yet still many persist, because by that time no matter how much their practice could be hurting them, they have become too attached to it.  And that brings me to the final point – Yoga has to be appropriate.  What is appropriate for one may not be appropriate for another.  Yoga has to be appropriate for one’s age, skill level, and goals.  If your Yoga practice is causing you pain, be that physical or mental, then that is a sign that it is not appropriate for you.  Your Yoga practice should bring healing to you, create a sense of well-being and a pain-free, joyful state.  Since the Mind is the source of suffering, yoga is for the Mind.  Yoga is a choice to become self-empowered – only people who can empower themselves can do Yoga.  Lazy, comatose, or mentally ill people cannot do Yoga.  Human beings are an integrated system of body, mind, emotions, etc. and Yoga addresses the entirety of human experience.  Practice of Yoga must be context sensitive – Yoga practice needs to address the specifics of the situation, and its main goal is to reduce suffering(dukham).  Reducing dukham is more important than the tools used to achieve that goal, so Yoga emphasizes function over form.