Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy — by one, or more, or all of these — and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.
Swami Vivekananda (Ramakrishna Mission)
Rāja Yoga is one of the four major types of yoga. Karma, Yoga of selfless service, Bhakti, Yoga of devotion, and Jnana, Yoga of realized knowledge are the other three. There are a few other types and styles yoga as well. Questions like – which type/style should I practice, can I practice more than one type/style, etc., come up often in conversations. I’m saving this discussion for another post, of course.
Looking back, I was brought up with traditional Hindu practices, but Rāja Yoga was definitely not a topic of conversation at the dinner table or during many religious ceremonies we had at home. However, prayer and chanting were instilled as an integral part of the daily ritual. Essentially, life was good and I was cruising, but every now and then I was jolted out of this dream and I remember having to rely on prayer during life’s ebb and flow.
On the other hand, my uncle, Swami Harshananda, went through extensive study of Rāja Yoga and possibly other types of yoga as well. However, I was unaware of the exact details of his purifications, monastic study and inner struggles to become a monk. My uncle has since been very active in Ramakrishna Mission, has authored many books and also recorded an audio commentary on the yogic text, Yoga Sutras. There may have been other relatives who may have dabbled in Pranayama, breathing practices or even experimented with meditation. At the same time, India was undergoing a metamorphosis after Independence, establishing her place in the world, while I – the youth of that generation, was busy embracing the western culture of pop music, coke and jeans, but not Rāja Yoga. As I prepared for my voyage across the ocean to arrive in the city of Cincinnati, OH, I continued to be blissfully ignorant. A decade and a half passed by before I was guided to my first yoga class, in a small town of Phoenixville in eastern Pennsylvania.
Having been initiated into Rāja Yoga and been a part of YogaLife Institute for 10 years, this philosophy gave me an unbelievable start to the study and practice of this wonderful path. However, before I can tell you exactly how I began to apply Rāja Yoga in my life, I must introduce you to the path itself. Of course, there are many sources from where you can learn about Rāja Yoga, but here you are getting a student’s perspective – my perceptive of what I am learning. So, by way of introduction, I will first lay out the 8 limbs without making it into a tutorial. Then, one post at a time, I will have to dissect each limb and show you the ongoing struggle of applying it to my life, without too much emotional dumping.
I’ve learnt that Rāja Yoga is referred to as “royal yoga”, “classical yoga”, and “aṣṭānga (8-fold) yoga”. In Samskritham, संस्कृतं, the word raja, राज, means king, royal, best of its kind; and yoga, योग, means to unite, yoke, connect, merge. Together, Rāja yoga, राज योग, may imply merging with the ‘Best’ – i.e. the ultimate union of individual, ego-self merging with the Universal Self. Swami Vivekananda popularized this term Rāja yoga as a path of meditation that was codified in the Yoga Sutras by Sage Patanjali .
Rāja Yoga, the eight-fold path, is tabled below.
|राज योग||Royal Path|
Ashtanga – Eight Limbs
I’ve learnt that the first five limbs are referred to as the external limbs, Bahiranga Sadhana and are to be practiced simultaneously. The last three limbs are referred to as the internal limbs, Anataranga Sadhana and are to be practiced sequentially. In the next two posts I will elaborate on the external and internal limbs.
I’ve learnt that Rāja Yoga is highly revered by yogis and sages because it’s philosophy charts the path to enlightenment through control and mastery of the mind. This approach makes Rāja Yoga an extremely challenging practice. Furthermore, “enlightenment” appears abstract and unattainable – when our basic day to day life revolves around activities of self care, work, pleasure and sleep. This maybe why many of us don’t make any attempt to begin.
However, through repeated study I am beginning to understand that the practice can be broken down into smaller parts which makes it more manageable. I realized that it also depended on how much time and effort I was willing to put into the practice, knowing fully well that the eighth limb, Samadhi, Yogic Bliss, may not be attainable in this lifetime. I started on this path when my daughter was 6 months old – yes, it was tough, but even the little time I spent on the study of Rāja Yoga made a big difference in my life. My family will be happy to vouch for the struggles and failures that plagued the beginnings of this practice, and if I am lucky, they may allude to a few success stories as well.
I discovered that the teachings of Rāja Yoga are wonderfully compatible with the core teachings of all the world’s great religions, with no dogma attached. Yoga is frequently associated with Hinduism, since the origins can be traced back to the roots of Hindu religion. Still, Rāja Yoga can stand alone as a complete system to obtain freedom from human bondage, without the added dogma. And, it is the practice of Rāja Yoga that matters most to a dedicated student.
Of course, choosing a path is a very personal and individual decision. Different teachings, though similar and originating from the yogic tradition feel different or have a varying appeal to different personalities. You need to spend time with each teaching, and ideally, with the teacher, guru or diciples of the teacher, in order to decide which teachings feel best for you. There are many wondeful paths, many true teachers; but one teaching will tend to draw you, to inspire you to get more involved, and to make a commitment.
Paramahamsa Yogananda, taught Kriya breathing which is considered to be an advanced practice of Rāja Yoga. It involves a specific technique of pranayama which addresses the flow of subtle energy in the body. Because of this teaching Kriya Yoga is mistaken for a separate path. But that is not the case at all. Kriya Yoga is most effective when accompanied by Rāja Yoga, the eight fold path.
This is Rāja Yoga in a nutshell from a novice practitioner but it may already be a part of your daily life. As we continued to study each week the teachers would ask us to reflect and apply the philosophy to our daily lives. I remember thinking, why don’t they just tell me what to do? I was told that defeats the purpose of experimentation and gathering evidence of how the practice helps each person differently – which I realized was true years later.
On the other hand, Rāja Yoga did tell me what to do – it gave me a roadmap to chart my course. Within this roadmap, there were signs to maneuver the twists and turns of life. If I watched carefully, the first limb acted as a speed bump, signaling me to slow down and reflect. As I came around a bend of anxiety, there were comforting signposts of faith and forgiveness mapped out in the second limb. When I got carried away by the promise of contrasting hues of asana, a warning to steer clear from this detour came from the breath just in time to avoid the ditch of pride. Now, while I am still being led by the compassionate GPS of Rāja Yoga, I also have the freedom to experiment and find answers within the comfort of my practice – to enjoy the ride, while keeping the destination of Bliss in sight.
My first study of Rāja Yoga, was amazing. When the session ended, my mind informed me that I ‘knew’ the eight limbs. Wrong. Then, my ego told me that it was easy to practice. Wrong again. Although I felt I had ‘changed’ somewhat because of this first study, I still reacted habitually to the usual triggers and familiar situations. Essentially, nothing had changed – right? However, the only comforting change was that I had a path to follow – one that had a roadmap – with speed bumps, signposts and forgiveness, and one that I could rely on. My ‘triptik’ was set.
Sage Pathanjali in the yogic text, Yoga Sutras, states the first line as “Atha Yoganushasanum,” – “Now begins the instruction/practice of yoga.” Each day I begin by stepping on the path of Rāja Yoga and will continue the quest, until – one blessed day – I hope to arrive at the destination to discover the true meaning of “enlightenment”.
Rama, Swami. 1979. The Royal Path: Practical Lessons on Yoga. Himalayan Institute, Honesdale, PA
Vivekananda, Swami. 1920. Raja Yoga. Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, NY, NY
Yogananda, Paramahamsa. 1946. First Edition. 1998. Autobiography of a Yogi. Self Realization Fellowship, Encinitas, CA