Raja Yoga is known as the king of yogas, and is possibly the most scientifically based approach to yoga where systematic techniques are applied to bring the mind under control so that higher states of consciousness are able to be achieved. Developed and compiled by the sage Patanjali Maharishi it is a series of self disciplined practices which sublimate mental and emotional energy thus transforming it into spiritual energy. It is considered the yoga of self-mastery and requires a great deal of self-discipline to practice if the higher states are to be achieved. There are two principle types of Raja Yoga – Hatha and Kundalini.
Hatha meaning to balance the solar and lunar energies within. This is also known as Ashtanga yoga or the eight fold path (ashta – eight and anga – limbs). The first four stages relate to the external world and are the foundation of the practice and the latter four, realization of the inner world. In this technique the mind is brought under control as the yogi passes through eight different principle stages and the creative mental energy which generally gravitates toward material concerns is redirected ultimately toward deeper states of meditation which eventually reaches the zenith of absorption in Samadhi.
In Kundalini yoga, practitioners aspire to master the pranic life force first utilising various techniques incorporating dynamic postures, breathing and mantras. Through this process the prana is mastered, followed by the activation of Shakti Kundalini, the mind becomes quiet as a by-product of the practice.
In the Raja yoga system we become like warriors. With focused mind creating only that which is beneficial to the realisation of the goal, and balanced emotions, no longer in reaction to life and creating karmic dramas, but intelligently making choices supportive of the ultimate goal, and a strong healthy vital body able to handle the voltage of spiritual life and sit for prolonged periods in meditation.
Such a yogi naturally becomes more and more detached from the external world as both suffering and the need to enjoy the senses become increasingly diminished.
The eight-fold path of Ashtanga Yoga is as follows:
1. Yamas – Restraints
As we engage spiritual life in consideration of the goal naturally we desire to eliminate those obstacles which prevent us from attaining the goal. The Yamas deal with behavioural patterns and moral and ethical considerations that reduce the possibility of creating unwanted karma whilst operating within society that will interfere with or distract us from our spiritual objective. They are the beginning of self-discipline and their observance assists us in making intelligent choices in our daily lives that ultimately reduce suffering to both ourselves and others. Observance of these five principles creates a harmonious and peaceful society.
a. Ahimsa – Non-violence
In Yoga we acknowledge the inherent divinity within all beings and the principle cause of unwanted karma is in relation to when our activities adversely affect others. It is said that we cannot evolve whilst being consciously aware that our actions are causing harm and injury to others. This not only relates to physical injury but also mental and emotional injury, and is not confined to the effect on others alone but also toward ourselves. The word ahimsa means ‘himsa’ means injury and the prefix ‘a’ means to not, or in other words to cause no injury in action, mind or spoken word.
Mahatma Ghandi as well as some other traditions such as the Jain faith take this philosophy to the extreme. It is up to us to decide to which level we take any of these retraints. In some schools of vedic thought it is said that it is acceptable to use violence in defence and to protect the weak. Once again the Bhagavad Gita references these points in detail. Bullying, oppressing, overpowering, controlling and being overly forceful and using harsh speech are all under this category.
Through practising Ahimsa we can develop compassion and live peacefully with others in recognition of the value of each one’s life and their inherent divinity. Ultimately when we harm another we harm ourselves and create offence to the Divitiy within. It can also be applied to our own spiritual practises and not being too forceful or competitive, or having a negative self image related to ability or body type, and instead to relax into the practise. Too much wilfulness leads to criticism, judgement, frustration and anger both toward the self and others and thus also falls under this category.
This consideration is not only related to ourselves and others within the human species, but it is extended to all life, in particular the animal kingdom and to nature around us who are often heedlessly abused in the pursuit of pleasure of the senses. For these reasons those who are serious about living yoga adopt a vegetarian diet as a foundational aspect of the practise.
b. Satya – Truthfulness
We are advised to maintain a truthful position in life both with ourselves and others. Truthfulness should be observed in thought, spoken word, and deed. When speaking truthfully or acting truthfully it should never be with the intent to harm. If a hard truth is to be spoken first we should check where the intention is coming from with undeviating self-honesty and secondly it should be delivered with love and compassion, otherwise the communication cannot follow both ahimsa and satya. This also applies to when we are being confronted with our ‘stuff’, and the tendency to become defensive arises due to pride. When we acknowledge that we are wrong about something or have acted unconsciously we can also adopt a thankful attitude that the person is caring enough to help us to grow and develop humility.
Of course it is not necessary to say everything we think just because it is our truth. Sometimes it is wiser to hold the tongue and reflect on our perspective, and if we are self-examining and honest with ourselves we know whether our conduct is appropriate or not. We should act according to time, place and circumstance based on our intelligent discernment. It is not always the appropriate or most beneficial moment to speak or act. Correct timing and skillful delivery make all the difference to a successful expression of ourselves and greatly increase the probability of a favorable outcome.
Sometimes we exaggerate in order to validate our story or to impress and raise our own status in the company of others. This is a bad habit that benefits nobody and is a distortion of the truth and is in fact a form of lying for our own supposed gain. On other occasions we have to be courageous and honestly state our inner needs about what is beneficial and harmful to us instead of going with what is easier in the short term, or burying our head in the sand pretending something is not happening in the hope that it will go away.
Being truthful is one of the most straightforward and direct ways to develop good qualities and maintain a way of life situated in the mode of goodness.
c. Brahmacharya – Directing Sexual Energy Appropriately
In the ancient vedic Varnashram Dharma system there are considered four stages of material life.
Brahmacharya – Celibate student.
Grhastha – Householder
Vanaprastha – Retired householder
Sanyassi – Renounced monk
When a student would enter gurukula (school of the Guru) he would always be brahmacharya which like the other yamas and niyamas were not a matter of choice but a necessary part of the students training to overcome his lower nature in order to make progress in yoga. During this process the Brahmachari would come to understand his overall direction in life and either opt to become a householder or a renounced monk dependant partly on his constitution but also related to his ability to control and redirect his sexual energy. If a disciple wanted to become a monk but was unable to redirect his energy the Guru would recommend he become a householder so that there was an appropriate outlet for this energy in the respect of creating a family. If he was able to control this energy sufficiently sublimating it and transforming it into spiritual energy he may be qualified to become a monk in pursuit of the goal of yoga.
Such a person once entering Grhastha ashram (householder life) if following the dharma correctly would get married and only share intimacy with his wife for the purpose of pro-creation giving a fortunate soul an opportunity to have an auspicious birth into a family of yogis. From a western perspective this is quite hard to grasp because we don’t necessarily share the same societal values. When somebody is unable to control a desire the consequence is that they are dominated by it. Sexual energy is very powerful and notoriously difficult to tame. People will sometimes risk anything for its fulfilment, risking family, friends, wealth, status and even freedom just to fulfil their desire. Naturally such a powerful force can be dangerous and cause a lot of karma when out of control. Unchecked desire leads to more desire and one of the results of negative karma is that more material desire arises in the heart. Material desire causes misery in life because one caught in the growing web of desire is never happy with what they have and spends their precious time in pursuit of fleeting sensory pleasure instead of performing sadhana in pursuit of the supreme goal of life.
In the modern age and culture this Yama is naturally not very popular and sometimes the teaching related is watered down or made symbolic to be more palatable but it is essentially teaching us to redirect the creative life force toward it’s highest expression otherwise we become entangled in distraction and often challenging karmic effects. At the highest level it is teaching that sexual intimacy is preserved for pro-creation only, and this has more modernly been interpreted as only to be performed within marriage or at the very least within a committed relationship. It is considered a loving act and a sharing of affection and consciousness rather than simply a personal sensual indulgence.
In the material world sexual energy plays out in many ways both subtle and gross and can easily be used to manipulate others and is the cause of great distraction and unwanted karmic consequence. It is essential as aspiring yogis that we ensure we are responsible and respectful in how we interact with the opposite sex, having clear boundaries, and avoiding being flirtatious. Brahmacharaya is also a state of mind which means it is not only limited to the physical but also to bring the mind under control otherwise there will inevitably be some type of misconduct.
So Brahmacharya is directing our energy away from agitating external desires, and instead investing it in the pursuit of higher goals. A natural consequence of being self-controlled in this way, is that the yogi becomes atmaram (self satisfied) abiding in the peace and contentment of their own soul. External situations and objects are no longer the cause for one’s state of happiness (or suffering). By becoming self-aware of how we respond to lifes situations, we can make auspicious choices that serve us in creating the life we want.
d. Asteya – Non -stealing / Coveting
We can understand that ultimately everything belongs to God, and that at best we are custodians of what we possess, even our own bodies. What is given at a material level is to fulfil a short term purpose and when that purpose is over it no longer serves, and at this point is often taken away again. This can apply to our bodies, other people, a function in society, possessions, situations, and anything that we can become attached to. We are deluded if we think we can really own something.
As a result of the deluding potency known as Mahamaya, we believe that things external to our nature can bring us happiness, and when we perceive other’s happiness linked to a certain object, person or situation then a desire for that can arise within us causing envy, jealousy and covetousness. These emotions can cause us to act in less than auspicious ways, from desiring what the other has, to wishing they didn’t have it, progressing to wanting to take it from them. Even though at a deeper level we know these feelings are not justifiable nor aligned with dharma, our false ego will often begin strategizing, plotting and justifying our intended actions. For example a person might be able to justify avoiding paying for something in their mind, such as when an employee feels undervalued by their employer and so in order to give themselves value they justify stealing from their employer ie: they think my employer wont miss it, they owe me, I wont fulfil our agreement because they are taking advantage of me, coming late, leaving early, taking perks, doing our own thing on work time etc etc. The list of subtle ways we can steal is virtually endless.
Other examples of Asteya are borrowing and not returning or keeping for longer than agreed, misappropriation, misuse, breaching trust, taking advantage of another’s kindness, dishonouring agreements, needing to be the centre of attention, neglect and mismanagement.
Living simply in a sustainable way, not taking more than necessary, replenishing, reducing desires, knowing that happiness is an internal state are all ways of observing this precept.
e. Aparigraha – Not accepting bribes
This yama is guiding us to maintain our integrity despite opportunities for self gain presenting themselves. If we gain something by inauspicious means then the value of it is lost, because we have not made the necessary honourable karmic exchange to qualify for benefitting from it, and in fact it becomes a karmic debt to be repaid later. One example of this would be to manipulate a person by being very nice to them because we want something from them. We have an underlying personal agenda for gain. Being helpful toward an elderly relative in the hope that we will be included in their will is not service. In other words our behaviours should be determined by what we believe to be aligned to dharma, rather than what we think the gain may be. It is an unfortunate fact that in most material relationships we are engaged based on what we feel we can receive from the relationship.
All possessions in the material world should come from our own endeavour without sacrificing our morality and ethics, whilst renouncing greed and being content with only what we need to perform our dharma. Through this precept we are advised to remain without attachment or possessiveness and be happy to serve without thought of future rewards.
2. Niyamas – Observances
Niyamas are means of self purification and are recommended habits for a happy, healthy and successful life in pursuit of the goal of yoga. Observing the niyamas establishes us in Sattva guna (the mode of goodness) and creates the appropriate environment necessary to make lasting progress in yoga. Like with the yamas some self-discipline is necessary to fulfill these.
a. Saucha – Purity both Internal and External
Purity is a key element of living in a sattvic vibration supportive of yoga sadhana. Cleanliness of body, mind, emotions and surroundings all contribute to the success of practice. At an energetic level, once the nadis (subtle nervous system) are purified circulation of prana flows freely and we feel vital. Without purified nadis the prana cannot easily flow and be consciously directed toward the higher states of consciousness in meditation.
This process of purification is supported on all eight stages of this yoga system.
Yamas purify our relationships (the world around us).
Niyamas purify our attitude (practice space).
Asana purifies the body.
Pranayama purifies the nadis, mind and emotions.
Pratyahara purifies the senses.
Dharana concentrates the potency of the mind.
Then the yogi can enter Dhyana (deep meditation) and ultimately
Samadhi (cosmic consciousness) once mastery of all the stages is acheived.
In our immediate environment we can keep things tidy and in order.
We can keep our bodies clean and hygienic,
feed our bodies pure vegetarian foods;
fresh organic simple non-processed foods.
We can fast on occasion, perform internal cleanses and
yoga kriyas to purify the body of toxins from within.
All of these practices help bring us to consciousness.
To be fully present with what we are immediately engaged with.
A yogi’s space is always clean and ordered reflective of his or her mastery over their immediate environment. A yogi clears up as they go along and is always tidy. Mess is generally a consequence of unconsciousness under the influence of either raja or tama guna (qualities of passion or ignorance). Remembering that the yogi considers himself to be only a custodian of God’s property including his own body, he maintains everything with that in mind. The body is considered the temple of the spirit and the yogi makes the space fit for the Divinity within.
We train our minds to serve us rather than us serving them. Over time we are able to rid the mind of negative thinking, partly through consciously recognizing we have a choice whether to engage a negative thought process or not, and partly as an automatic result of following the other elements of ashtanga yoga.
What we expose our minds to has a direct effect upon the reality we perceive.
Everything we experience is recorded in the citta or sub-conscious and stays there subtley affecting us, so having developed discernment, we are able to consciously select what we expose ourselves to, based on whether we feel it conducive to progressing toward our goal or not. Purity of speech, being an expression of mind is also an important aspect of saucha.
b. Santosha – Contentment
In order to live a happy, peaceful life simplicity is key. When our desires are active and we are driven by ambition we are agitated and often unable to be present and fully appreciate what already Is. This does not mean we that do not have any aspiration to progress in life but that there is no feeling of lack in the present. There is an inherent sense that everything is as it needs to be.
In the modern world there are so many options in life, we see people doing amazing things and often compare ourselves to others and measure our lives worth based on our perception of how others are progressing. This comparison rarely inspires but most often leads to either discontent or pride, neither of which are helpful. Unchecked desires cause misery because not only do we invest our time and energy chasing them, but when we achieve them, if we achieve them, we are rarely satisfied for very long and soon a new desire takes over. In addition the more we have, the more we have to maintain, including status and responsibility. This is a hopeless cause because everything in the material plane of existence once created begins to decay. This is an inevitability, and maintenance is an on going endeavour.
Reducing desires and attachment to outcomes leads us closer to contentment, and consequently gives us more time to focus on what is really important. Carrying the misconception that externals can bring us lasting happiness only binds us to discontent and the rollercoaster of dual feelings such as happiness and sadness, pleasure and pain, profit and loss, greed and rejection, elation and grief, fame and shame and so on.
Alternately we can abide in the simple peace and happiness that comes from within, from knowing the Self. Simple living, high thinking.
c. Tapas – Austerity
The importance of self-discipline and bringing the senses under control cannot be underestimated. If we are lacking in self-discipline we will always gravitate toward our lower nature. In the yoga process we are reconditioning ourselves to become warriors, emissaries of peace on the path. It is vital to be able to not only discern what is beneficial for us in respect of our aspirations, but also to be able to effectively act upon this knowledge. Tapas is the fire of purification that burns up the impurities within us when we perform sadhana correctly. It is a sacrifice made for the greater good.
Tapas is the ability to happily go without something if it is not for our benefit and to choose to do something despite the challenges if it is for our, or another’s benefit. For example we know that certain foods and eating habits are not conducive of long term health, so with tapas we are able to bring our senses under control and choose not to eat such things. Another example would be maintaining our commitment to sadhana regardless of whether we feel like doing it, or avoiding the temptation to either think or speak negatively. Fasting is also a form of tapas, as is sadhana itself.
In the vedic texts there are innumerable stories referring to determined personalities who would perform extreme austerities in order to be given a spiritual blessing. Parvati Devi is a great example as she performed extreme austerities in the Himalayas to win Lord Shiva as her husband.
Accepting some temporary discomfort, pain or austerity in order to make spiritual progress and recognizing that we can turn any difficult situation to our spiritual advantage with the right attitude is tapas. Going without so that somebody else can benefit, philanthropic social work, charitable donations, and sacrificing comfort are all examples of tapas.
It is being able to make necessary sacrifices for a greater benefit to self or others.
d. Swadhyaya – Study of the Scriptures and Self-Inquiry
There two principle aspects of Swadhyaya:
Study of the scriptures and writings and teachings of the sages.
b. Self-study – introspective self analysis and aspiration for Self-Realisation.
Studying the scriptures and teachings of spiritual masters means accepting a higher bona-fide authority that not only helps us to develop humility but also gives us great insight into the minds of the sages who write to preserve their realisations for the benefit of others. This insight is very beneficial and can save us lifetimes of karma generated by not knowing what we are doing or where we are going. It warns us of the dangers along the path, and reveals the secret passages that save us from distractions and deliver us directly to the destination. Following the guru’s instructions also comes under this category. Another element of swadhyaya is that it is related to Jnana Yoga, where the sadhaka becomes very knowledgeable of scripture and yogic techniques and becomes a pandit or vedic scholar.
Self discovery through direct perception of the Self is the other principle of swadhyaya. Penetrating the mystery of the Self through consistent self-inquiry, and contemplating ‘Who am I?’ leads to Self-Realisation. This realisation completely transcends intellectual inquiry and establishes the sadhaka in direct knowledge.
In the Yoga Sutras of Maharishi Patanjali it is stated:
“Study thy self, discover the divine”
e. Ishwara Pranidhana – Worshipping the Lord
This is representative of the element of Bhakti within the Raja Yoga system. It is not only an acknowledgment of the Divine Presence in our lives but also an active investment in the eternal relationship our soul has with it’s Creator. Ishwara Pranidhana means to give pranams or prostrations to Ishwara (God), and helps us to bring an awareness of the sacred into our practise as we dedicate it as an offering to God. We are purifying the temple of our physical and subtle bodies through the practise of yoga, and purify the karma of our activities by making them devotional actions.
This process also helps us to shift our awareness away from ourselves and our personal concerns and directs the course of our lives towards the fulfilment of yoga. When we perform our sadhana or yoga practise it is actually an active prayerful state where we consciously unite with the Divine. When we attune in this way our practise will plunge into new depths of experience and fulfilment. When we treat it as a physical exercise alone then we get only the effects of physical exercise and can never reach the deeper levels of experience available to the yogi who is practising the full spectrum of yoga.
The process of yoga when performed correctly dissolves the false ego and reorientates the practitioner so that their life becomes God-centred rather than self-centred. In this case we can come to understand that there is a benevolent force inspiring and guiding our life toward it’s destination. We are not in control of outcomes, we sincerely do our best to apply ourselves and know that everything else is Divine will. Like an archer aiming the arrow, once let go it is no longer in our control. We learn to surrender the results of our actions and accept what is.
All devotional activities such as prayer, mantra, kirtan, temple seva, prostrating and offering food are all considered Ishwara Pranidhana. Further details of the sweet process of bhakti are on the Bhakti Yoga section.
3. Asana – Postures
For most practitioners of yoga in the western world asana is the primary concern in yoga practise. This is largely due to limited education but also because health and body image are major considerations for many. Traditionally health and strength are considered a secondary by-product of practise in pursuit of Divine Realisation. It is clear that when the body is weak and unwell it disturbs the equilibrium of our experience of life and makes it more difficult to perform sadhana. In such cases when the mind is distracted depth is rarely found.
Asana practise develops strength, agility, balance, endurance, vitality and gives a radiance that emanates from within. It balances the emotions and gives crystal clarity to the mind whilst training and disciplining it to serve the soul’s highest aspiration. It is one of the most potent factors of all round good health and wellbeing. We make the body strong so we are not distracted by disease and weakness.
The late Sri BKS Iyengar ji, one of the modern day father’s of yoga has said:
“Just as an unbaked earthen pot dissolves in water, the body soon decays.
So bake it hard in the fire of yogic discipline in order to strengthen and purify it.”
In this way we can understand that the body is not an impediment to spiritual life but the vehicle through which spiritual life can be perceived and experienced. A human birth is considered very auspicious and relatively rare, particularly when it’s life becomes directed toward the Divine. The body is not merely material and separate from God – it is part of the Divine creation and is to be looked after as God’s property and it’s actions dedicated toward Divine pursuit. Without the body we cannot experience the school of life, nor develop the sukrti (spiritual credit) necessary to make our existence successful. It is the school uniform and must be worn in the school of life otherwise we cannot progress and graduate.
Asanas also have names of vegetation, insects, aquatics, animals, sages and divine beings. This acknowledges the full spectrum of existence and that all life contains the Divine Spirit within. Asana should remind us of this. True asana is that in which the thought of Brahman (Universal Spirit) flows effortlessly and incessantly through the mind of the sadhaka.
We must remember that asana is simply a preparation for meditation, purifying the body so that it can become a pure conduit of Spirit essence, strong, focused and able to sit for long periods of time deeply absorbed in meditation. When practicing asana it is important to cultivate the correct attitude. It is not a competition, it is a lesson in humility as everybody finds their place of limitation within it, and hopefully works diligently and gracefully toward perfection. We should never be forceful in practice as this leads to injury and is only the ego covered by raja guna (the mode of passion). Equally if we are unfocused or lazy with regard to practice we are influenced by tama guna (mode of ignorance) and receive minimal benefit. We aspire to approach the practice in a sattvic (mode of goodness) mood whereby we find our place of limitation with an equanimous mind and work with gentle determination toward the goal in the same way as water wears away stone.
Asana teaches us to strengthen areas of weakness, shed light on places unlit and relax areas of contraction.
4. Pranayama – Mastery of the Breath
Pranayama is the science of the breath. It is the careful and conscious regulation of the respiratory system. The breath has a direct influence on our state of mind and emotions. When we are able to bring the breath under control the mind and emotions will also come under control. The same applies in the reverse polarity. If the mind is very busy or the emotions are unstable the breath becomes short and when the mind is still and emotions calm the breath is deep as with sleeping. Pranayama has a calming effect on the mind. We can clearly see this when we are anxious, fearful, angry or excited as we either hold the breath or start hyper ventilating.
By using the appropriate pranayama exercises we can alter our physical, mental and emotional state. Analoma viloma (alternate nostril breathing), has a calming and balancing effect whereas Kapalabhati has a more stimulating, energising effect. When there is irregular or shallow breathing it is an indication that there are imbalances in the flow of prana. This can be corrected through regulating respiration, thus removing obstructions in the energy pathways.
Mastery of breath brings great vitality and vibrancy whilst it focuses the mind, improves health, subdues desires, steadies volatile emotions and brings the senses under control. It also strengthens the nervous system and purifies the 72,000 nadis (energy circuits of the subtle nervous system). It is said that we have a fixed amount of breaths in our lives and that a lost breath cannot be recalled. If we breathe deep and remain calm (not creating karma and exhaustion by processes such as anger) we live long.
Shallow breath – shallow life – Deep breathe – deep life.
There are three principle elements to the practise of pranayama:
Puraka- filling up (with realisation)
Rechaka – emptying out (of delusion)
Kumbhaka – retaining (sustaining the minds focus)
It is essential that the body is strong and purified before any advanced pranayama otherwise it cannot handle the voltage generated by the circulation of prana and the nervous system can become damaged. In advanced pranayama the yogi is able to withdraw the prana from the nadis and direct it up the spine to achieve the higher states of meditation. On occasion the dormant kundalini (coiled serpent) energy located in Muladhara chakra at the base of the spine can become spontaneously active. If there are impurities in the system when this happens, as it begins to rise through the central energy core (sushumna nadi) toward the upper chakras, then it can create disturbance to physical and mental conditions. It is important to seek expert guidance when practicing pranayama.
5. Pratyahara – Withdrawal of the Senses
Pratyahara means ‘to retreat’. The word ahara means ‘to nourish’ thus pratyahara translates as ‘to withdraw oneself from that which nourishes the senses’. Despite being in possession of the knowledge that we are not our bodies but the eternal spirit soul within, still we principally identify with the body. This is due to the power of the senses. Consequently if we wish to drop deeper within we have to bring the senses under control otherwise every sensation will again bring us to the surface and any hope of finding depth is lost. One way to purify the senses is through bhakti. We can spiritualise our senses, through processes like offering our food. When we offer food we have to exercise self-discipline and waiting for prayers and offerings to become complete before we taste. By saying prayers it changes our state from potential rajasic and desirous to sattvic (the mode of goodness and purity) and we become less identified with the senses, as instead of focusing on the objects of desire we focus on the creator of the objects.
Generally with an undisciplined mind, we like to chase only what is pleasant regardless of whether it is actually good for us. For instance not all incense is supposed to smell nice, it has a function and is not only for the pleasure of our senses. Another example is that children always want sweet things but too much is clearly not good for them. For the yogi who is cultivating self-discipline, what begins as bitter ends sweet and what begins sweet ends bitter.
Without consciousness we are motivated by our senses and we are inclined to seek sensory gratification, even if we know the consequences do not support our long-term aspirations. By practising Pratyahara we can develop awareness and gradually non-attachment to the senses, and therefore become absorbed in the inner reality. If senses are not in control nor is the mind.
Another aspect of pratyahara is when we are able to consciously withdraw the mind from disturbing influences, such as negative thought processes, external circumstances that are out of our control, obsessions etc. This is called ‘mano pratyahara’. Of course one of the most fundamental techniques of pratyahara is to simply avoid those things that cause sensory overload. At an advanced level of practise, the currents which pulsate through the nerves and even the involuntary muscles are able to be turned off by the practitioner.
By withdrawing from the senses, the mind is prepared for real Dharana.
6. Dharana – Holding concentration
To some degree concentration has already been developed through asana, pranayama and pratyahara. Asana purifies body, pranayama purifies the mind, and pratyahara purifies the senses, and dharana fine tunes the concentrative faculty so that we are in a position to be fully concentrated.
For most people taming the mind is a mammoth task and an endeavour that requires our constant vigilance, particularly in relation to it’s devious wandering nature, where it roams off through the tiniest gap in our concentration and justifies it’s actions by redefining the purpose of sitting. It claims it’s activities are valuable, helpful in organising loose ends in the mind, giving commentary and insight into situations, surveying and analysing the past and speculating over the future. This is all very well but it is not the object of meditation. When this happens we have to simply bring the mind back into focusing upon what we want it too. We cannot allow it any leash, it has to be tied directly to the object of meditation.
For this reason some people find focusing on a mantra, the breath, an image of a deity or a place in the body to be helpful in giving the mind something tangible to do. In order to master the mind we have to understand it and how it functions.
This subject is covered in the section related to the subtle bodies.
For us to enter into the deeper states of meditation the mind must be completely concentrated on the object of meditation. This is called Ekagrata. – Intense concentration on a singular point. Without this we cannot master anything.
Without concentration in Divinity we cannot discover the divine within ourselves. Mind has the capacity to either enslave or liberate and only through deep concentrative focus can the mind become absorbed in meditation.
7. Dhyana – Meditation
It is said that like water the mind takes the form of it’s container and that the person whose mind is absorbed in the Divine with devotion begins to resemble that Divinity. In this state the yogi feels supreme bliss.
This is a very important point – we become what we focus on.
The mind is our creative faculty, we are given free will to use our mind as we will. When our mind has been trained we can instruct it to do as we wish, therefore we can become what we want to become if our mind is disciplined. If it is undisciplined then we are forced to accept our lot, where the mind roams freely we are forced to accompany it and are consequently adversely affected by it and the karma generated by it’s activities. We become distracted and lost along the way, like a ship lost at sea being blown around by the winds of karma having lost control of the rudder. This is called unconsciousness.
Once we have taken control of our minds then we are in a position to approach experiencing the higher states of meditation. When the mind is able to concentrate, focusing on a singular point for a prolonged period of time it becomes like a laser beam penetrating the veils of maya until there no more remaining layers covering the Truth of Reality. Yogis from different traditions may focus on different aspects of the Divine, dependant on the goal.
The Divine Consciousness has three aspects and is known as Sat-Chit-Ananda:
Brahman – Sat (from Satya – Truth)
Paramatma – Chit (existence)
Bhagavan – Ananda (bliss)
The Raja/Jnana yogis will principally focus on Brahman,
the undifferentiated Consciousnss underpinning everything,
at the core of who we are, with the intention of becoming one and merging with It.
The karma yogi is likely to focus upon the Paramatma,
which is localised within everyone, serving that One within One and all.
The Bhakti yogi will focus on Bhagavan,
the Supreme Personality of Godhead,
with the intention to serve that One as an eternal intimate servitor.
Using the breath, an internal point of focus or a mantra, the yogi begins to dig deep into
their consciousness at a very specific, narrowed down point, intent on unearthing the
treasure buried within.
A short essay analysing the differences between the goal of the bhakta and Jnani is included at the end of this section.
8. Samadhi – Universal Consciousness
At the height of meditation the yogi becomes completely absorbed and unified with Universal Spirit in deep samadhic trance. It is a state of super consciousness bought about by profound meditation, in which the individual becomes one with the object of their meditation. There are different types of Samadhi both in levels of depth and according to approach i.e. whether experienced by a raja, jnani or bhakti.
A fuller description is available below in excerpts from an article by Swami Sivananda
Characteristics of Samadhi
When the mind is completely absorbed in one object of meditation, it is termed Samadhi. The mind identifies itself with the object of meditation. In Samadhi, there is neither Dhyana nor Dhyata (neither meditation nor meditator). The meditator and meditated, the thinker and the thought, the worshipper and the worshipped become one or identical. The Triputi (triad) vanishes. The mind loses its own consciousness and becomes identical with the object of meditation. The meditator has dissolved his personality in the sea of God, drowned and forgotten there till he becomes simply the instrument of God. When his mouth opens, it speaks God’s words without effort or forethought through direct intuition and, when he raises his hand, God flows again through that to work a miracle.
In Samadhi, there is neither seeing nor hearing. There is neither physical nor mental consciousness. There is only spiritual consciousness. The Jivatman (personality) goes away. There remains Existence alone. Turiya is the spiritual condition where there is no play of mind, where the mind is dissolved in Brahman. It is not a condition of inertia, forgetfulness or annihilation. It is a state of absolute consciousness which baffles all attempts at description.
It is Mukti. It is Moksha.
The Different Types of Samadhi
A Raja Yogi gets Nirodha-Samadhi through Chitta-Vritti-Nirodha (by restraining the mental modifications). A Bhakta gets Bhava-Samadhi through Prema of the Lord. A Vedanti (jnani) gets Bheda-Samadhi through Mithyatva-Buddhi and concentration on the idea of the Asti-Bhati-Priya (the Anvaya method).
Samadhi through Hatha Yoga
A Hatha Yogi draws all his Prana from the different parts of his body and takes it to the Sahasrara Chakra (thousand-petalled lotus) at the top of the head. Then he enters into Samadhi (superconscious state). Therefore it is very difficult to bring him down to objective consciousness by merely shaking his body. Hatha Yogis have remained buried underneath the earth in Samadhi for years together. They plug the posterior nostrils through Khechari Mudra (a king of Hatha Yogic Kriya) with their long tongues.
Prana and Apana that move in the chest and anus respectively are united by the Yogic processes of Jalandhara, Mula and Uddiyana Bandhas and the united Prana-Apana is driven into the Sushumna Nadi of the spinal canal. The Pranas, when thus driven, draw up the mind also along the Sushumna Nadi which is otherwise known as Brahma Nadi. When the mind is in the Sushumna, the Yogi is shut out from the objective, physical consciousness of the world. He is practically dead to the world, sees various visions and moves in the mental, ethereal space (Chidakasa). Samadhi starts.
Samadhi through Raja Yoga
Deep meditation leads to Samadhi or oneness with God. The mind is filled with Atman or God. Mind loses its own consciousness and becomes identified with the object of meditation. Just as a toy made of salt melts in water, even so, the mind melts in Brahman in Nirvikalpa Samadhi. A sudden stroke of mystic illumination puts an end to all the empirical existence altogether and the very idea or remembrance of such a thing as this world or the narrow individuality of the spirit in this world absolutely leaves the Self.
In trained Yogis, you cannot say where Pratyahara (abstraction) ends and Dharana (concentration) begins; where Dharana ends and Dhyana (meditation) begins; where Dhyana ends and Samadhi (superconscious state) begins. The moment they sit on the Asana, all the processes occur simultaneously with electric or lightning speed and they enter Samadhi at their conscious will. In the neophytes, Pratyahara first takes place. Then Dharana begins. Then Dhyana slowly commences. Before Samadhi manifests, their minds, getting impatient and tired, drop down. Constant and intense Sadhana, with light but nutritious food, will bring about sanguine success in getting Samadhi.
Yogic Samadhi and Vedantic Samadhi
There is a difference between the Nirvikalpa state of a Yogi and the Nirvikalpa state of a Vedantin. The former concerns the mind. The latter concerns the pure Atman or Brahman only. In Yogic Samadhi, Dhyeya remains. Dhyeya means the object of meditation. In Vedantic Samadhi, Kevala Asti (Existence alone) remains.
Savikalpa Samadhi & Nirvikalpa Samadhi
The ground floor represents the life of passion in the sense-universe. The first storey corresponds to Savikalpa Samadhi. The second storey is tantamount to Nirvikalpa Samadhi. The third storey represents the Sahajavastha or a Jivanmukta. The moving of a bullock cart can be compared to Savikalpa Samadhi. It stops. This is Nirvikalpa Samadhi. The bulls are detached. This is Sahajavastha. When the Yogi has reached the last perfect stage of meditation and Samadhi, the fire whereof burns surely all the residue of his actions, he at once gets Liberation (Jivanmukti) in this very life.
In Savikalpa Samadhi, there is Triputi or the triad- Dhyata (the meditator), Dhyana (meditation) and Dhyeya (object of meditation). In Nirvikalpa Samadhi, this Triputi vanishes (Triputirahita). Nirvikalpa means “free from all sorts of modifications and imaginations.” The mind completely melts in Brahman. The happiness or bliss that you get in Savikalpa Samadhi is termed Rasasvada. This is also an obstacle (Pratibandha or Vighna) for further spiritual progress. It makes you stop here. It cannot liberate you. You must further march onwards to attain the highest Nirvikalpa state wherein lies your whole freedom.
Advantages of Bhakti Yoga Sadhana
The practices of Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga are not suited to the majority of men in this age, while they have always an irresistible charm for such practices because of their apparent concreteness and promise of speedy rewards. A vast majority of persons have no good physique and robust constitution. Any man can repeat the Name of God. Anyone can sing His praise. Even so, without Ananya Bhakti (one-pointed or single-minded devotion), you cannot have Jnana. When Bhakti is fully ripe, Brahma-Jnana dawns of itself, without much effort on the part of the Sadhaka.
Any Mantra is very powerful. It purifies the mind. It induces Vairagya. Every Mantra has a Rishi who gave it; a Devata as its informing power; the Bija or seed, a significant word which gives it a special power; a Sakti or energy of the form of the Mantra. By constant and prolonged repetition of the Mantra with Bhava (feeling or right mental attitude) and concentration, the Mantra-Chaitanya is awakened. Then the Sadhaka gets Mantra-Siddhi. There is a spiritual current in all Mantras. A Mantra takes the devotee’s soul first to one centre and then to another and so on, till access is gained to the goal or final region. Dhruva had Darshana of Lord Hari by repeating the Dvadasakshara (consisting of twelve letters) Mantra ‘Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya’ given by Rishi Narada.
The Goal of Yoga – A comparison between the goal of Raja/Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga from the Gaudiya Vaishnava’s perspective – and
as concluded by Sri Krishna in Srimad Bhagavad Gita.
The goal of Yoga is to not only become established in sattva (so as to avoid unnecessary karma or reward seeking activity and its resultant consequences), but also to rise above the gunas or material modes of nature altogether. In so doing the jiva’s tendency toward and fascination with sense gratification in tama and raja guna respectively begins to diminish until eventually it is reduced to no thing at all. Eventually the jivatma departs company with the material energy altogether and becomes established in sudha sattva or pure goodness, which is not a modification of any type of material energy which perpetuates samsara, but a completely transcendental state where the ekadanta (singular focus) is the realisation of prema bhakti or exclusive loving devotional service toward the Supreme that completely inundates the heart.
In addition, with the combination of the seed of bhakti being planted in the heart of the sadhaka during the mantra initiation of a genuine, qualified guru who is carrying the transmission of hladini Shakti (pleasure giving potency) in an unbroken lineage of bhaktas, and through the practise of lila smarana (remembrance of Radha and Krishna’s pastimes in meditation), performing manasa seva (service performed within the mind to Them during meditation), and ones gradual detachment from the material energy or mahamaya, ones siddha deha (eternal spiritual form and identity) arises. This, our siddha svarupa (own perfected spiritual form), exists in the spiritual world and matures only by being watered by the tears of prema. When this seed of bhakti has sprouted in our hearts it begins to grow and is nurtured and protected by the care of the well wishers of right association. As the bhakti lata bija or the sprouting creeper of bhakti matures and flowers the scent of that flowering prema emits a fragrance so maddening that Sri Krsna Himself involuntarily loses His strength and becomes subjugated, and like an intoxicated black bee, He cannot control His desire to relish the nectar pollen pouring from the devotee’s heart. In such cases the heart becomes non-different from Sri Vrindavan where Sri Krsna is eternally resident.
There are many references to this in sastra, and nobody brings Krsna under control like Srimati Radharani who is topmost in all the transcendental arts of love, and is Sri Krsna’s original internal potency manifest outwardly as Adi Shakti, the original Shakti from which all other shakti’s emerge. She is Varajottama, the Supreme Goddess of Fortune. Sri Radha is also known as Jai Sri, because in Their intimate pastimes where They are locked in cupid’s love battle She is victorious over Krsna.
So to conclude, the jiva reaches the zenith of material existence when in some universe or another,where Sri Krsna is performing His astonishing Lila, she (the jiva) takes birth in Vrindavan and as a gopi and enters or serves the Rasa dance. From here there are also unlimited gradients and expressions of prema, however this leads into such profoundly mystical territory that it is rarely spoken of, certainly not outside of the secret kunja’s (forest gardens) of Vrindavan.
From the bhakta’s perspective attaining moksha or ‘enlightenment’ is an insignificant endeavour. Rather the idea of ‘merging into the One’ is considered undesirable in compare to lovingly serving that One with a heart overflowing with prema. In such a state both enduring the suffering in separation from the Beloved, and the exquisite nectar of union with the Beloved are forms of sublime spiritual ecstasy, and the eternal movement between these two polarities of the One keep this Love ever fresh and ever new and, even though this Love is unlimited by nature and there is no room for expansion, still it expands exponentially ad infinitum.
Nirguna brahman realisation (direct experience of pure consciousness void of qualities and attributes) or in other words impersonal liberation as is aspired toward in advaita vedanta, is where, after all the souls tireless endeavour throughout countless lifetimes, one has, due to the flaw of selfishness, or absorption with one’s own bliss, rather than rendering heart felt seva for the sole bliss of the Supreme, the severe misfortune of merging into the Brahma Jyotir (realm of light) which is simply the bridge between the highest material worlds or heavenly realms and the transcendental worlds. From the bhakta’s perspective this is a great tragedy and a virtual spiritual suicide because the individual nature is given up and there is no return from this state because it is inherently shanti, and there is no longer any individual will, identity, nor desire to progress because with the inherent shanti nature of brahma jyotir the jiva is then trapped forever in contentment, oblivious to any higher taste, and without having even scratched the surface of the spiritual world.