Raja Yoga: The arrow and bow towards self-realization.
Raja yoga is believed to have been developed by Patanjali – an ancient Indian sage, renowned for his compilation of the “Yoga Sutras”. There are various methods to yoga. Each entailing age-old wisdom; prescribing the ascent into the realm of purity of mind, body, and soul. Raja yoga or the royal path is one such method that entails a methodically structured path of eight steps, or the eight rungs of a ladder.
“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself”-
French Philosopher – Michel de Montaigne
The concept of yoga and meditation has evolved greatly over the years; developing varied forms and definitions for people all across the globe. However, whatever connotation one may attach to these terms, their core essence remains the same. The true purpose of yoga as a practice is to realign us with our innateness and make us experience our authentic disposition. Yoga is a means to attain the clarity to broaden the boundaries and vistas of our consciousness and become one with the highest and infinite nature of the self. Until and unless this reunion happens, one remains ‘ignorant’ of the absolute reality owing to their prevailing ego and self-imposed limitations.
The path from Ignorance to self-knowledge, avidya to Atma-vidya.
People spend their entire life not knowing truly what they want. They seem to be in search of something, yet not knowing exactly what that is. This restless nature of beings is a result of the veil of unawareness and incorrect knowledge – ‘avidya’. How can one know what they want in life when they don’t even know who they really are? This self-realization of the transient nature of our ego helps us gain conscious awareness in everyday moments of life; separating the permanent from the temporary, and gives us the power to gauge and sieve through our emotions to see how they impact our daily behavior and actions. This expansion of the self can yield incredibly positive benefits- both psychological, as well as physiological.
There are various methods to yoga, each entailing age-old wisdom; prescribing the ascent into the realm of purity of mind, body, and soul. ‘Raja yoga’ or the royal path is one such method that entails a methodically structured path of eight steps, or the eight rungs of a “ladder”.
The final rung or step serves as the ultimate stage of cognizance of our inner reality. This particular form of yoga entails a scientific approach to developing mental discipline and resilience. It preaches a thorough breakdown of the specified practices involved, and the benefits derived consequently. Because of its strategic approach, inclusivity, and its openness to healthy speculation and self-examination and inquiry – this yogic path attracts a wider audience because of its accessibility to everyone, and not just religious aspirants.
The yoga sutras of Patanjali – eightfold steps.
Raja yoga is believed to have been developed by Patanjali– an ancient Indian sage, renowned for his compilation of the “Yoga Sutras” (sutra: string/thread). His work is deemed as a significant and influential contribution to the Yogic school of thought and its practice. This narrative on one of
the world’s oldest holistic healing practices discusses the concept of the ‘Kingly yoga’ or ‘Raja yoga’, which inculcates both external and internal rituals to master the mind, refine the purpose of self and achieve liberation from the transient.
These rituals are divided into the 8 steps of Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. This is why this yogic practice is also termed as “Ashtanga yoga” (ashtanga: 8 limbs).
Each stage seeks to develop the physical and mental characteristics stipulated for attaining spiritual enlightenment and inner harmony. There is a shared commonality in the goals sought by Buddha’s virtuous eight-fold path and the ten commandments of Yama and Niyama prescribed by Raja yoga; emphasizing ‘metta’, clarity and focus, enhanced attention and memory, righteous behavior and actions, and developing a meditative state of mind and being.
The Yamas and the Niyamas, self-restraint, and morality.
The first 5 stages; from Yama to Pratyadhara, involve extrinsic methods of self-purification by refining our intention of thought and action, developing compassion for all beings, and performing righteous deeds. The ‘Yamas’ focus on ‘withholding’ oneself or imposing self-restraint from engaging in harmful thought and action. It preaches the virtues of:
- Ahimsa or non-violence
- Satya or truthfulness
- Asteya or non-stealing
- Brahmacharya or abstinence from excessive sensual desires
- Aparigraha or renouncement of greed or covetousness
Similarly, the ‘Niyamas’ preach the value of ‘practicing ideals’ that is imperative in establishing a strong spiritual foundation. Observing these morals is crucial to the development of a positive, wholesome personality. These include striving for the following:
- Saucha or cleanliness of both the external and internal self
- Santosha or contentment
- Tapas or embracing the self-regulating disciplinary spiritual practices of body, mind, and speech
- Svadhyaya or introspection and study of self
- Ishvara Pranidhana or surrendering/committing to the ultimate truth or the divine source
Both the Yamas and the Niyamas are the requisite ethical guidelines that need to be embodied in order to ascend this ladder of mastering oneself.
Asanas and pranayama, postures, and breath control.
The 3rd and 4th stages of Raja yoga philosophy talk about the physical postures or ‘Asanas’ and conscious breathing or ‘Pranayama’. Contrary to the practice of yoga in the modern world only for its physical benefits, the importance of asanas has to do with offering much more than just that.
What a majority of people fail to realize is that the spirit of yoga delves much deeper than just striving for bodily flexibility and perceiving it to be an exercise regimen. Acknowledging the enormous mental and spiritual benefits it gives rise to and practicing it with sincere devotion for what its core essence represents is essential to experiencing yoga in all of its vibrancy and reaping
its benefits optimally. By consciously practicing different postures that facilitate a meditative state of mind or expedite energy flow in the body, we can achieve a mindful state of existence that can help alleviate the daily stressors that life throws our way, and revitalize our mental energy whilst also developing physical resilience. Pranayama or ‘the science of breath’ seeks to achieve the same, and serves as probably the most fundamental lesson to be learned for living correctly. Our breath is our constant companion; changing with fluctuations in our mood and emotion. Therefore, it only makes sense that if one learns to self-regulate and master their breath, one has already won half the battle. Slow and conscious breathing not only reinvigorates our entire being by allowing us to decompress but also boosts ‘prana’ energy flow in our body; the life-giving force that is vital for us to thrive and not just survive.
Pratyahara, the withdrawal of the senses.
The 5th rung of the raja yoga ladder is ‘Pratyahara’, which means withdrawing from experiences of the five senses of smell, taste, touch, sight, and sound. We experience life through these external senses and owing to the restless nature of our mind, it is critical to pause the incessant pouring of thoughts we experience on an hourly basis. The clarifying practice of pratyahara allows us to do exactly that; it brings attention to our intrinsic nature and removes the numerous distractions engulfing us and keeping us from experiencing stillness and calm. This sort of awareness can be incredibly profound and cathartic, and help resolve the anxiety and nerves we experience, by making us feel grounded. All of the aforementioned steps bring us closer to the final and most important stages: Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. These constitute the last 3 limbs of the Ashtanga yoga philosophy. They inculcate the internal practices of strengthening the mind and thereafter separating oneself from the fleeting, impermanent nature of ego.
Dharana, concentration, the single-pointed arrow.
The 6th step of ‘Dharana’ involves deep concentration; the single-pointed arrow. This is a skill achieved over time by conscious practice and willpower of engaging all of one’s senses in experiencing just one object, subject, or activity, detached from all distractions. The ability to focus
the mind’s attention, or awareness, on a single object, subject, or activity, for an extended period of time, can resolve any inner conflict or doubt. This can be clarified as a top-mountain view, whereas you sit on the mountain top, only as an observant of the birds passing by, or your thoughts and emotions passing through without your engagement. Another example is gratitude, which is said to be the seed of happiness. If we devote all our attention, and
awareness, to experiencing only the sensation of gratitude for all that we have in life, it is almost impossible to experience any other emotion. simultaneously. The result is a state of bliss; devoid of any negativity caused by distractions and limitations.
Dhyana, meditation, the wide-stretching bow.
The 7th stage is ‘Dhyana or meditation. Meditation makes our life flow effortlessly. This is because it aligns our thoughts and actions, failing which, we end up feeling lost, confused, and unnerved. Meditation allows us to dive deeper and connect with something more meaningful – our supreme infinite nature. It helps unleash and expand the horizons of our consciousness beyond the boundaries of our ‘conditioned mind’. There are various ways to meditate – involving visualization,
mantras, breathing, guided meditation under a teacher, movement meditation, and so forth. They all teach us one thing- ‘To simply be’. None of these methods preach consciously controlling the mind or body in order to achieve peace, but much rather letting go of all these conceptions and being a passive observant to our thoughts. As a result, one will himself/herself develop the self-control and power to sift through emotions, gauge how they influence their actions and weed out the harmful ones, and establish harmony between the body, mind, and spirit.
Samadhi, the unification of mind, body, and self.
All these 7 stages lead us to the final 8th stage- ‘Samadhi’ which means ‘the unification of mind’ or to collect or ‘bring together’. Samadhi, in essence, is indescribable. It means transcendence and it happens when one becomes completely liberated from all their limitations and drawbacks. This ‘complete freedom’ is attained when one aligns with the divine whole. Samadhi doesn’t just happen accidentally to someone; it needs a slow and disciplined approach, practice, and time to remove all the layers of conditioning that our mind has experienced from the external world. When we realize that we are a part of a much bigger reality, inclusive of all of creation, we redeem ourselves from the notions of ego, comparing, analyzing, and begin to see the divinity in everything. This is the highest form of consciousness achieved, and a person who manages to attain samadhi can free himself from the entirety of his karmas; surpassing the superficial and connecting to the divine light within and beyond. The state of Samadhi is within all of us. Therefore, one has to seek within; it cannot be found without. The practice of Raja yoga is the path taken to begin this very journey within.
“Most people live- whether physically, intellectually, or morally- in a very restricted circle of their potential being. We all have reservoirs of life to draw upon of which we do not dream.”
Eyjólfur Andrés Björnsson
Digital Blogger & Founder of Meditation Lifestyle.