Raja Yoga 101: Definitions, Origins, Benefits & How To Practice

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Raja yoga is considered to be both the practice and the goal of yoga.  It is often called “royal” yoga and is considered the path the liberation or self-realization.

Raja yoga is part of classical yoga and is associated with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Swami Vivekananda’s 19th century text Raja Yoga linked the eightfold path of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras with Raja yoga.

The practice of Raja yoga is based on meditation and removing the obstacles that inhibit self-realization – attachment, ego, and craving.

In this article, we’ll take a look at:

  • Raja yoga definition
  • The four types of yoga
  • Patanjali’s eight-fold path
  • How to practice Raja 
a woman doing a forward fold

Raja yoga definition

Raja yoga is an ancient Sanskrit term that found popularity through Swami Vivekananda’s book in the 19th century. It is difficult to get a succinct Raja yoga definition, but the literal translation is:

राजयोग – Raja yoga

Raja = king, chief, or royal

Raja yoga is seen as the highest form of yoga. All other yogas are deemed inferior. It is considered the royal path of yoga for any practitioner. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika states that Hatha yoga is one of the ways to attain raja yoga.

Raja yoga is mentioned in many of the ancient yoga texts including the 12th century Amanaska. The second chapter states that it is called Raja yoga because it is the practice of reaching the king within oneself – the supreme self. You can think of this as pure bliss and liberation. It is the coming together of the body, mind, and spirit.

“Raja-Yoga proposes to start from the internal world, to study internal nature, and through that, control the whole—both internal and external.”

Swami Vivekananda

Raja yoga is often called by other names.  Some of the terms it also goes by are: samadhi (a state of mediative consciousness), jivanmukti (liberation while living), and turiya (the state of wakeful sleep). This should tell you that Raja yoga is not easy! It is a challenging practice, but the eightfold systematic path makes it slightly more accessible.

Raja yoga is not a beginners practice – it is difficult, and students often go for one of the other four classical yogas as a path to liberation.

“All this bringing of the mind into a higher state of vibration is included in one word in Yoga — Samadhi.”

– Swami Vivekananda
a silhouette of a woman meditating with a sun in her chest

The four yogas

The four paths of yoga are all intertwined, and you would not practice them all in a traditional context. Remember, they all lead to the same place. Let’s take a look at classical yoga’s four paths:

Jnana yoga – The yoga of knowledge. Using logic, knowledge, and reason, the practitioner uses this type of yoga to practice inquiry into the nature of the mind. The idea is to remove ego and ignorance and reveal the unchanging oneness.

Karma yoga – The yoga of action. This is often interpreted as the act of selfless service. This is a community-based practice. Karma yoga is said to purify the heart. It encourages us to be detached from our ego and the results of our actions. There is no sense of personal gain. The focus of the practice of Karma yoga is oneness.

Bhakti yoga – The yoga of devotion. This one is about our connection to the divine self. To achieve this, then we must surrender to the divine qualities in all beings and living things. This is a practice of the heart. Like so many of the other yogas it is about the dissolution of ego. This is a very emotive path, and the various practices include rituals, puja and chanting.

Raja yoga –  The yoga of meditation. Busy minds lead us away from self-realization and our true essence. Meditation helps us to calm the mind. Patanjali’s eight-limbed systematic approach to yoga forms the structured basis for this type of practice.

a man and woman meditating with their eyes closed on an outfoor decking

What is our “true nature”?

Overthinking is a big obstacle according to Raja yoga. Busy minds are not conducive to realizing one’s own true nature. A useful way to think about true nature is through the analogy of a mirror. 

How can we possibly see the reflection in the mirror if it is covered with dust and dirt (thoughts and ego)?

It is as though we have forgotten about a deeper part of ourselves, and that deeper part of ourselves is our true nature. To experience our underlying true nature, we have to get to know ourselves and the Self.

Calming the mind is an excellent way to get in touch with oneness and our true nature. This is why Raja yoga recommends meditation and the practice of absorption. It requires practice and patience because the role of the mind is to think. 

We can often think about yoga as a movement practice but in fact “yoga is the cessation of the movements of the mind” as set out by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutra and the ideas of Raja yoga.

Ashtanga Yoga – The eight limbs, according to Patanjali

Classical yoga and Raja yoga are often interchangeable. What we know from this ancient practice is that it is one of the first systematic yoga practices to exist. It is rooted in the philosophy of Samkhya, and one of the primary works of classical yoga is the Yoga Sutra.

Raja yoga can be found in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra which was compiled circa 400 CE. The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali is incredibly popular in modern yoga circles, and it is favored for its systematic approach to yoga. There is almost no reference to asana (yogic posture) in the Sutras as we see it in today’s modern yoga practice.

There have been a significant number of translations and interpretations of the Yoga Sutra where the practice of meditation is broken down into eight auxiliaries.

The first four limbs can be practiced at the same time and are considered the external limbs. The last four limbs are the internal practices, and they should not be practiced at the same time but sequentially.

a woman meditating under a tree in front of a waterfall

What is the eightfold path of Patanjali?

Patanjali provides, through his eight limbs of yoga, tips and tools for calming the mind.  His systematic approach to yoga is formed of:

  1. Yamas – Moral Discipline: ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness) asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (chastity) and aparigraha (non-possessiveness).
  2. Niyamas – Observances: saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (self-discipline), svadhyaya (self-study), ishvarapranidhana (devotion or surrender).
  3. Asana – Yoga postures
  4. Pranayama – Breathing techniques to control the movement of prana (life force).
  5. Pratyahara – Withdrawal of the senses.
  6. Dharana – Concentration.
  7. Dhyana – Meditation.
  8. Samadhi – Enlightenment, bliss pr liberation.

What are the benefits of Raja yoga/eight-limbed path?

Observing the yamas and niyamas can be a mindfulness practice that can help us with all aspects of our lives. They can also help us to evaluate our behaviors and actions. They can force us to look at our ego and attachment.

Although Patanjali’s prescription for asana is very different from what we see in modern yoga there is no doubt that moving the body is a good thing! Asana or yoga postures can be a great way to build a mindfulness practice and a healthy body. The same goes for breathing practices which can be helpful for calm and peace in our lives.

The practice of dharana and dhyana can help with focus and anxiety. Meditation can help clear the mind and has many associated benefits such as reduced anxiety and help with sleep.

When combined, the eight-limbed system helps us to detach from the world and our thoughts so that we can better understand our true nature and access samadhi or liberation.

a woman meditating on the floor of her living room in front of a white sofa

Practicing Raja yoga

The internal limbs and meditation are the primary practice of Raja yoga. Starting a meditation practice can be daunting, so be sure to get the basics secured before practicing the final four limbs. You can find out more about meditation here.

As your mind draws inwards through the practice of pratyahara, learning to concentrate on something simple like the breath can be useful. Once concentration is obtained, you can move on to dhyana where there is complete absorption. The dedicated practice of dhyana leads to samadhi or bliss.

Where to start?

“Practice is absolutely necessary” – Swami Vivekananda. 

Choose some of the yamas and niyamas to build into your life.  Watch your responses and habits.

Add a little meditation each day. Move and breath as part of your yoga practice. Remember that a little can go a long way.

a woman meditating in front of an orange sky

Raja yoga roundup

In its most basic form, Raja yoga is the yoga of controlling the body and the mind. This is not an easy practice, and while it is accessible, it will require dedication and patience.

Yoga is the practice of becoming detached from the fluctuations of the mind, and Raja yoga is no exception. Swami Vivekananda was responsible for the popularity of Raja yoga and his book of the same name has been said, by Elizabeth De Michelis, to mark the beginning of modern yoga.

What next? 

If reading about Raja yoga has left you wanting to find out more about the yoga we generally practice now then check out Patanjali’s third limb – Asana.

Photo of author
Sarah is a Brighton-based yoga teacher and teacher trainer with a passion for teaching self-inquiry and rest.

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