Raja Yoga, one of the four main paths of Yoga, is considered the royal path, the Yoga of the mind or of self-discipline. It is a more integral and scientific approach to Yoga.
Raja Yogis believe that the mind needs first to be tamed in order to be purified. Patanjali, composer of the Raja Yoga Sutras writes the famous description of yoga which says ‘yogah chitta vritti nirodhah‘: chitta – thoughts; vritti – thought waves, modifications of the mind; nirodhah – to find tranquility, to control; a common english translation is ‘yoga is the slowing down of the modifications of the mind‘. If we slow down our thought waves we become able to observe them and acknowledge our mental patterns. This is the first step towards consciously changing them.
Every thought that comes up in our mind leaves a lasting impression, called sanskara in sanskrit. The more we repeat a thought, the deeper this sanskara becomes ingrained in our minds, so that it forms a thought pattern, a habit. You can imagine this like a river, the water flows down the same lines over again and leaves a valley. The deeper the valley, the harder it is for the water to find a different flow next time. When we here the name Michael Jackson, we think of music and when we hear the name James Bond we think of movies – these are our thought patterns, categories that are put together by the self-organising function of the mind. We use these categories in daily life to work more efficiently. In the same way however when we buy a piece of delicious cake at a bakery, we create a sanskara. Next time we walk past the bakery we think of that piece of cake. We buy it again and the sanskara becomes deeper. With repetition it becomes a habit, habits form our character and the character determines our destiny.
To free ourselves from these pattern, to look into the categories and consciously reorganise them, we need to slow down our waves of thought. For this purpose Patanjali put together the eight limbs of Raja Yoga which compromise elements from all of the main yogic scriptures.
The eight limbs consist of four points that deal with the external and then four that deal with the internal:
The Yamas represent the code of conduct and are practices of self-restraint, like Ahimsa, non-violence, Satya, truthfulness, Asteya, non-stealing, Brahmacharya, abstinence from sexual misconduct and Aparigraha, non-covetousness or non-possessivness. These Yamas are behavioural norms and are said to be essential to slow down the movements of the mind. If we are possessed by greed or violence our mind will not be able to concentrate.
The Niyamas are the five observances and are more of a spiritual practice to train the mind and control the emotions. They are Saucha, internal and external purity, Santosha, contentment, Tapas, austerity, Svadhyaya, study of scriptures and self-reflection, Ishvarapranidhana, self-surrender to God.
Asana is defined as a posture that one can hold effortless for some time observing calmness and breath. 84 asanas are considered to be the main ones while the most important one is padmasana, which is the lotus pose and helps us in meditation. The practice of asanas effects us physically (blood circulation, flexibility, inner organs, glands, muscles and nervous system), psychologically/emotionally (developing emotional balance and stability, inner harmony), mentally (improving our concentration, memory) and on a consciousness level (purifying and clarifying our awareness).
Pranayama is the control of prana, the life-force or energy which we achieve through regulation of the breath. The breath is what harmonises the mind, the prana and the physical body. Pranayama and asanas, often referred to as Hatha Yoga, are the external practices that prepare the body for the internal following four practices.
Pratyahara is the control of the senses and teaches us to go inside ourselves and not be disturbed by what is going on outside of us. It is considered a prerequisite for the further practice of concentration and meditation.
Dharana means concentration. This is where every meditation starts, in focusing the mind, becoming-one pointed and not being distracted.
Dhyana is meditation, it goes beyond concentration. It is here where we are able to consciously alternate our mind and mental pattern, being awake, free from distractions and desire.
Samadhi is the final stage, blissful awareness, the superconscious state.