introduction jnani raja hatha tantric kundalini laya mantra karma bhakti sufism vajrayana zen taoist

Raja Yoga

The term Raja Yoga means Royal Yoga. Alain Danielou takes this as implying that Raja Yoga is "the highest form of Yoga, all other forms being preparatory." It is the Yoga of meditation practice.

The term is used to mean the Yoga as outlined in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, though Patanjali himself does not use it. It is also known as Astanga Yoga - not to be confused with Astanga Vinyasa Yoga which is the trade-name of Pathabi Jois' popular Yoga. "Astanga" means "eight limbs" and refers to the eight stages that Patanjali identifies in the Yoga quest.

. The eight stages are as follows:

  1. Yama - Universal ethical principles. These are ahimsa - non-violence, satya - truth, asteya - non-stealing, brahmacharya - purity, aparagriha - non-attachment.

  2. Niyama - Individual ethical principles. These are saucha - cleanliness, santosha - contentment, tapas - discipline, isvarapranidhana - surrender. The above two simplify one's life so that intense meditation has no hinderances.

  3. Asana - Posture. For Patanjali this means having a comfortable seated posture to enable deep meditation. This principle has been greatly elaborated within Hatha Yoga into the exercise system we are familiar with. The Hatha Yoga postures help one maintain sitting meditation with comfort. Also, meditative awareness can (and should) be practised in all Hatha Yoga postures.

  4. Pranayama - Energy discipline. On this interpretation of The Yoga Sutras this means allowing the breath to be natural in sitting meditation. If the breath is natural, then the bodies energy flows properly and sitting is pleasurable and meditation also feels natural. Natural breathing whilst at rest is without friction: it is deep and slow and subtle. It may even spontaneously stop. The breathing is with the belly and the belly is relaxed. Hatha Yoga, by contrast, has definite (unnatural!) breathing disciplines which impose rhythm and structure on the breathing pattern and which are also known as pranayama. This latter type of pranayama is useful for correcting the body's energy and giving steadiness in meditation and good general health.

  5. Pratyahara - Sense withdrawal. This means ignoring the outside world and looking, hearing, feeling inwards.

  6. Dharana - Concentration. The mind stays with one object. If the mind wanders off, it is gently brought back to the object. The object can be the breath, the person's feeling of aliveness, a visualisation, the sensation in a part of the body, and very many other things.

  7. Dhyana - Contemplation. The above process of dharana becomes effortless. The mind wanders very little and there is no feeling of having to try. One simply remains aware of the breath, for instance.

  8. Samadhi - Absorption. This is an ecstatic condition in which the subject (the entity which is conscious of the object) has melted into the object of the meditation. There are several types of samadhi. The "final" samadhi is irreversible. The above three stages are known as samyama and they form a kind of continuum. As one sinks deeper into meditation, the subject-object distinction becomes more and more fuzzy until it disappears.

There are quite a few free translations of The Yoga Sutra on the Internet which can be downloaded. Have a look on the links page of our site - They vary quite a lot and there are many different interpretations of the aphorisms. What I have given you above is the result of my own study and experience.

As will be plain from the above summary, there is hardly any detail of Hatha Yoga in the Yoga Sutra. The term "Hatha" does not occur, and indeed, the Hatha texts are much later. Asana is mentioned but only in the context of a need for a comfortable position for sitting meditation. Pranayama is mentioned as one of the eight stages. There is a mention of using khumbaka as a meditative focus. There is no mention of the Kundalini. Neither are the chakras mentioned by name, though some of their locations are used as objects of particular meditations which are thought to give rise to various siddhis or psychic powers. There is a brief mention of Bhakti Yoga as a possible means of attaining liberation. Similarly, Mantra Yoga is mentioned almost in passing. The only mantra specifically mentioned is OM.

One of the key Raja Yoga concepts is that of samskaras. These are mental impression laid down in the past which give rise to actions, thoughts and experiences which are usually out of our conscious control. (The past may refer to this life or to past lives.) We may regard them as the kind of unconscious formations which compel us to go round in circles of compulsive feeling/thought/behaviour. Patanjali recommends the art of meditation as being the means of curing us of this tyranny of time and its attendant suffering. A sufficiently profound samadhi is a fire which burns up these tendencies. It seems to me that there must be a relationship between vritti chittam and samskras. Vritti chittam are the actual compulsive circlings of thought which result from samskras. They are the disquiet we find within ourselves when we cannot meditate. Yoga is defined right at the outset of the Yoga Sutra by Patanjali as the cessation of these circlings or vortexes, that is, as a state of discursive quietude but which yet contains very great energy and amplitude of life and in which "the seer rests with himself."

The Yoga Sutra is highly cryptic and condensed and consequently wide open to interpretation. The tendency, however, as been to follow Vyasa and interpret it through the lens of Samkhya philosophy, which also structures much Hatha, Tantra and Kundalini theorising.

I am convinced this is a mistake, moreover one which gives rise to an ascetic take on Yoga in general. I find Deshpande's existential interpretation more useful and more radical - though not without its problems. Also of interest is Mishra's interpretation in the light of psychoanalysis.


Georg Feuerstein's translation of The Yoga Sutra.

Yogiraj Lahiri Mahasaya's translation of The Yoga Sutra

Alain Danielou's web site (English version)

introduction jnani raja hatha tantric kundalini laya mantra karma bhakti sufism vajrayana zen taoist