Raja Yoga translates from Sanskrit to mean Royal Yoga. It is the eight-limbed path outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as well as a tradition of Samkyha philosophy. Sage Kapila was considered the founder of the samkyha tradition and it is from his teachings from which Raja yoga was passed to modern yogis. Almost all modern yoga practiced has some kind of relationship to Raja yoga or Hatha yoga, and yogis of the time did not call it Raja yoga, but aptly just ‘yoga.’ The term Raja yoga was first introduced in the the Hatha Yoga Pradipkia near the 15th century to describe a yoga philosophy that differs form the teachings of Yogi Swatmarama. At its core, Raja yoga is the cultivation of meditation or Dhyana, practiced by yogis once called the Brahma Kumaris.
Raja yoga is often referred to as the eight-limbed path or Ashtanga yoga (meaning the same in Sanskrit). It is also sometimes called kriya yoga, as Patanjali refers to it by this name in the Sutras. The foundational teaching, and one of the very first lines of the Yoga Sutras is yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ, translated: "Yoga limits the oscillations of the mind". This is the primary concern of the tradition. It is thought that by practicing the eight limbs in a methodical and disciplined manner, that one can remove the wanderings of the mind long enough to concentrate on Brahman, or the Universal Oneness of which we are all a part. This state of consciousness is called Samadhi or Nirvana.
The eight limbs utilized to arrive at samadhi are:
• Yama – a code of conduct found almost exclusively alongside Niyama as a code of social conduct. These are something to not-observe or abstain from. The yamas include: Ahimsa, or nonviolence; Satya, or truthfulness; Asteya, or non-stealing also non-covetousness; Bramacharya, or moderation; and Aparigraha, or non-attachment, also non-posessiveness;
• Niyama – a code of conduct found always with Yama, which is an observance to obey or be mindful of. Swami Vivekananda describes these as the second step to achieving Nirvana. These are: Santosha, or contentment, being happy with what you already have; Hri, or feeling remorse for mistakes or misdeeds; Dana, or giving without thought of recognition or reward; Astikya, or faith in one’s guru as the teacher showing the way to enlightenment; Ishvarapujana, or worshiping the divine, and a return to the source through daily meditation; Siddhanta shravana, or studying the teachings of the wise; Mati, or cognition, and developing a spiritual intellect; Vrata, or vows; Japa, or mantra meditation and repetition, and finally : Tapas, or the ability to endure opposites such as hunger and thirst heat and cold, dark and light.
• Asana – an integration of the mind-body complex into one via physical activity.
• Pranayama – the regulation, direction and control of the breath or life force, often called Prana or Chi. This also leads to the integration of the mind-body complex.
• Pratyahara – the withdrawal or abstraction of the five senses from the objects of their perception. This allows the attention to draw inward and away from the ‘things’ of the manifest world.
• Dharana – concentration, and one-pointedness.
• Dhyana – meditation that eventually leads to the last step, which is. . .
• Samadhi – blissful awareness when the yogi joins his Atman with Paramatman.
The Bhagavad Gita outlines the same goal as Raja yoga for the practitioner: “Those who aspire to the state of yoga should seek the Self in inner solitude through meditation. With body and mind controlled they should constantly practice one-pointedness, free from expectations and attachment to material possessions.”
When Patanjali talks about the oscillations of the mind in the first few lines of the Yoga Sutras, he is referring to the state of non-love. Anything that exists outside of love creates duality. Sri Yukteswar, the guru of Paramahansa Yogananda said, “The Virture of Love, the Heart’s natural love, is the principal requisite to attain a holy life. When this love, the heavenly gift of Nature, appears in the heart, it removes all causes of excitation from the system and cools it down to a perfectly normal state; and, invigorating the vital powers, expels all foreign matters- the germs of diseases-by natural ways (perspiration and so forth). It thereby makes man perfectly healthy in body and mind, and enables him to understand properly the guidance of Nature. " The eight-limbed path is just a list of tools to help us attain a ‘holy life.’ Raja yoga, often called the Royal Yoga, has the same aim.
In fact, the Sutras themselves are often called ‘terse’ verse. They are aphoristic by nature and only reveal their deep, abiding significance through profound study or the help of a learned guru. Sutra means ‘thread’ in Sanskrit, and the teachings of Raja yoga are simply threads weaving together a greater wisdom than is immediately apparent upon reading them or practicing the first few stages of yoga.
When one endeavors to practice even the yamas and niyamas, it causes the practitioner to become aware of his actions at a very deep level. It brings all the processes by which the ego fools the mind into thinking it is apart from the world, to the surface. Later, when one begins (as in the traditional practice of Raja yoga, yama and niyama preceed asana practice) asana, the movements start as simply physical postures seeming much like gymnastics. It is only with enduring practice that we begin to see feel the asana working on deeper levels to free the samskaras in the body and mind. This is true of each of the proceeding layers of Raja yoga, until finally, we can begin to practice meditation. At first, it seems like a torturous sitting. We can hardly sit for a minute, let alone many more, but eventually the thread of our practice weaves the consciousness into higher and higher states. We realize that the subtle teachings of the Sutras and the yogic masters who put forth these tools have a weighty effect on our energy, and our mental state. One day this increased energetic state leads to the utmost awareness: Samadhi.