Raja Yoga is the place where the many paths of yoga merge, in the regulation of mental activity. It is the science of controlling the mind. The emphasis is on strengthening one-pointed focus, concentration, for meditation and meditative absorption. There are many paths a yogi can take, karma (the yoga of action), jñana (the yoga of knowledge), bhakti (the yoga of devotion), hatha (yoga of the physical body), all of which point the individual from the external world of sense pleasures to the inner world of Self, Source, Divinity, Brahman.
When we begin a meditation practice the first step is to learn how to sit and relax the physical body. For this, our asana practice is of great assistance. The asana practice helps us squeeze out toxins, loosen the muscles and open areas of tension so that when we do sit to go inside, the physical body does not constantly bring us back out. This is why so many of us are drawn to yoga through the physical practice and later feel that “yoga high” after savasana (relaxation!).
After we are able to relax the physical body our awareness turns to the breath, pranayama. The breath must be smooth, slow and steady without breaks or jerks. Inhalation. Exhalation. Slowly we strengthen our ability to concentrate. Finally we choose a focal point, one that directs our awareness toward the inner divinity, our True or higher Self. This might be a word or name we associate with the Divine, or simply staying internal by focusing on the breath. As our focus becomes more and more keen the tendency of the mind to fall into the valleys of past or project into the future minimizes and we settle into our real self (self-realization).
And why do we care about this? All of our suffering is due to the tendency of the mind to attach to “pleasurable” experiences and avert from “painful” ones. When we are able to fully concentrate our awareness and settle into our True Selves we live, breathe, move, love, share and commune in a state of complete presence. The state of yoga is presence, now. And as the masters say, “One who does not meditate cannot understand the meaning of Now”.
Since the publication of Swami Vivekananda’s book published in 1896, Raja Yoga, the Royal Path is usually attributed to Sage Patanjali’s ashtanga, or 8 limbed path which outlines the scientific method of calming the mind. This is an accurate attribution, as this Yoga Sutras text is a synthesis of “the vast traditions of India’s philosophies and literatures” (Swami Veda Bharati). Below is a brief introduction to this ashtanga:
Yama – codes of control/r
Niyama – self observances
Asana – meditative posture
Pranayama – expansion of breath/prana
Pratyahara – sense withdrawal
Dharana – concentration with effort
Dhyana – meditation
Samadhi – meditative absorption