Raja Yoga or Ashtanga Yoga is one of the main four paths of yoga. The others are Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Karma Yoga. Ashtanga means eight limbs and refers to the eight steps of Raja Yoga or rungs in a ladder. It is also described as a royal path as it can take us progressively to samadhi. Many people want to learn to meditate and hope to be able to do it by simply following a few instructions. I don’t want to discourage anyone from practising meditation but I want to point out the wisdom and psychological insight of Raja Yoga that places meditation in the 7th rung, after other preliminary practices. Without a certain amount of preparation meditation is very difficult, if not impossible. Stilling the body and quieting the mind is no easy task. Our physical, nervous, emotional and mental systems need to attain a certain amount of calmness while at the same time our resolve and motivation need to become pure and strong. So what are those steps?
STEPS 1 and 2 – YAMAS and NIYAMAS or rules of good conduct. These restraints and observances should not be taken as commands or injunctions, but rather as a description of how a realized being acts and relates to the world. They are guidelines for us to follow to live a more ethical life but also to help us clean our energy system of toxins caused by inappropriate diets and negative mind states. The first one, and perhaps the most important, is ahimsa or non-harming in action, speech and mind. The others are: truthfulness, non-stealing, proper sexual conduct, non-covetousness, purity, contentment, austerities, study of sacred texts and devotion to the divine. The practice of these observances can be understood at many levels and I suggest reading more on this subject in Swami Sivananda’s “Science of Yoga”, volume 9 on Raja Yoga.
STEP 3 – ASANA or posture. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika explains how to perform many asanas but it also clarifies that the purpose of these practices is to prepare us for meditation. Hatha Yoya, a part of Raja Yoga, aims to unblock obstructions in our energetic body where the prana, the life force, circulates through 72,000 nadis or psychic channels and chakras. These asanas held in a steady and relaxed manner eventually strengthen the body and regulate our energy establishing a balance between effort and relaxation.
STEP 4 – PRANAYAMA, the science of prana which we absorb mainly through our breath. These breathing exercises are also part of Hatha Yoga and they help clean, balance and strengthen our energy body. Ha-Tha means Sun-Moon, the heating and cooling energies, the two poles which we try to balance by breathing alternatively through our nostrils, by doing specific heating or cooling exercises and by trying to bring them together, uniting Shiva and Shakti and achieving the goal of both Hatha and Raja Yoga, the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.
STEP 5 – PRATYAHARA or withdrawal of the senses. The nature of the senses is to have continuous connection with objects, thus engaging the mind with the outside world. But when they are withdrawn the mind does not assume the form of the objects, the senses are restrained and thus the mind quiets down. To achieve this total restraint of the senses we need, ideally, to be in a retreat setting – a nice project perhaps for our next holiday – but even as we are immersed in our everyday like we can still pay attention to our level of distractions and become more selective about our companions, hobbies or entertainment activities. It’s all part of creating a lifestyle conducive to yoga.
STEP 6 – DHARANA or concentration. It can be external as a picture, a point, a light, or internal as a part of the body, chakra, breath, mantra or abstract idea. When there is no concentration our energy dissipates and we identify with the movements of the mind. By gently bringing our focus back to the object of concentration our thought-waves diminish and our mind becomes one-pointed to the extent of fusing with the object of concentration.
STEP 7 – DHYANA or meditation. Ideally, if we are ready, we should be able to meditate like watching the continuous flow of water in a river without interruption. Meditation happens when we can sustain our concentration for a long period of time. Meditation is doubtless very difficult to perform and the practice, besides needing preparation, must be gradual and regular to avoid becoming discouraged.
STEP 8 – SAMADHI. Meditation becomes samadhi when the thinker and the thought, the meditator and the meditated become one. There are many levels of samadhi, depending on how many subtle impressions or seeds remain in the mind. Many masters describe this state as an experience of being no-one, no-where, in no-time. Here there are no steps, no-one to climb them and no heaven to attain. At this point a Zen master might burst into laughter and say: ” All along I have been digging for water by the bank of a river!” and then jump in the water to flow with the current.
To practice this wonderful gradual and systematic path we do not have to reach perfection at each level before moving on to the next. If we did that we would perhaps never graduate past the first step. Instead we can work at each level to the best of our capacity but know the wisdom of this progressive system where a certain level of mastery is needed to move on to the next. And until we reach the last step and we are ready to jump in the water let’s keep digging or, as the song says, climbing the stairway so that we may all reach heaven together.