As long as you do not live totally in the body, you do not live totally in the Self. – B.K.S. Iyengar
In these simple words, Iyengar draws us back into the necessity to ground ourselves on the earth so that we may fully inhabit Spirit and live from the center of our Souls.
Iyengar was a prominent teacher of the traditional Hatha Yoga techniques. My grandfather, being a lifetime Yogi, tried to teach me yoga from a young age. But when I first started, I was daunted by all the complex positions out there (such as the one in the picture above). Thankfully, soon I realized that yoga wasn’t about fancy poses at all.
For a long time, I didn’t experience any benefits from yoga, tending to think my way through all the poses and try to “master” them all perfectly. I was ready to give up on yoga completely until I discovered Raja Yoga.
What is Yoga?
The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word “Yuj” meaning to yoke or bind and is often interpreted as “union/integration.” Essentially, yoga is a method of discipline that is synonymous with a spiritual path or way of life.
Although we tend to associate the word “Yoga” with strange poses, spandex pants, and yoga mats, Yoga is in fact, a group of physical, mental, and spiritual disciplines which originated in ancient India to further our spiritual development.
There are many schools, teachings, and practices of yoga, but ultimately the goal is one and the same: Moksha, complete liberation from the karmic cycle of death and rebirth, and the attainment of inner peace, clarity, self-control, freedom, and self-realisation.
- Karma Yoga: or the Path of Action (karma, i.e. developing universal selflessness, lovingkindness, etc.)
- Bhakti Yoga: or the Path of Devotion (bhakti, i.e. worshipping of deities, surrendering to a guru’s guidance, etc.)
- Jnana Yoga: or the Path of Knowledge (jnana, i.e. cultivating self-knowledge, renunciation, etc.)
A fourth Yoga was later introduced known as Raja Yoga or “the Path of Meditation.” This is the classical Yoga we all associate with the word and was presented in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
What is Raja Yoga?
Out of the many styles of yoga, Raja Yoga (sometimes called “Ashtanga Yoga”) is a powerful, dynamic, and physically demanding practice that synchronizes your breath and movement to produce an internal heat designed to purify the body. It does so by moving through Asanas (postures or poses) fairly quickly and with its large variety of Vinyasas (transition between poses).
Raja means “King,” which is why it’s often called “Royal Yoga.” The reason why Raja yoga is thought of this way is because the mind is thought of as “King” and we can train it to tame our body and “rule” it as an enlightened inner sovereign from the realm within our being.
Depending on the predisposition you have, I’ve found Raja yoga to be very effective in forcing you to breathe deeply, and in doing so, allowing your energy to drop down from your head to your body. In this way, Raja yoga is the perfect type of yoga for our Western thought-centered society because it forces us out of our brains and into our senses.
Raja yoga can also be an amazing tool for emotional healing. The more you practice, the more you’ll notice feelings that have long been trapped within your body slowly rise to the surface, demanding expression and release. Often this is particularly true when you have to force yourself through the Asanas (postures) you dislike the most.
I’ve found that Yoga is extremely valuable during certain periods of spiritual journeying, such as in introspective stages of growth. At other times, we may require more external forms of expansion such as those obtained through shamanic rituals like Despacho ceremonies or spiritual sex (tantra).
As with every practice, Raja Yoga is something you have to try for yourself and observe how it uniquely affects your journey.
8 Illuminating Stages of Raja Yoga
In Raja Yoga, there are eight steps (or “limbs” as sage Patanjali called them) to follow in order to cultivate the discipline necessary to continue all the way to the end of our religious or spiritual path.
These steps are not exclusive to Yoga, they can also serve as a map to guide us through any spiritual obstacles we encounter along the way.
1. Yama (Self-Control)
Although Yama is usually thought of as the path of control, I think the more appropriate word to describe it would be “restraint.”
Yamas are the moral framework upon which the spiritual life is built upon. The basic idea is that living a moral life tends to satisfy the conscience, which in turn helps to calm the mind.
In classical yogic doctrine, there are five yama principles:
- Ahiṃsā: (do not harm)
- Satya: (be truthful)
- Asteya: (do not steal)
- Brahmacārya: (chastity, fidelity or sexual restraint)
- Aparigraha: (do not overindulge, do not over-possess)
2. Niyama (Discipline)
Similar to Yama, Niayama also means restraint, but it’s the other side of the polarity.
While Yamas are the aspects you should avoid or restrain yourself from, Niyamas are the aspects of yourself you should cultivate more into your life.
There are five principles:
- Shauca: Purity (e.g. of mind, speech, and body)
- Santosh: Contentment (e.g. acceptance of others and our circumstances)
- Tapas: Asceticism (e.g. perseverance, austerity)
- Svadhyaya: Study (e.g. of scriptures, of self, introspection)
- Ishvara Pranidhana: devotion to God (e.g. contemplation of the Divine)
3. Asana (Physical exercises)
In Sanskrit, the word Asana means “sitting down.” Yoga teaches the importance of learning how to govern our body by practicing specific postures and learning how to hold them until we stop jiggling or squirming.
Asanas also serve as metaphors to understand the mind-body connection. They teach us that once the body becomes still, the mind tends to follow (unless there are undealt with core wounds).
One of my favorite Asanas is the “Forward Fold with Clasp” where you bring your head to your chest while extending your arms up and out behind you. It’s a beautifully humbling pose, teaching us a powerful lesson: your thinking must subordinate to your feeling.
4. Pranayama (Breath Exercises)
In most spiritual traditions, there’s an understanding that everything we see is fueled by a universal energy invisible to the eye, much like a fish cannot see the water it swims in.
In Hindu traditions, this energy is known as prana, which loosely meaning breath, spirit, or spirit energy in Sanskrit. In the West, we call this energy force Spirit, while the Chinese called it “Chi,” the Polynesians call it “manna,” and the Theosophical tradition calls it “astral light.”
In Raja Yoga, Prananaya is the control of the breath. In Hindu scriptures, all of existence is comprised of two essential elements: akasha and prana. Akasha is responsible for creating all known forms, everything from atoms to planets. While Prana is the animating principle, the one response for shaping Akasha. Akasha is creation, Parana is cohesion.
The easiest way to make use of Prana and be the shaper of your breaths is through yogic breathing exercises (inhaling through one nostril and exhaling through the other at alternating tempos) or using mantras (sacred repeated words) such as the the Advaitic “Aum Tat Sat Aum” (the supreme absolute truth).
5. Pratyahara (Withdrawal of the Senses)
The first four steps of Raja Yoga deal with the body, breathing, and our behavior. Once we’ve mastered these, we can move on to the transcendental aspects of our spiritual evolution.
Withdrawal as is described by the great teacher Swami Vivekananda, is the journey of “gathering inwards.” Withdrawal is essentially a change in relationship between our physical senses and the objects we perceive through them.
Pratyahara is essentially learning how to disconnect our consciousness from our sense of perception, similar to many simple meditation techniques. Unlike typical meditation, the first three steps of Raja Yoga have taught us how to gain freedom or independence from external conditions. Pratyahara is the beginning of gaining freedom from our internal conditions, our inner space, whether it be emotions, thoughts or the sounds of our heartbeat.
6. Dharana (Concentration)
Dharana can be seen as the polarity of Pratyahara. While Pratyahara is more of a choiceless awareness, Dharana is exercising full focus and intense attention toward one particular object.
Have you ever tried looking at a clock for a full minute without getting distracted by arising thoughts? Here is where you’ll immediately see how difficult it is to maintain your concentration on something, even for a few minutes.
7. Dhyana (Meditation)
Dhyana translates to “meditation” but in the true sense of the word. Yoga sage, Patanjali, describes Dhyana as the stage that allows for an “unbroken flow of knowledge” about the object one is concentrated on.
What we often refer to as meditation in the modern world is actually a preliminary exercise for true meditation (Dhyana). Trying to learn how to meditation is like trying to learn how to sleep, it’s impossible. Sleep is the natural byproduct of entering deep states of relaxation and quiet.
In this stage of deep meditation, we experience pure being; the realm of the Soul. The moment the intellect is still, there’s an ego death, divine light shines within the heart and we are One with it.
8. Samadhi (Complete Realisation)
The word Samadhi translates roughly to “acquiring truth,” or in a more modern spiritual language, being in Oneness with God.
As we intensify in Dhyana and work out that spiritual muscle, it starts stabilizing. Samadhi comes when we experience the full realization that the ego or separate self, does not ultimately exist, and that separation of any sort is a misperception that is created by confused and deluded thoughts.
Samadhi is where the knower (i.e. the person practicing), knowledge (i.e. what is God), and the object of knowledge (i.e. God) become one, or as it is put it in the classical doctrines, when the union of the Jiva (psyche) with the Atman (true Self) occurs.
Those who receive Samadhi have their senses change; they see heavenly and radiant light, hear heavenly sounds, and feel within themselves vast and infinite in expanse.
The experience of Samadhi is like being a river that is finally allowed to flow into the sea after a long, turbulent, and upstream journey. All obstacles have been overcome and the river is, for the rest of eternity, united with the ocean.
If there’s only one lesson to learn in Yoga it’s a simple one.
Any good Yoga teacher will tell you to be still after certain positions in order to feel the benefit of the pose.
This is not just a valuable lesson in Yoga but a great practice for all of life. In many ways, we work so hard to get somewhere, only to bypass feeling the deep rewards of inhabiting the space we arrive in.
In today’s growing and fast-paced world, we’re so concerned with the next move, that we forget to feel the deep rewards of simply enjoying our current position. By treating each moment, each experience, every touch of our loved one’s as a consummation in itself, we can practice feeling eternity.
Take a deep breath and enter the field of infinity. Exhale and feel your Soul become like a lake of clear water that surrounds you and engulfs you.
Repeat this practice several times during your yoga practice and notice the water of your Soul cleanse your entire being.
If you don’t bend, life will bend you.