From Sanskrit, rāja (राज) can be translated as "king" or "best of its kind." As a student and teacher of this style of yoga, I certainly agree! And as a yogi who enjoys many different paths of yoga, one of my favorite things about the Raja style is it's holistic nature. It weaves together philosophy with breath awareness, movement and meditation. There is truly something for everyone here of all ages, skill levels, temperaments and body types. —
Learn the history of Raja yoga, its eight "limbs" and what you could expect from this type of yoga class when you decide to give it a try!
History of Raja Yoga
However, not until the 19th century did an Indian Hindu monk named Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) begin to share the wisdom of this style of yoga as it's own path. Vivekananda was a student of the mystic, Ramakrishna, and is known for spreading the teachings of Hinduism, Vedanta and yoga to the West, while actively participating in the revival of Hinduism in his home country.
The 8 Limbs of Classical Raja Yoga
In The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali outlines the holistic eight-fold path of Raja yoga as a means to personal transformation and self-realization. These steps include more inward lifestyle practices and ways of being, as well as more physical practices such as postures (asana) and breathing techniques (pranayama), and techniques for concentration and meditation, leading us to the ultimate bliss state of samadhi.
Historically, many found this idea of a holistic system revolutionary as it broke from a more black-and-white dualistic tradition of the aim to transcend the "dirty" physical body in order to reach higher states of purity and consciousness. In today's reality, that is what makes Raja yoga such a great practice for the modern yogi because we can actually integrate the wisdom of these practices into our daily lives on and off the mat.
The following are The Eight Limbs of Yoga:
- Yama (outer moral practices): ahimsa (non-harming), satya(truth), asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (preservation of vital energy) and aparigraha (non-greed)
- Niyama (inner moral observances): saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (heat or austerity), svadhyaya (self-study or study of great texts) and Ishvara pranidhana (surrender to Spirit/God/Goddess/Higher Power)
- Asana: physical postures
- Pranayama: control of vital energy through conscious breathing
- Pratyahara: turning the senses inward
- Dharana: one-pointed concentration
- Dhyana: meditation
- Samadhi: bliss, oneness, union with the Divine
Here you can see the beautifully holistic nature of this system that addresses all koshas, all aspects of the human being. The five yamas are lifestyle practices that are meant to support harmonious and right relationship between ourselves and other beings in the world. The five niyamas are more geared toward the refinement of our personality and how we treat ourselves inside.
Because yoga is not about achieving perfection, but about showing up and doing our best, and being in acceptance of what is in the moment, the yama and niyama "rules" are not hard and fast. Find your own way to walk a path of non-violence in your life. Live your own truth. Realize what brings you joy and contentment and follow that. These practices show us that yoga empowers us to grow and be our best selves not only in the external world but also in our inner experience.
The third and fourth limbs, asana and pranayama, represent more of the physical aspects of the Raja yoga practice. The function of these limbs is to create harmony, flow and health in the physical and energetic bodies, working in conjunction with the yamas and niyamas to prepare us for the tranquil meditative state that can be reached through the final four limbs.
Pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi break down the process of arriving in meditation and bliss. First, through pratyahara, we must bring our awareness within and let go of attachment to the distractions of the senses, instead using the senses to really feel into what is present for us in the inner experience. Dharana is the act of concentration with one-mindedness, streaming all of your awareness toward a single point of focus. This leads you into dhyana, which I like to think of as being "in the flow" -- no past, no future, no attachment to thoughts or sensations, just simply being with your experience as it is.
And in this place of pure beingness, we might just touch into samadhi: bliss. It is here that we can experience the knowing of our own divine nature and find true peace.
(Further insights about these eight limbs in Not All Asana: The Eight Limbs of Yoga and What They Mean for Your Practice.)
What to Expect From a Raja Yoga Class
There is something that everyone will enjoy within a Raja yoga class -- from the more heady philosophy yoga nerds to those that want a more physically-focused experience.
Class will most likely begin by dropping in with seated meditation, pranayama and chanting. The instructor may even offer some dharma talk on the yamas, niyamas or another aspect of yoga philosophy in the opening of the practice to deepen the experience.
The physical practice will begin with a warmup and then go into more focused sequencing, spending time to break down and workshop the foundational seated and standing postures of that day's practice. Class will finish with a restful cooling floor sequence, ending with a beautiful spacious savasana and perhaps time for seated meditation and reflection afterwards.
The Best Part of the 'Best'
The practice of Raja yoga is wonderful for advanced yogis and beginners alike as it offers deep and multifaceted wisdom for anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of classical holistic yoga.
Finally, through Raja yoga, we have the opportunity to know and transform ourselves from the inside out. Through these cumulative practices of self-realization, we can bring that energy of peace to our communities and our world.