“This is not intended to be a scholarly treatise on yoga philosophy; the subject is so vast that it would be presumptuous of me to try.” Alice Christensen
Echoing similar sentiments, I have used the words of the yogi-authors (see below) in this attempt to introduce you to Rāja Yóga.
Type of Yoga
The name Rāja Yóga was popularized by Svāmi Vivèkānanda as the royal path to Self-Realization. This path is also referred to as Classical Yoga, Kriya Yoga (Paramahamsa Yógānanda) and Patańjali Yóga (author of the text, Yoga Sutras).
Rāja Yóga is one of the four major types of yoga – others being, Karma, Jñāna and Bhakti. Even though these types are considered different due to their approaches, the goal is the same – aspiring for the Highest, Self- Realization. Rāja Yóga is sometimes referred to as Classical Ashtanga, traditional eight-fold path of Patańjali, although the term aśtānga yoga (Pattabhi Jois) has a different connotation in today’s world of āsana.
Rāja Yóga is usually referred to as a path of meditation or self-control. Rāja means royal, and Yoga means to unite. The techniques of Rāja Yóga include how to concentrate and conquer the mind and ego through the process of purification of the body and breath. At the culmination of this purification process, yogis assert that the ego-self or individual consciousness unites with the Universal Self or Cosmic Consciousness.
Of course, whichever path you choose to follow (you will notice they can overlap), try not to drown in the sea of terminology. It is the actual practice (abhyāsa) and the attitude (bhāva) with which you do the practice that matters. The deeper knowledge of terms will reveal themselves to you when your practice matures and deepens. Familiarize yourself with the four main types of yoga before going further into Rāja Yóga. The discussion on the choice of which type or combination of types that might suit you is touched upon in this blog.
Wisdom of Rāja Yóga
The wisdom of Rāja Yóga is that each individual is essentially the infinite, immortal, blissful Self, Īśvara. The contention is that the individual self, lured by the glamor of the material world has forgotten that it is the very essence of this Infinite Self. This forgetfulness creates a bondage so strong that it becomes entangled and remains bound to the material world for a long time.
“It is important to note the Rāja Yóga refuses to endorse any dogma or tradition based not on reason but mere faith. It’s philosophy is scientific and it’s practice emphasizes the need for experimentation on this path of yóga toward its final demonstration of Truth,” writes Swami Ādhiśvarānanda.
“The goal of its teaching is to concentrate the mind, discover the innermost recesses of our own mind to arrive at the our own conclusions. It never asks what our belief is – whether you are an atheist or a believer. We are human beings and that is sufficient. All our knowledge is based on experience”, affirms Svāmi Vivèkānanda.
“The greatest problem as a beginner is the restlessness of the mind. In the core of Rāja Yóga’s practice, one must dig deep into the layers of our conditioning, our psychological being, in order to discover what we are really made of – our True Self,” insists Swami Rama. The moment to moment change in mental and emotional states is draining. The restlessness of the mind is the greatest roadblock causing discontent and misery.
The goal of Rāja Yóga then is to know Īśvara, Highest Being; this realization alone can put an end to all sorrows and miseries of life, leading to ever-new joy (Paramahamsa Yógānanda). If you commit, the tools of Rāja Yóga guarantees to shake you from the stupor of the material world and promises to awaken you to your Real Self.
“The success on the path of Rāja Yóga depends solely on the sincerity and will of the seeker. The attainments at different stages of progress appear supernatural only to those who lack faith in themselves and in the possibilities of human endeavor. Seekers must have unshakable faith in their spiritual potentiality, the effectiveness of this teaching, reality of the goal and guidance of the teacher, ready to persevere with indomitable will, till the very end. The final stage in yóga is knowing that knowledge comes from within (Self) and not from the outside world.” Svāmi Ādhiśvarānanda
Eight Limbs of Rāja Yóga
Rāja Yóga provides the tools for practice through the eight limbs (Yoga Sutras, Y.S. 2:29).They are:
- Yama (5 restraints)
- Niyama (5 observances)
- Āsana (poses)
- Prāṇāyāma (breathing techniques)
- Pratyāhāra (withdrawal or training of the senses)
- Dhāraṇa (concentration)
- Dhyāna (meditation)
- Samādhi (absorption, Self-Realization)
As we all know, āsana, the third limb is most popular, followed by Dhyāna, meditation, with Prāṇāyāma, breathing techniques squeezed in between – used mostly to reduce stress and regain well-being. “Of course, āsana practice by itself can reap marvelous benefits, however, when practiced in the context of the eight limbs, Rāja Yóga becomes a guide for living. These eight steps are simply a set of guidelines that can be interpreted within the context of any religious system or completely on their own, free from any dogmatic beliefs. The choice is up to you.” (Charlotte Bell)
Yama and Niyama, first and second limbs, must be practiced conscientiously to spark a change in the flow of your thoughts and alter your habituated patterns of thinking. The practice of one limb influences and strengthens all the others. Rāja Yóga’s eight steps relate to each other the same way as the limbs on our bodies (Bell). Rather than being separate concepts, they connect to one another.
According to Alice Christensen, these eight parts represent eight stages of consciousness or states of awareness, that reside in the physical and spiritual body, and hence it is important to practice them simultaneously rather than one by one. Remember, yóga offers a middle path between complete renunciation and complete worldliness. It’s goal is attainable by the monastics or by the householders living in the world. (Yógānanda)
I was initiated into Classical Yoga at YogaLife Institute, in PA. At that time I did not realize it was the same as Rāja Yóga until I delved deeper during teacher training. I had to study all the four major types in detail for the essays required for the training. And what a wonderful study that turned out to be! It is easy to gravitate towards a certain type based on one’s personality, Svāmi Ādhiśvarānanda says a mindful combination of all four is wise.
While Bhakti Yóga revealed itself to be my favorite, the steps of Rāja Yóga had an appeal of discipline which I undeniably needed. Jñāna Yóga proved to be the hardest to understand and apply. Still, the wisdom of the great yogis leapt up from the pages making it an addiction which has continued since. Karma Yóga prodded me to act for the sake of others without playing favorites. Although it provided a satisfaction that words cannot describe, it was also the stage where my ego was repeatedly tested. It took a long time to realize that without these tests, this practice is futile.
The practice of the eight-fold path of Rāja Yóga is helping me to discover the nature of my habituated mind. I am trying to delve deep into each of the limbs with patience and perseverance in order to transform. It took me a while to convert each obstacle into an opportunity – to create second chances, to stay focused and continue practicing. I continue to rely on forgiveness and compassion from my family in order to keep going to find the light at the end of the tunnel.
Rāja Yóga is expounded further by the great yogis, gurus and serious practitioners in the books listed below. These are the textbooks I use for repeated study and practice. Remember, “The ‘real’ secrets of yoga can never be learned or taught intellectually; the intellectual approach can form a wall between you and the powerful intuitive experience of the spirit.” (Christensen) Of course, finding the right teacher and steady practice makes a world of difference.
Still, reading these books will take you into the phenomenal minds of the yogis and introduce you to the collective knowledge born out of their dedicated practice and Self-Realization. As you practice, imagine that they are holding your hand and patiently guiding you as you tread the path of awakening.
Bhāskārananda, Svāmi. 1996. Meditation; Mind and Patanjali’s Yoga. Sri Ramakrishna Math Printing Press, Mylapore, Chennai, India
Yógānanda, Paramahamsa. 2000. The Divine Romance; Collected talks and Essays on Realizing God in Daily Life. Yogoda Satsanga Society of India. Dakshineswar, Kolkata. India
Vivèkānanda, Svāmi. 1953. Rāja Yóga. Ramakrishna-Vivèkānanda Center of NYC
Rama, Svami. 1979. The Royal Path: Practical Lessons on Yoga. The Himalayan Institute Press, Honesdale PA
Ādhiśvarānanda, Svāmi. 2006. The Four Yogas: A Guide to the Spiritual Paths of Action, Devotion, meditation and Knowledge. Skylight Paths Publishers for Ramakrishna-Vivèkānanda Center of NYC
Bell, Charlotte. 2007. Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life; A Guide for Everyday Practice. Rodmell Press, Berkeley, CA
Christensen, Alice. 1998. Yoga of the Heart; Ten Ethical Principles for Gaining Limitless Growth, Confidence and Achievement. American Yoga Association, Rodale, NYC