Raja Yoga is the royal branch of yoga. It is rooted in meditation, but encompasses all forms of yoga. Also known as Ashtanga Yoga, or the eight limbs of yoga, Raja yoga is a comprehensive practice with an aim of transcending the thoughts of the mind. Raja Yoga is the practice resulting in the “cessation of the fluctuations of the mind,” as laid out in Yoga Sutra I.2. To achieve this state, the eight limbs of yoga are undertaken, as follows.
- Yamas: Five moral restraints that involve our interactions with others: non-violence, truthfulness, moderation, non-stealing, non-covetousness.
- Niyamas: Five ethical observances that involve our personal practices: purity, contentment, austerity, study of sacred texts, and awareness of our divine nature.
- Asanas: Physical postures.
- Pranayama: Breath control.
- Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses in order to still the mind.
- Dharana: Concentration.
- Dhyana: Meditation.
- Samadhi: The highest state of consciousness.
Raja yoga is the royal path—the king of yoga. You can practice Raja Yoga to quiet your own mental chatter and calm the mind, ease the body, and inspire the spirit. On your yoga mat, you practice asana and pranayama quite obviously. But you also practice pratyahara when you fix your gaze on one point during practice. In this way, you rely less on looking around or at yourself as you do actually feeling what is happening during the practice. On and off the mat, you likely already engage in various yamas and niyamas.
The first five limbs require action on the part of the practitioner. The last three limbs simply arise as a result of the work put into the first five limbs. Like the branches of a tree, the eight limbs of yoga develop at the same time, but often at a different pace. Take a note of what limbs you currently practice and how your awareness has changed as a result. This is Raja Yoga.