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Raja Yoga

'Raja yoga' literally means the king of yogas. This is a very grand title for a branch of yoga that is not as popular or as well-known as others, and that sometimes appears quite obscure. This article aims to demystify raja yoga, exploring the underlying philosophy, and most importantly its relevance for us in today's world.

The origins of raja yoga

Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means to yoke or unite. This union describes the goal of yoga, to unite us with the Ultimate consciousness, which is sometimes called the Absolute, the Self, God, or the Creator. Raja means king, and this form of yoga is called raja yoga because the mind is supposed to be the king among the organs. Its origins go back long before any written texts. It is the old system or science followed by the great rishis (seers) to help them in realising the Self or God through meditation and associated practices. It was first introduced by a rishi who lived thousands of years ago. He discovered a practical method so people could evolve to their highest nature. He then started to train others1. Later, around 2000 years ago, the ancient practices of yoga were compiled and summarised by Patanjali2, in his Yoga Sutras. While raja yoga encompasses all eight steps of Patanjali’s yoga – yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi – the focus is on the last two steps: the mind, meditation and diving into the inner universe. Over the centuries, and up to the present day, raja yoga has continued to evolve, thanks to the practical experience of great sages.

Perception, and the mind as our instrument of perception

In raja yoga the mind is the instrument for looking inwards and uncovering the inner self. Reading a description from ancient yogic philosophy of how our minds perceive the world, we could be forgiven for thinking we are in a modern biology or medical class, except for mention of the soul.

The mind is simply an instrument through which the soul interacts with the world, including the physical body. This internal mental instrument, which includes all the processes is called in yoga the chitta. The chitta is often described as a lake, and in this mind-lake, waves of thought rise up and fall away as a result of the impressions we take in from the external world, so that sometimes the mind is restless and disturbed, and sometimes it is calm, just like the surface of a lake. When the surface of the mind-lake is very disturbed, because many thoughts are rising up as waves, we cannot see the bottom of the lake. We only glimpse the bottom when the waves have subsided and the lake is calm. Think of the bottom of the lake as the inner Self, the spiritual centre. In raja yoga, in order to uncover the Self, we have to calm the waves of thought in the mind-lake. When we put our attention outwards to the external world, the sense organs draw it out and impressions are continually formed, creating waves of thought through the mind-lake, resulting in disturbance. So the first step in raja yoga is to regulate the mind: to check the outward tendency and allow some of the mind’s attention to turn inwards.