Raja Yoga is viewed as the “royal path” to attaining the state of yoga or unity with mind-body-spirit. Raja Yoga is so highly revered because it attains enlightenment from direct control and mastery of the mind. This approach makes Raja Yoga an extremely challenging and difficult practice to engage in. Hatha Yoga, what we usually know as just “yoga” in the West is a much easier path. Hatha Yoga aims to control the body and breath to still prana (energy) that in turn stills the mind. Although Hatha Yoga was developed as a preparation for Raja Yoga, they can be practiced simultaneously.
Raja Yoga is often referred to as “classical yoga” as it was the oldest system of yoga to by systematically developed into a unified practice. The practice of Raja Yoga was compiled by the sage Patanjali in his famous Yoga Sutras during the second century CE. The Yoga Sutras break down the practice of yogic meditation into eight limbs or sub-practices. The first four limbs are referred to as the external limbs and are to be practiced simultaneously. Some of these limbs have the same names as the Hatha Yoga practices, but are not the same and should not be confused. The last four limbs are referred to as the internal limbs and are practiced sequentially.
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The foundation of Raja Yoga is Patanjali’s external limbs of Yama, Niyama, Asana, and Pranayama. Yama and Niyama are the principles of right conduct and lifestyle, the dos and don’ts of yoga. Yama, respect for others, includes nonviolence, truth, honesty, moderation, and non-covetousness. Niyama, positive self-action, includes purity, contentment, discipline, self-study, and devotion. Asana in Raja Yoga is not the same Asana that we are doing in yoga class. Patanjali simply instructs one to find a comfortable yet stable seated position. The same confusion exists with Patanjali’s instruction in Pranayama. Patanjali only instructs the Raja yogi to observe and slow the breath down to the point where one cannot distinguish between the inhalation and the exhalation. The numerous yoga postures and breathing exercises were developed much later as part of the Hatha Yoga system of mastering the body to still the mind.
Once a comfortable seated position and a slow deep breath are obtained, then one begins practicing the internal limbs: Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. Pratyahara is the drawing of the mind’s focus away from the external senses to the inner sensations of the body. When the mind draws inwards, then the next limb, Dharana, is used to concentrate the mind on a single object, usually the breath. This is where the practice becomes challenging, keeping the mind focused and releasing attachment to thoughts. When one obtains the ability to concentrate the mind on a single object to the point of being completely absorbed in it, then one has moved into the next limb of Dhyana, meditation. When the mind is absorbed in Dhyana the thoughts cease and the mind stills. The sustained practice of Dhyana leads to the last limb, Samadhi. Enlightenment, ecstasy, and bliss are all words used to describe this last limb where one sees pure awareness reflected on the still surface of the mind. Here object, subject and perceiving all melt into a feeling of oneness.