Raja Yoga or Ashtanga Yoga – The Path of Eight Limbs
Raja Yoga or Ashtanga Yoga – Ashtanga Yoga is that branch of yoga that analyzes the mind and aims to gain control over it. That is why it is an unavoidable tool on our journey to fulfillment. Systematized by Maharishi Patanjali, it is related to Samkhya Philosophy. Ashtanga Yoga is also known as Raja Yoga. Raja means “king,” “the highest.” In that sense, all the paths of Yoga could be called Raja Yoga, because in their own unique way, they all lead to the highest state of realization.
The Cosmic Mind reflects pure consciousness and has the limitless power that we ascribe to the Creator. The energy that God uses to create this universe is mind. It is called Mahat, the great cause. The first thought of God was energy that was so powerful it brought this universe into being. Human mind has that creative power but through impurities and wrong identifications, it has become so fragmented and weak that it has cut itself off from the Cosmic Mind.
The human mind has been defined as a bundle of thoughts. This fragmented, agitated mind keeps man trapped in illusion and delusion and takes him away from experiencing who he really is and from the happiness he seeks. He mistakenly thinks that happiness is in external pleasures, which dissipates his energy and make his mind even more fragmented and weak. This leads to more problems, addictions and enslavement.
That is why he who has control over his mind and senses is a real King, a “Raja” Yogi. The definition of Yoga given by Patanjali is “the cessation of thought waves.” He outlined eight limbs, or steps, to achieve this objective of “stilling the mind.”
The first two limbs, on which the system is based, are called Yamas and Niyamas. These are vows and practices that are actually common to all spiritual paths and religions. They can be applied at different levels, from the most obvious to the subtlest. Let us take a few examples of how they can be put into practice. You will soon be able to extend the list from your own experience.
1 The Yamas are:
• Ahimsa, non-violence: In its pure sense, ahimsa means refraining from injuring any living creature in thoughts, words or deeds.
There are many subtle ways of expressing violence. For example, by wearing strong perfumes, speaking loudly or making clamorous sounds can be felt as aggression by others. This violence can also be turned against yourself. On the path of yoga, the body is the temple of the Divine, a manifestation of the Cosmic Intelligence. Contaminating it with drugs, cigarettes, alcohol or coffee is an offense to this Divine being that you are.
• Satya, truthfulness: Ideally, it means not to lie under any circumstance. If you do lie, you will bear the stress of being exposed and may have to tell an infinite number of lies to cover up the other fabrications. How can you keep track of them all? Your mind will find no peace and will be in a state of agitation. Truthfulness and straightforwardness is the way to happiness.
• Asteya, honesty, non-stealing: In its simple form it means to refrain from taking what does not belong to you. From an absolute standpoint, if you have more than you need, then you are stealing from the rest of mankind who are in need. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “There is enough in this world for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.”
Squandering water, electricity, talking on the phone for hours when someone else is waiting for the line are some examples. There are so many subtle thefts that we are not aware of!
• Aparigraha, non-covetousness: Abstention from greed. Generally in our quest to “keep up with the Jones,” we are engaged in the opposite of aparigraha by constantly craving what our neighbor has and not appreciating our own blessings. We always feel that “the grass is greener on the other side.” This is also reflected in our daily life by taking more than we can use, whether it be food, wealth or space. You may have noticed that in a yoga room, if the space is limited, people have a tendency to spread their blanket wide to protect their own territory, which is an expression of the survival instinct. Instead, a student of yoga should make sure that everyone has a space. Hoarding space or material things in life keeps the mind in a constant state of turbulence and robs us of our peace and happiness.
• Brahmacharya is continence, moderation in all sensual pleasures: Brahmacharya implies discipline of the senses and moderation in diet and other sensual activities. In its strictest sense, it means celibacy, a state reached when the sexual impulses have been sublimated and transcended. It is often wrongly interpreted as the suppression of sexual desires, which can lead to indulgence in the other sensual activities through compensation.
2 The Niyamas are:
• Saucha, physical and mental cleanliness: Taking a shower everyday or brushing your teeth after each meal is an obvious application of Saucha. Less evident perhaps is leaving the bathroom clean and ready for the next person, washing your glass after taking a drink or not leaving your shoes in the middle of the hallway. You can observe mental cleanliness by eliminating all distracting thoughts and avoiding useless chitchat. There are so many opportunities and temptations in daily life to practice “socializing” and to aggravate the scattering of our energy and attention. At mealtimes, try to eat in silence. Punctuality for your appointments is another form of mental cleanliness. The practice of Saucha develops order and discipline of the mind.
• Santosha, contentment: Very often, things turn out to be very different from what we expected. But there are two sides of every situation. Train yourself to see the good and positive one! Santosha helps to develop tolerance, appreciation and awareness of the blessings that God has given us.
• Tapas, austerity, self-discipline: There are many opportunities to practice self-discipline: in respecting your schedule, waking up and retiring to bed on time, doing your yoga practice, studying regularly, doing your share of work in the spirit of Karma yoga without trying to escape from it, limiting your phone-calls to what is absolutely necessary, etc. Tapas is Sadhana that preserves energy to be used for uncovering the Self.
• Swaadhyaaya, study of the Scriptures: Take some time daily to study and meditate on a few pages of the Scriptures. This will change the frequency of your mind and widen your perspective on life. Read about the lives of Saints and Mahatmas.
• Ishwarapranidhaana, surrendering to God: Always do your best and surrender the rest to God. Dedicating the fruits of your actions to God helps you to be involved in activities that are uplifting and beneficial to spiritual growth. Whatever is happening, trust the inner guidance that put you on the path of yoga. The superficial ego may not know or understand everything. The highest aspect of your being does.
These practices help to purify the mind and eliminate Mala, its impurities and lower nature. If you are full of anger, greed, etc., you will never be able to meditate and unite with God because your mind is constantly in a state of agitation! These vows aim to promote the higher emotions of love, tolerance, compassion etc. They are like the pearls of a necklace. If you take just one or two of them, the other ones will follow.
Now take a moment to reflect on what the world would be like if everyone observed those simple rules in everyday life.
3 The Third Limb is Asana
Asana in Raja Yoga is the ability to sit comfortably in a steady, erect posture. In order to meditate, you have to reach a stage where the body is no longer an obstacle. Pain in the knees and back often remain for a long time and are a cause of distraction for the mind. Few individuals can sit naturally in a steady posture without any special training. For most people, the discipline of Hatha Yoga will be the best way to master the classic meditation poses.
4 Pranayama is the Fourth Limb
This practice aims at controlling prana through control of the breath. Prana is the life force that animates all creation. When we look at a tree, on an animal running, we know they are full of life. We also know when a plant, animal or human being is dead. Then we say that life has withdrawn. That principle of life, which is the same in plants, animals, and human beings, is prana. There is no existence apart from it. We bathe in it like fish in water.
Prana and mind are intimately related. Gaining control of prana through breathing exercises leads to control of the mind.
5 The Fifth Limb is Pratyahara
Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses from objects or the withdrawal of the mind from the senses. Pratyahara arises naturally when one sits for meditation, as the mind gains in purity through the observances of yama and niyama, when the body becomes steady through asana practice and the prana also comes under control through pranayama.
The sixth limb is concentration. When the mind is withdrawn and remains focused on its object of concentration for an extended period of time, without any distraction for about twelve seconds, it has mastered concentration. At this point the mind becomes very powerful and can achieve anything it desires. At this stage, the aspirant has to be very careful or he will use that power to become more immersed in the world.
The seventh limb is meditation. When that concentration is maintained unbroken for about two minutes, one naturally falls into meditation. At this stage, there is no more awareness of space and time. In theory, any object could be chosen as a point of focus, but the choice has to be made very carefully because whatever you focus on is going to impregnate your subconscious and a concentrated mind has the power to bring thoughts to the point of manifestation. That is why spiritual aspirants are advised to concentrate on God, so that divine qualities may manifest themselves. Meditation is then defined as “the constant flow of thoughts towards God.” It cannot be achieved. You fall into it when the conditions are ready, meaning, when the mind is one-pointed and steady.
8 The Eighth Limb is Samadhi
Samadhi or the Transcendental State is also called Turiya, the fourth state of consciousness. The three states of consciousness that we normally experience are waking, dreaming and dreamless sleep. When the mind reaches the point of concentration where Dhyana is maintained for about half an hour, it enters the fourth state in which the upadhis – limitations of body, senses, mind and intellect – are transcended. Then the Yogi experiences the Self without limitations or conditioning. He experiences that he is the Self, the Soul, the Atman, one with the Father. The question “Who am I? ” is answered.
When the sixth, seventh and eighth stages occur simultaneously, it is called Samyama. Anyone who goes through that process of purification and refinement will have the same experience of this transcendental state, just as deep sleep is the same, whether you are a beggar or a king, whether you sleep on the street or in a king-size bed. Only the name given to that experience will change (Samadhi, Nirvana, Turiya, etc.)
From this we can see that the word “meditation” is very loosely used. What is commonly called meditation is only a preparation. It is certainly not a kind of visualization or daydreaming. Dhyana, the seventh limb on this ladder to liberation, is a very high state to reach. All the different types of meditation are just means or techniques employed to focus the mind.
Through Sadhana, the mind evolves toward the state of purity. Free from distractions and agitation, it regains its creative power. There is nothing it cannot achieve. This is where certain powers, called siddhis, manifest. At this point, the aspirant is warned: if these powers are used for egoistical purposes and worldly objectives, they will entrap him and leave him enslaved by the limitations of the ego. As we have seen before, the mind can be the greatest enemy when its power is used in the wrong way. When focused on God, the power of the mind is our best friend, leading us directly to Liberation. So there are two options: one can use the power of the mind selfishly to become a demon or selflessly to become a divine personality.