Raja Yoga

The most complete path to healing and nurturing ourselves at every level.

July 4, 2014    BY Swami Rama

The great masters of the past understood that a human being is neither body alone nor mind alone, but a combination of both. They also knew that prana, vital energy, is the force that holds the body and mind together. Beyond body, mind, and the vital force lies pure consciousness. These masters dedicated their lives to understanding which part of us is subject to death, decay, and destruction, and which part of us is immortal; which part of us has a beginning and an end, and which part of us has no beginning and no end. Thousands of years of research and experimentation led them to conclude that consciousness is immortal, and all the rest—body, breath, and mind—is mortal.

To live a healthy and happy life requires that both our immortal and our mortal parts remain fully united, and that these two aspects support and nurture each other.

To live a healthy and happy life requires that both our immortal and our mortal parts remain fully united, and that these two aspects support and nurture each other. In the search for immortality, if we ignore our body, breath, and mind, we are bound to suffer. In search of physical comfort and sense pleasure, if we ignore our spiritual side we are also bound to suffer.

The masters proclaim that the body is the greatest gift we have. A healthy body is absolutely necessary for cultivating and retaining a peaceful mind, yet the body is merely a covering for the mind. The whole of the body is in the mind, but the whole of the mind is not in the body. The body is a tool meant to serve the purpose of the mind and soul. Only part of the mind is dependent on physical comforts and pleasures for its happiness, whereas our entire body is totally dependent on the mind for its health and well-being.

The body may influence the behaviors of our mind but it is the mind that controls the body. This realization led the masters of yoga to discover and awaken the infinite potentials that normally lie dormant in the mind. Self-realization, practically speaking, means understanding your mind. The set of practices that enable you to gain this self-realization and attain the perennial joy is called yoga.

The mind is the best tool that nature has given us. By using this tool, we can discover the limitless wealth that lies in this world and the boundless joy that is buried within us. But if the mind is dull, scattered, disoriented, and disheartened, we are lost. That is why the sages say, “A confused mind is not fit to follow any path.” A confused mind robs us of purity of heart. A confused mind contaminates our loving relationships and distorts our perception of ourselves and others. A confused mind creates conflict within and without, and then runs around frantically, trying to find a solution to its self-created misery.

No matter what kind of yoga you practice or at what level you practice, the mind is your first and foremost tool.

No matter what kind of yoga you practice or at what level you practice, the mind is your first and foremost tool. If this tool itself is faulty, you cannot reach your destination safely. If the mind is purified, it can become a great friend in your journey. If it is impure, unstable, and noisy, it will become your worst enemy. Normally, people have a restless mind. If you wish to be successful in worldly endeavors or in spiritual practice, you first have to overcome mental restlessness and make your mind quiet, steady, and peaceful. Then using this purified, steady, and quiet mind, you can explore both the outer and inner worlds and enjoy life to its fullest.

Why is the mind restless? Because our minds and hearts are filled with endless desires. We hardly pause to ponder how many of those desires are good, constructive, and healthy for us. Without paying attention to the objects of desire, and without caring whether or not they are worth paying attention to, we run after those desires. Those who run after desires without weighing all the pros and cons are consumed by their desires. Such people have no time and energy to explore and find the meaning and purpose in life. Because they do not know why they are running after the objects of desire, when they achieve their desired object, they find no satisfaction. Thus they go on blindly chasing one desire after another. In the process, they exhaust themselves. Their willpower weakens. Their power of discrimination declines. They lose control over their minds. And they become a victim of their desires. That is why, if you wish to live a happy and healthy life, you must evaluate your desires and go after only those that are useful, healthy, and conducive to your journey. You can do this only when you learn to quiet your mind, and with that quiet mind, contemplate on the higher meaning and purpose of life.

In search of a quiet mind, you do not need to renounce your home. You do not need to abandon your worldly duties and obligations. You do not need to retire from your job and lock yourself in a cave. All you need to do is simplify your life and learn the art of performing your duties skillfully and wisely, selflessly and lovingly. Simply learn to perform your actions without being attached to the fruits of these actions.

The biggest mistake people make in the search for peace and happiness is ignoring the seven golden laws of healthy living. These seven laws are: eat properly, breathe properly, sleep properly, think properly, enjoy sense pleasures properly, interact with others properly, and stay focused on the higher purpose of life. Unless you comply with these golden laws of healthy and happy living, you will continue to struggle with your personal, family, professional, and social life. No matter how intelligent you are; you will remain a victim of sloth and inertia. Despite your intentions to live a productive life, you will suffer from a lack of stamina. You will end up with a weak body and a scattered mind. You will waste so much time and energy struggling with a long chain of obstacles arising from that unhealthy body and restless mind that there will be very little left for working toward your main goal, be it worldly or spiritual. The removal of obstacles is an important part of working toward your main goal, which is why compliance with these seven golden laws helps you prepare the foundation for living a joyful life.

...the great adepts worked out a plan for mastering the art of joyful living in eight simple and systematic steps.

Upon realizing this, the great adepts worked out a plan for mastering the art of joyful living in eight simple and systematic steps. Those eight steps are known as raja yoga (mystics call it adhyatma yoga). These steps encompass the seven golden laws mentioned above and include a methodical practice for unfolding the potential that lies dormant in our body, mind, and soul. This is the most complete path for healing and nurturing ourselves at every level.

The first step in this eightfold plan is yama (self-regulation, self-observation). The word yama literally means that which helps us stay within our boundaries and not trespass on others’ boundaries. In modern language, it means “live and let live.” At this step, we try to understand and embrace five principles: non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), non-indulgence (brahmacharya),and non-possessiveness (aparigraha).

Non-violence means be nice to yourself and be nice to others. Truthfulness means be honest with yourself and be honest with others. Non-stealing means refrain from usurping that which is not yours and be happy with that which is lawfully yours. Non-indulgence means do not misuse or abuse your body, senses, and mind. Enjoy all the gifts that nature has given you, but only in a manner that nourishes your body and mind without draining the vitality that you need to complete your life’s journey. Non-possessiveness means do not cling to physical and emotional objects to the point where your house, your body, your senses, and your mind turn into a junkyard.

This fivefold practice of self-observance helps you simplify your life. By practicing these five observances, you will no longer be a source of threat to others, so people around you will be comfortable with you. And you will no longer be a source of threat to yourself, so you will be at peace with yourself.

The second step in the practice of raja yoga is niyama (self-discipline, self-commitment). This step also consists of five components: purity (shaucha),contentment (santosha), austerity (tapas), self-study (svadhyaya), and surrender to God (Ishvara pranidhana).

To practice shaucha, all you have to do is be clean and straightforward in your thoughts, speech, and actions. Let there be cleanliness in the world outside you and purity in the world inside you.

Be content. Work as hard as you wish and set as high a goal as you wish. But be content with the fruits of your action. Here, contentment does not mean you become complacent or fall into the trap of inertia and inactivity. It simply means perform your actions without suffering from the fever of anxiety.

Discipline yourself. Commit yourself to tapas, which is translated literally as “austerity.” In actual practice, however, tapas is adopting a lifestyle where you begin to shine in your thoughts, speech, and actions. Adopt a lifestyle where you become a light to yourself and a light to others.

You must also commit yourself to self-study—study your body, mind, and senses. Study your thoughts, speech, and actions; study your habit patterns and your strengths and weaknesses. Through self-study, you gain right understanding of yourself as well as of the world outside of you.

Finally, infuse your life with the presence of the Divine. This is called surrender to God. In the yogic tradition, the practice of surrendering yourself to God does not require any ritual or ceremonial paraphernalia. Simply remain aware of the Divine Being—the Lord of Life within you—in all situations and circumstances. Remind yourself that the Lord of the Universe, the most compassionate Divine Being, is always with you. She is the true source of life.

These first two steps of the eightfold path constitute the moral and ethical aspects of yoga philosophy and practice. Unless you embrace these five principles of self-discipline and these five principles of self-observance, all your endeavors—both worldly and spiritual—will be impeded by endless obstacles. Without these principles, any practice you undertake for your spiritual unfoldment and total well-being will be like a body without breath.

The third step in the path of raja yoga is asana, postures. After hundreds of years of constant research and personal practice, yogis concluded that the human body is endowed with limitless potential. The body is equipped with all the means to make itself sick and all the forces to heal itself. It is totally up to us whether we want to live with an unhealthy body or with a vibrant body. Adepts have discovered eighty-four classical postures, with endless variations and derivatives, that can help us ensure a vibrant body wherein the soul can carry a joyful mind. All these postures can be classified into two main categories: physical postures and meditative postures. Physical postures have a direct impact on restoring physical health and an indirect impact on cultivating a joyful mind. Meditative postures have a direct impact on cultivating a joyful mind and an indirect impact on restoring physical health.

The fourth step in raja yoga is known as pranayama. Prana means “life force”;ayama means “expansion.” Pranayama practices help us infuse our bodies and minds with vital energy, the life force. These practices consist of breathing exercises, which are more subtle and more potent than the practice of postures. By doing these breathing exercises, you can strengthen and revitalize the internal organs in the body, nourish the senses, heal emotional injuries, and nurture the mind.

Preparation for the practice of pranayama is much more sophisticated than preparation for the practice of postures. You must make sure that your diet is balanced and the air you breathe is fresh and clean. There are also guidelines for determining whether or not you are practicing your breathing exercises correctly, and for making sure that you stay within your limits and expand your capacity in a safe and gradual manner.

Then comes the fifth step, known as pratyahara—literally “to disentangle yourself wisely and skillfully.” Quite often, this word is translated as “sense withdrawal,” which frightens Western students. But when you analyze the meaning of this word, you realize that this particular step of yoga refers to a crucial stage in the journey of life. The prefix, prati, means “to pull yourself from an undesirable point in time and space and unite yourself with that which is useful and desirable.” The other prefix, a means “from every direction, in every respect.” The word hara is derived from the verb root hri, that is, “to carry, to lead, to guide, to supervise.” Together, both prefixes and the verb mean to disentangle our senses and mind from the unhealthy and undesirable objects of the world, gather all the scattered energy of the senses and mind, and turn them inward to explore the higher dimensions of life.

The practice of pratyahara is a natural evolution in the soul’s journey. When we find ourselves standing at a crossroad, we run from one object to another, from one job to another, from one career to another, from one relationship to another. At some point, we find ourselves exhausted. Our heart demands that our mind clarify the purpose behind this endless race. That is when—whether you are interested in the practice of yoga or not—you end up re-evaluating the meaning and purpose of life. This re-evaluation motivates you to pause for a while and see whether this non-stop and almost purposeless marathon race for the charms and temptations of the world is worthwhile. Every human being, at some point in life, finds himself standing at this crossroad. The decision to withdraw from the alluring sights that line the roads and to drive only on the road that makes the most sense is called pratyahara. It refers in part to sense withdrawal, and in part to turning the mind inward.

The sixth step is dharana (concentration). Here you truly learn to gather all the forces and faculties of the mind, focusing them on one chosen object. The most important component in the practice of concentration is the selection of the object of concentration. You can focus your mind on an external object or an internal one. The object of concentration should be selected by someone who knows all the qualities and attributes of that object, because over a period of time, as you continue concentrating on an object, the mind begins to absorb all of the object’s qualities and characteristics. The object of concentration, therefore, must be accompanied by uplifting energies. Only then will you see a qualitative change taking place in yourself.

The seventh step is dhyana (meditation). Meditation is simply an advanced stage of concentration. Concentration makes the mind one-pointed and steady, whereas in meditation, the mind begins to expand and to touch the dimension of reality known as the field of intuition. A meditator gains a level of clarity of mind that is not ordinarily experienced. Even in this state, however, a meditator is not fully established in his essential nature. He may be getting glimpses of a higher level of reality, yet he is still aware of the lower level of reality. Through constant practice, the meditative experience becomes more refined, and one day, there emerges a pure and perfect state of spiritual absorption known as samadhi, the eighth and the final stage in the practice of yoga.

In the highest state of yogic accomplishment, you are fully at peace. You are perfectly established in supreme consciousness. The experience of equanimity you gain at this stage cannot be compared with anything else. It is indescribable. The experience of bliss is not outside you; it is inside you and it is you. There is no sense of duality in this state. You are in the world and the world is in you. You are in God and God is in you. You have transcended your mind and the realm of consciousness that is limited by time, space, and causation. There is no distinction between the past, present, and future. The world known by the senses and the world beyond the reach of the senses are fully integrated in this spiritually illumined consciousness.

Upon reaching this state, you have not only known the meaning of life, but also you have found your eternal friend. All your desires and cravings have been fulfilled, for you have found your eternal friend, your inner soul, and thus, you are no longer lonely. Freedom from loneliness allows the descent of such a powerful peace and joy that you long for nothing anymore. This is called attaining perfection, attaining immortality. You begin to see the whole world filled with an indescribable beauty and joy. Regardless of whether you are young or old, man or woman, you experience yourself as beautiful. This experience is so real and fulfilling that you do not need others to admire your beauty. Rather, you find yourself brimming with the joy that your inner beauty is beyond all admiration.

This path is so profound and yet so simple that anyone with any level of physical capacity, emotional maturity, intellectual grasp, and philosophical and cultural background can follow it.

That is how this eight-step yoga helps us master the art of joyful living and guarantees that we will find meaning and purpose in life here and now. By following this holistic path, we learn to take care of ourselves on every level—body, breath, mind, and consciousness. This path is so profound and yet so simple that anyone with any level of physical capacity, emotional maturity, intellectual grasp, and philosophical and cultural background can follow it. That is why this system of yoga is called raja yoga, the royal path.

Freedom from Fear

Patanjali, the codifier of raja yoga, warns modern people that they must become aware of who they are. The foundation of the entire science of raja yoga is explained in the first four aphorisms of the Yoga Sutra, in which Patanjali says, “You are identifying yourselves with the objects of the world, forgetting your essential nature.” The moment you come to know your essential nature, you become fearless. Under the pressure of fear, students ask, “Will I be enlightened? How long will it take for me to be enlightened? How long will it take for me to meditate?” They worry instead of meditating.

The moment you come to know your essential nature, you become fearless.

This happens with everyone; it happened with me also. But my master told me one thing: “Be free from all fears.” You are going through the procession of life. Why do you worry and bother for enlightenment? Start treading the path, and enlightenment dawns of itself. The first thing to achieve is freedom from all fears, and it is the duty of a teacher to give you that freedom. He should enlighten you with the knowledge of the true values of life, but it is your duty to prepare yourself for the teaching.

If Your Teacher is Selfless

In raja yoga, philosophy, science, and practice are combined. Here it is the duty of the teacher to impart the principles of yoga and the techniques for practicing them, not by studying yoga aphorisms and manuals, but through self-discipline and specific practices that will help the student attain the goal of yoga. My master always said, “Do not teach any science without having experienced it. Then you will be able to warn your students. You will be able to guide them properly because you will be telling them not only what to do and the way to do it, but also that which should not be done.” According to yoga there is no such thing as sin, but there are obstacles that one must face. Raja yoga teaches you how to overcome these obstacles.

The relationship between the student and the teacher or guide is extremely important on this path. If the teacher instructs you selflessly for your benefit, follow him. But if you do not find him selfless, and if he does not practice the ideals he preaches, do not follow him. A selfish teacher cannot communicate with his disciples truthfully.

A true teacher is known by his selfless, loving behavior, for selflessness is the expression of true love. If this is missing in a spiritual relationship, then it is not true spirituality, and you should call it something different. A competent teacher is one who practices and who knows what he is teaching. See if your teacher is selfless. If he is, follow him. It is that simple.

Swami Rama
One of the greatest adepts, teachers, writers, and humanitarians of the 20th century, Swami Rama (1925-1996) is the founder of the Himalayan Institute. Born in Northern India, he was raised from early childhood by the Himalayan sage, Bengali Baba. Under the guidance of his master, he traveled from monastery to monastery and studied with a variety of Himalayan saints and sages, including his grandmaster who was living in a remote region of Tibet. In addition to this intense spiritual... Read more>>