Raja Yoga is often referred to as royal yoga or yoga of kings, but that only raises more questions - especially if you aren’t familiar with yoga philosophy.
Let’s start with a little myth-busting:
Does Raja Yoga mean Yoga of Kings or Royal Yoga? No, it never has!
And while we’re at it, does Asana mean pose? Surprisingly, no!
Let’s discuss what Raja Yoga means, where it fits within the greater umbrella of yoga, and how you can practice Raja Yoga. We’ll solve that little asana puzzle along the way.
What does Raja Yoga Mean?
First it is important to understand that the original word is 'Raj" but due to phonetic issues it is commonly written as 'Raja' (similar to Ram pronounced as Rama). Although the word ‘Raja’ means king, 'Raaj' actually refers to control. Raja Yoga is not the yoga of kings, and instead involves control of the self. In Raja Yoga you control your body, breath, mind, desires to remove the ego and reach the state of samadhi.
The Four Paths of Yoga
Yoga philosophy presents four paths towards enlightenment. It’s sometimes suggested that Raja Yoga is a superior path, because of the confusion caused by the “Yoga of Kings” myth. In truth, all four paths are equal. You can practice any one, or more than one, on your personal journey.
The four paths presented in yoga philosophy are:
- Karma Yoga (the Path of duty)
- Bhakti Yoga (the Path of devotion to purity)
- Raja Yoga (the Path of self-control)
- Jnana Yoga (the Path of knowledge of Self)
For a summary of all four paths, read: The Four Paths of Yoga Explained: A Comprehensive Overview of Bhakti, Jnana, Raja and Karma Yoga
The origin of Raja Yoga
Tragically, much of the ancient written record of yoga was lost not only to deteriorating paper and ink, but to deliberate destruction during historic invasions and wars.
We do know that around 2500 years ago, a reverent sage Maharishi Patanjali, with the help of his fellow Rishis (scholarly monks), compiled a record – Raja Yoga Sutras, which we now know as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. He compiled this book to explain the purpose and the path of Raja Yoga.
Does the book teach us everything about Raja Yoga? Not even close. It was never intended to. It was never meant for most of us at all! Compiled for the education of monks and scholars, it can be thought of more as a taster course in Raja Yoga. The deeper dive was (and is) supposed to come from long-term study, possibly with monks who have been passing their knowledge down for thousands of years.
Raja Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga
Raja Yoga is Ashtanga Yoga… but wait! There are two different things that are called Ashtanga Yoga.
Ashtanga means ‘eight limbs’. In yoga philosophy, going back thousands of years, Ashtanga Yoga referred to eight steps to take towards self-realization (more on those shortly). Much more recently, Ashtanga was used as a name for a newly created set of strictly structured asana sequences.
Today, when most people think of Ashtanga Yoga, they think of the demanding asana style from Sri Pattabhi Jois that has been around for less than a century.
Ancient Ashtanga Yoga, also known as Raja Yoga, is far more than a physical practice.
Raja Yoga in yoga philosophy
Yoga can seem very confusing. So many paths, limbs, strange words and meanings that change over the years! Let’s try to break it down before we explore in greater detail.
Yoga: a massive philosophical umbrella describing a way of living intended to lead to self-realization and enlightenment.
The four paths: alternative routes you can take during your journey towards self-realization. (Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga and Jnana Yoga)
The eight limbs: a detailed list of eight steps you can take, each moving you closer to self-realization. These steps are in the path of Raja Yoga, which can also be called Ashtanga Yoga (the ancient version not the modern asana class).
The eight limbs of yoga comprise the Yamas (self-control), the Niyamas (habits), Asana (physical practice), Pranayama (breath, life force), Pratyahara (withdrawal from senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (freedom from illusion, self-awareness).
When we say we are going to a yoga class, we mean we are going to an asana practice, which is one of the eight practices within Raja Yoga… which is one of the paths to self-realization in the philosophy of yoga.
How to Practice Raja Yoga
Raja Yoga is considered quite challenging to practice, because it requires consistent self-control. Luckily, it can be practiced at a level that fits your life and circumstance. You could be so moved by yoga philosophy that you decide to become a monk and give up all the chattels of material life. But more likely, you would prefer self-improvement without making such an extreme choice.
In Raja Yoga, there are eight specific practices presented in an exact order. Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, declared that mastering each of these practices in order would lead to enlightenment.
The eight practices of Raja Yoga
- The Yama - five areas to improve self-control and purify your intentions.
- The Niyama - five areas in which to purify your habits
- Asana - the physical practice to purify your body
- Pranayama - practiced using breathing exercises to purify the energy body
- Pratyahara - withdrawal from the senses to calm the senses and mind
- Dharana - concentration to control the mind
- Dhyana - meditation to understand the Self
- Samadhi - becoming liberated from the illusions of the outer world.
Each of these practices leads naturally to the next. A great many people first find yoga through an asana class, or breathing exercises. The philosophy of Raja Yoga teaches that the Yama and Niyama steps are too important to simply skip. You will still need to practice Yama and Niyama before you can make progress towards enlightenment.
The first practice: the five Yama
There are many yama - twenty-seven is a likely number but some sources claim less or more. In the practice of Raja Yoga, five are described because they were listed as examples by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. (The word ‘yama’, like ‘fish’, doesn’t change when it becomes plural!)
Yamas are qualities we carry within us, qualities of character we can strive to improve by using self-control and developing pure intentions.
Ahimsa means non-violence. Most people consider themselves to be non-violent, but in the yoga sutras the concept extends well beyond not kicking your dog. Let’s consider it in two categories - being non-violent to yourself, and being non-violent to others.
Think of violence as causing harm. You could cause harm to your body by eating an unhealthy diet, inhaling cigarette smoke, over-doing exercise or not exercising enough. Your mind could be harmed if you expose yourself to unnecessary negativity, criticize yourself, or stew in angry thoughts.
Violence or harm to others might seem more obvious, but ‘others’ doesn’t just mean people. Others also includes the ant biting your foot, the mosquito buzzing in your ear, and the bacteria that used to be alive in the water you just boiled for a cup of tea.
Completely avoiding violence is almost impossible. Unless you are a monk, you need to cook, to clean your home, to maintain your garden. This means practicing non-violence at “householder level”. The principle of non-violence remains, and you build this within your character by always asking yourself whether this violence is really needed. Do I need to kill this spider, or can I safely put him outside? Can I use less hot water? Can I allow this insect in my garden? Becoming aware will lead to less violence.
Satya means truth. This starts with finding out what is true. Once you are aware of something true, you can practice speaking your truth and living it.
The third aspect of Satya is not ignoring the truth, which can be very tempting when the facts are unpleasant or don’t fit with our beliefs.
Honesty is an important expression of Satya, and so is learning to express yourself, stand up for yourself, and inspiring others to speak their truth also.
Asteya means non-stealing. Examples of Asteya include not taking things that don’t belong to you, or things you don’t deserve. It also includes making sure you give fair exchange for things you take, whether that be your wages or your new car.
Asteya also discourages the stealing of less tangible things, such as using unkind words steal someone’s joy.
As humans, we have a tendency to look for personal benefit. We try to come out ahead by getting a better deal, or we accept full payment for work we know wasn’t our best effort. To practice Asteya, become aware and try to create fairness in any exchange.
Brahmacharya means non-indulgence. In a literal sense, the word refers to behaving in a way that aligns with the divine. In practice, it means taking pleasure in what you do, without constantly seeking or planning activities that are purely for pleasure.
At “householder level”, most people will indulge occasionally. In practicing Brahmacharya, you try to make more choices that are based on needs, and less choices that are based on indulgence. You might try to choose foods that keep you healthy, and enjoy your nice warm shower only for long enough to get clean.
Developing self-control means we are no longer being controlled by our desires. When we learn and practice Brahmacharya, we can find contentment and peace in our lives.
Aparigraha means non-possessiveness. It means not collecting possessions (or people or outcomes) we don’t really need, and not being jealous of what other people appear to have.
The minimalist movement, the vanlife movement, and the trend of capsule wardrobes are all examples of people seeking the benefits of stepping away from the extreme materialism so common in the modern world.
One way you can practice Aparigraha is to ask yourself some questions before you buy an item. First, do I really need it, not just want it? If you know you don’t need it, don’t buy it. If you feel you do need it, ask the second question: Can I manage without it? Buy the item only if you know you can’t manage without it. If it’s a big investment, let it rest for a week before making your final decision.
Practicing Aparigraha leads to a simplified and more contented life.
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The second practice: the five Niyama
Once you have understood and practiced the Yama, you can begin to practice the Niyama. The Yama related to personal qualities or character, while the Niyama relate to habits. Again, there are actually many more, but we will focus on the five listed in the Sutras of Patanjali.
Saucha (pronounced Shoucha) means cleansing. As you might be expecting by now, it applies to both the mental and the physical. The physical side includes hygiene habits like cleaning your teeth and your house. Mental cleanliness means clearing the mind of negative intentions, damaging thoughts and unhelpful emotions. Just like physical cleanliness, this means developing a regular habit for hygiene. That might mean regular prayer, mindfulness, or using positive affirmations or mantras.
Santosha means contentment. This means intentionally practicing gratitude for what we have. This leads naturally to a happy and contented life.
An important aspect of Santosha is that it does not mean you must accept what you have and never seek change. It may be that you are in a situation so unpleasant that the only way to practice Santosha is to leave that situation and create new circumstances.
It’s also possible to practice gratitude for what you have now, while still planning to change and grow!
Tapas means self-discipline. In practice, Tapas means choosing to restrict yourself in order to step away from bad habits.
Monks practice restriction in extreme ways - they give up possessions, they meditate in ice caves instead of on a comfortable cushion. The average person can practice Tapas by applying self-control, resisting temptations, and staying committed to positive choices.
Ishvara Pranidhana means always connected with your god. Note, this is not about one particular god - your god might be Krishna, Allah, the father of Jesus, or another. What matters is that you remember your god when things are good as well as when you need help.
This constant connection helps us understand our purpose in life, and recognize the amazing connection between all things in the world.
Swadhyaya means self-study. There are many self-help books and other resources for self-study, as a lot of people want to identify their purpose and their core beliefs so they can feel a deeper sense of self and a direction in life.
A simple way to practice this is to set aside a little time each day to ask yourself who you are. Who’s in there? What do I feel and why do I feel that way? What did I do today and why did I do it?
The third practice: Asana
Asana is the physical part of yoga most seen in public life. It’s usually assumed that ‘asana’ means pose or posture. The word actually means a steady and comfortable state of the mind and body.
The aim of practicing asana is to be able to achieve a steady and comfortable state while in the posture. Most of us would have barely a few minutes of this, and perhaps none at all, in a whole class of yoga!
Asana were developed by monks who needed a way to keep their bodies healthy even though they ate and drank little, and spent long periods of time immobile in meditation. The original asanas were used to stimulate glands and internal organs while allowing meditation and not demanding too much energy.
Today the focus of asana practice is more on physical appearance, fitness, flexibility and the anatomical perfection of a pose. In your journey towards self-awareness, it’s more useful to think of asana as a way of purifying and giving health to the body.
The fourth practice: Pranayama
We practice pranayama using breathing exercises, and the purpose is to expand our capacity for life force energy.
An ancient book called Shiva Samhita claims that the life of a being is not a number of days, it is a number of breaths. We can see support for this theory if we look at a dog, which breaths faster than us and lives a shorter life. A turtle breathes slowly, and lives for hundreds of years.
Practicing breathing exercises for pranayama involves slowing and controlling the breath so that we learn to take in more prana, and use it up more slowly.
You can find some simple breathing exercises here.
If you want to learn more about prana and breathwork, read Why You’ll Live Longer and Better with Breathwork & Pranayama
The fifth practice: Pratyahara
Pratyahara means withdrawal from the senses, or not feeding the senses. In practice, this could mean deliberate sensory deprivation such as using flotation tanks. It could also mean simply aiming to reduce our sensory stimulation. This allows calming of the senses and the mind.
You can reduce sensory stimulation simply by closing your eyes.
You could also try practicing the Shanmukhi Mudra. To do this, close both your ears with your thumbs. Place your index fingers on the lower parts of your eyelids to close your eyes. Use your middle fingers to partially close your nostrils. Place your ring fingers above your lips. Put your pinky fingers below your lips to close your mouth. In this position, our hands close the six mouths of our senses, and reduce sensory inputs from the outer world.
The sixth practice: Dharana
Having learned, through the previous practices, to control our minds and senses, we can move on to concentration.
In Dharana, we focus on one external thing. Some of the most popular ways to practice this are focusing on the breath, or on a candle, or a chosen word or mantra. You might also direct your focus by doing a body scan, or concentrating on a teacher’s voice in a guided relaxation.
Although many of these practices get called meditation, they are actually examples of practicing concentration. Learning to concentrate is vital for true meditation.
The seventh practice: Dhyana
After learning to focus using Dharana, a person can learn to turn that focus inwards towards the self. It’s very difficult to focus on the self, because you can’t see or hear it in the normal senses. It’s more likely to feel like an awareness of a presence.
Achieving this awareness takes incredible concentration and stillness. It’s like trying to look at something underwater - the slightest ripple on the surface, and you’ll lose sight of what’s below.
Practicing dhyana involves finding stillness of the mind and body, then turning your focus inwards to connect with your self.
The eighth practice: Samadhi
Samadhi is the culmination of Dhyana. It occurs when your meditation is so deep that you connect fully with yourself, and disconnect from the outside world. You disconnect from time, space and reason. You are free from the illusions of the external world.
In this state of freedom, you can feel pure joy. In connecting fully to your inner self, you achieve enlightenment.
Living the Practice of Raja Yoga
The steps to practicing Raja Yoga seem complicated at first. Like many things, they start to seem simpler as they become more familiar.
The Yama and Niyama are for purification of the character. The Asana and Pranayama are used to cleanse the body and the mind. Pratyahara helps you manage your senses, and Dharana helps you to gain control of your mind. If these elements are all in place, you can strive to practice meditation for Dhyana, with the intention of finally achieving Samadhi - the bliss of complete self-awareness and enlightenment.
The journey towards Samadhi creates a life of intention, contentment and peace. All you need to achieve that life is commitment and consistent effort. That’s no small thing, but contentment is a worthy reward. Raja Yoga literally gives you a step-by-step plan to make it happen.
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