Raja Yoga: The Yoga of the Mind
Raja yoga is a system of yoga that has particular appeal for me, after 40 years of practicing the many and varied yoga techniques and philosophies. I particularly like Raja yoga because it is directly concerned with the development of the mental faculties through concentration and meditation practices.
The word Raja is a Sanskrit word from the ancient Indian tongue. It literally means 'king' or the king of yoga. Sanskrit is a spiritual language, used rather in a similar manner as Latin is used in the Roman Catholic Church.
Raja yoga is said to be the original type of yoga that was propounded by the ancient sage Patanjali, and from it came the teachings around Ashtanga yoga.
The Goal of Raja Yoga
The purpose behind the techniques of Raja yoga is the ultimate annihilation of the mental chatter of the mind, and its absorption in the higher Self. Its goal is the union of the yoga student with the Godhead.
The various meditation and concentration practices found in this system ultimately lead the student of Raja yoga into the state of supreme bliss, known as Samadhi. This condition is one in which the meditator becomes at one with the Creator and enters into silent communion with God. It is blissful beyond description, and I have personally experienced some aspects of this in my own meditations.
The most fundamental aspect of Raja yoga is the control of the mind. Everything that we do, in terms of deeds and actions, comes from thought; a thought had to precede the action or to put any kind of plan into operation.
There are, of course, a myriad of actions that we can each perform; not all of them are good, and many can be selfish and downright detrimental to the well-being of ourselves and more importantly, of others.
Raja yoga trains the student to subdue and sublimate thought so that erratic and uncontrolled thoughts do not dominate the personality. Thoughts of greed, of lust, of hatred, for example, may prove to be very destructive. The goal of mental control through Raja yoga is one that trains the mind not to dwell on such thoughts and helps the student to lift the mind higher, and ultimately, to cease the thinking process altogether.
When thoughts cease, as in deep introspective meditation, there is a great sense of relief as bliss arises naturally from within the consciousness. This must be experienced to be believed and truly appreciated. No one really knows true inner peace of mind, until the ceaseless mental chatter comes to an end.
This is why Raja yoga is known as the King of Yoga because when the mind is controlled directly by your own soul, all other things are possible from studying the many and varied techniques in the yoga system. Without such control, the mind wanders and is aimless, like a ship without a rudder.
The Lotus and Half Lotus
Two of the most important yoga postures for attaining the greatest benefits in Raja yoga are Padmasana (Lotus) and Ardha Padmasana (Half Lotus).
I realise that not everyone can place their legs in these somewhat tricky postures, but with practice, you may be able to start with Half Lotus and build up to the Full Lotus. A good yoga teacher may be able to help you here, with warm-up stretches and other yoga poses that gradually ease you into the postures.
If you can comfortably sit in either the Full Lotus or the Half Lotus for at least fifteen to twenty minutes, you may be able to gather a good measure of the benefits of these poses. They are unique in that they ably support the spine in a nice straight line from the tailbone to the top of the head.
However, if you cannot do these postures for any particular reason, such as an injury, for example, a good firm-backed chair can work just as well, provided that the spine is kept upright and the head is in good alignment with the spine. In this case, the soles of the feet will be placed comfortably on the ground, and the hands can be placed in the lap or with palms facing up on the knees.
The straight spine allows for certain currents of energy (known as prana) to travel unhindered along the spinal canal which helps to imbue the meditator with a sense of peace and well-being.
Prana (also known as chi) is the life-current which is found in everything, and it is particularly accessed via the breath. When we use the breathing to engage prana, the breathing techniques involved are known as pranayama.
In order to truly focus and concentrate in meditation, it is vital to first get the body to be totally still; as still as a statue. The two postures outlined above, aid in this direction better than any other postures.
Once the body is still, some curious things start to happen. You begin to lose proprioception of the body; the hands become benumbed, and you may lose sensation of your feet and legs. This is not at all unpleasant, and returns to normal when you come out of the meditation. (I suggest rubbing the hands together and stretching the legs etc. when you come out of the session.)
As you go deeper, perhaps with concentration on your breathing, the mind gradually calms down, and thoughts tend to thin out. Eventually, as the body remains very, very still, and does not move at all, the breathing will naturally become very slow and ultimately reaches a point in deep meditation known as 'still' breathing.
This very subdued type of breathing is not quite the same as shallow breathing. This kind of breathing usually begins with deep in-breaths and out-breaths to start with (see the practice outlined below) and ends with long, deep slow breathing, in and out, until the breathing reaches a sublime, still point, almost to the point of total suspension. This point of virtual breath-suspension is called 'still' breathing.
All now is so still in the body that to all intents, the body has become totally calm, poised and balanced, just like a statue. Breathing, per se, is minimal.
Practising Breath Retention
With eyes closed and seated in the Full or Half Lotus or on a straight-backed chair, begin your meditation with an in-breath, with the mouth closed and breathing through the nostrils only. Mentally count ‘One’ and then hold the breath for somewhere between two to five seconds. Then, slowly release the breath on the exhalation, out through the nostrils only.
Next, mentally count ‘Two’ on the in-breath and hold the breath once more. Perhaps try this time, to feel that there is a ball of energy at the crown of the head on the Breath Suspension. There is a powerful energy centre located at the top of the head, known as Sahasrara or the Crown Chakra. This centre connects your soul to the Divine.
Exhale slowly, and on the next in-breath, count ‘Three’ and suspend the breath once more, perhaps this time visualising a golden-white light shining from the top of the head, like a tremendous sun shining in its glory.
Exhale, and then on the in-breath count ‘Four’ and have a sense of energy at the top of the head, complete with visualisation of the golden sun. You may then return to counting ‘One’ again, and do several rounds of sets of four counts like this.
Alternatively, you may just go on counting up to ten or twenty. The secret is to do this with deep concentration on each step of the breathing, from inhalation, suspension, and exhalation, with particular focus on the suspension, using the vital element of visualising the golden sun with a sense of attunement at the top of the head.
This breath-suspension technique will help you to achieve the mental alignment that is needed, especially when accompanied by visualisation and feeling at the top of the head. We feel that the breath itself has migrated into the very crown of the head and shines there like a brilliant and radiant sun.
You are engaging the mind and focussing on the breathing so that the mental faculties actually become one with the breath itself. This is a definite Raja yoga technique which uses pranayama to 'fix' the mental forces in deep concentration.
I advise that you start with a minimum of fifteen minutes for this practice, and build towards thirty minutes. After you have ceased counting the breaths, (up to 20 breaths, perhaps) you can just allow the breathing to find its own level where it reaches that place of deep stillness. Do not strain to hold the breath, and do not force anything. You will never benefit from pranayama by force and may do more harm than good.
The breath must always feel natural and relaxed, so it is important to be in tune with your own abilities to breathe in and out and particularly for the length of the retention. If two-seconds breath retention works for you, then stick with that. If you can suspend the breath comfortably for 30 seconds or a little more, then that is also acceptable. Anything longer than that may require the presence of an experienced yoga practitioner accompanying you.
We are aiming for quality rather than quantity in this breathing practice. A breathless, exhausted state due to over-exertion, will not advance you and may even put you off the practice and hence deny yourself the benefits that would have come later on.
Remember that you will achieve nothing in yoga by force. The whole point is that it happens naturally when the student is mentally, emotionally and physically ready and not before.
The meditator now becomes more aware of the nature of Reality, of the true Self, dis-identifying with the false ego, with the concept of the body and identity of self as being only the body. The student of Raja yoga recognises that he or she is the soul, and the body is only a casing for the spiritual being that you truly are.
Volumes could be written on the practice of Raja yoga alone, but in this article, I hope that you can see that when we follow some basic practices such as keeping the body still and subduing the restless thoughts through pranayama, we touch that place within us where the soul resides.
Some Key Points
- Posture: lotus or half lotus.
- Keep the body ultra still.
- Practice still-breathing.
- Fix the mind on the breath.
- Time: start with 15 minutes and build towards 30 minutes.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2018 S P Austen