Raja Yoga

Raja Yoga (also called Ashtanga Yoga)

In his second and third padas, Patanjali outlined what he called Ashtanga Yoga, or the “eight-limbed” Yoga. Ashtanga Yoga (not to be confused with a recently founded school of Hatha Yoga by the same name) is a classification of the eight stages on the route to Self-realization: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. Ashtanga Yoga (also called Raja Yoga) is not a “type” of Yoga; it is Yoga. It provides not only an invaluable “road map” of where we are going, but specific instruction on what we must do to achieve the state of yoga (union with the Infinite.)

The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga are:

  1. Yama, restraints, “don’ts”
  2. Niyama, observances, “do’s”
  3. Asana, stillness of body
  4. Pranayama, energy control
  5. Pratyahara, interiorization
  6. Dharana, one-pointed concentration
  7. Dhyana, absorption
  8. Samadhi, union with the Infinite

Yama and Niyama

The first two limbs (yama and niyama, literally “control” and “non-control”) concern outward behavior and, more importantly, the inner attitudes which lead to outward behavior. Certain kinds of thoughts and actions are discouraged, while others are encouraged; they are the “do’s and don’ts” (niyama and yama, respectively) of Yoga. These two limbs comprise five yamas and five niyamas, which should be practiced regardless of outward circumstances. Acting in accordance with these principles allows one to live in deep harmony with the universe; mastery of each of these principles brings certain powers, which are also listed below.

Asana (Posture)

By, asana, Patanjali’s simply meant the ability to sit in such a way as to be “steady and comfortable”: in Sanskrit, sthirasukhamasanam. The perfected “state” of asana is the ability to sit completely motionless for at least three hours. Patanjali was not talking about Hatha Yoga here; as noted before, he didn’t even mention Hatha Yoga in his sutras. In fact, only two sutras even mention the word “asana,” and only three others refer indirectly to it. Practice of the yoga postures is helpful for achieving the state of asana, but it is not essential.

Pranayama (Energy Control)

This refers not just to techniques, but to the state of energy control, in which the body’s energy is harmonized to the point where its direction is reversed; it no longer flows outward toward the senses, but inward toward the Divine Self. Patanjali gives no detail of specific pranayama techniques; in fact, only six sutras even mention pranayama. The techniques commonly called “pranayama” in Hatha Yoga are usually breathing techniques since there is a link between prana (energy), breath and mind. However, this is a limited concept of pranayama; there are many other forms. For example, Paramhansa Yogananda’s Energization Exercises also are pranayamas, for they both recharge the body cells with prana and teach us how to control its flow.

Pratyahara (Interiorization of the Mind)

With energy having been directed inward and upward toward the brain through pranayama, it then becomes necessary to direct the energy inward in the brain, rather than letting it flow outward toward objects of thought and thus mental restlessness. This interiorization is the state of pratyahara, the state of withdrawal of the mind from external objects and experiences.

Dharana (Concentration)

The stage where the mind becomes fixed one-pointedly; no disturbances due to sensory input, and no restless, outward thoughts.

Dhyana (Absorption, True Meditation)

One becomes absorbed into and identified with the object of concentration. Individuality begins to expand into identification with a universal quality, such as one of the eight aspects of God: peace, calmness, light, sound, love, joy, wisdom and power. This is the state of true meditation.

Samadhi (Oneness, Superconscious Union of the Soul with God)

Ego consciousness is dissolved. One’s identity is universal and there is a perception of oneness with the whole universe and the Creator of that universe. There are two stages of samadhi: sabikalpa samadhi, in which one must remain fixed in a breathless, motionless state of meditation, and nirbikalpa samadhi, in which one remains in universal oneness whatever the outward activity may be.