“That knowledge by which all related factors of unhappiness are removed is called Yoga.” – Bhagavad Gita, chapter six, verse thirteen.
The Yoga tradition encompasses a vast range of practices, starting with physical postures and developing to working deeply with the mind in meditation. Each of these practices brings about positive change whether at a muscular skeletal level, a cardio-vascular level, a hormonal or cellular level, or at the deepest levels of the mind.
The common thread that runs through all of the ancient systems of meditation is the simple idea that we, as humans, have the potential to transform ourselves.
The precious gift of a human mind brings the opportunity to develop a freer, truer, happier way of being and to share this great peace with others.
Within the Yoga tradition, this practical path is called in Sanskrit, ‘Raja Yoga’ or ‘Yoga Darshana’ and was explained in detail by the great sage Patanjali in around 100BC. It focuses on the practice of meditation. Very little is known about Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras. Both the name Patanjali and the term ‘Raja Yoga’ were bestowed after his death. Raja Yoga literally means ‘King of the Yogas’.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali mentions 26 different types of meditation. There is a hierarchy of techniques starting with basic practices like mantras or visualisations and leading to more subtle and advanced techniques of insight that have the power to bring real change, which he refers to as Viveka Khyati, discriminatory wisdom. The technique that is central to his teachings is Awareness of the Natural Breath Meditation, which he outlines in Chapter two of the Yoga Sutras from verse 49.
The practice of Raja Yoga calls for an intention to bring about positive change within our selves and involves working with the mind through meditation. The lasting peace and happiness that we aspire for is within us like the sun, but at the moment we can only experience it fleetingly and dimly as if filtered through layers and layers of thick cloud. Raja Yoga is the system that removes these thick layers of cloud cover, so that the mind can shine in its true nature of purity, warmth and peace.
Raja Yoga is based on The Noble Eightfold Path of Patanjali
- Yama (morality) – More about Yama
- Niyama (observances)
- Asana (sitting posture)
- Pranayama (awareness of the natural uncontrolled breath) – More about Awareness of the Natural Breath Meditation
- Pratyahara (withdrawing the senses)
- Dharana (momentary concentration)
- Dhyana (access concentration)
- Samadhi (absorbtion concentration)
The words Yoga (Sanskrit) and Dhamma (Pali) and are interchangeable as fundamentally they refer to the laws of nature concerning mind and matter.
Sanskrit is the main language of Indian scripture used by Patanjali, and Pali is the main language in which Buddha’s original teachings are preserved.
Patanjali was directly influenced by Gauthama Buddha; his predecessor by 300 years and The Yoga Sutras can be clearly understood in the light of Buddha’s teachings. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are also informed by the older philosophical systems of Sankhya and Vedanta, of which Buddha was also aware. The main content revolves around Buddha’s teachings, the theory and practice of which were in circulation throughout India during Patanjali’s time. The Sanskrit versions of the Buddha’s teaching form the basis of the Raja Yoga system and also developed centuries later into the Yogacara tradition. The 196 Yoga Sutras of Patanjali share the same essence as Buddha’s 84,000 suttas now known as the Pali Canon. Patanjali named his path, Ashtanga Yoga after Buddha’s Ashtanga Magga, meaning Noble Eightfold Path. The sutras are aphorisms; the teaching is reduced down to its most essential form like a series of mathematical formulae.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali mentions many different types of meditation that achieve a level of calmness, concentration, balance and stability of mind. This is the first aim of meditation called in Sanskrit ‘Samadhi’. However, it is only his noble eightfold path that is Raja Yoga, ‘King of the Yogas’ because it has the power to bring transformation at the deepest root level of the mind and to achieve the goal of yoga, enlightenment. Enlightenment is defined as the removal of all the ingrained negative habit patterns of the human mind that bring suffering which Buddha and Patanjali both refer to as ‘Klesas’.
The human qualities that we admire and that bring us, and others, happiness, include kindness, forgiveness, selflessness, generosity, intelligence, equanimity and compassion. These qualities are present when the mind is in balance and not dominated by unconscious negative habit patterns (klesas) such as greed, anger, delusion, selfishness and fear. We all must have experienced how much easier it is to be kind, tolerant and reasonable when we are in a good mood. As soon as anger, craving or anxiety surfaces, the better side of our nature is overpowered by those strong emotions and we find that that the nobler qualities fly away. Not only does a balanced mind bring us happiness but also allows us to behave the way we would wish towards others. Raja Yoga is the systematic science to reach the goal of ultimate happiness, peace and unselfishness.
Life is indeed a rich tapestry and yet, all our choices in life are for the pursuit of either short-term or long-term happiness. All of us would prefer to experience peace, joy and love, rather than agitation, sadness and anger. Every living being without exception, given a choice would prefer not to suffer. At the moment our peace of mind is very precarious because we rely on external factors for our happiness that are fundamentally unreliable. It can be shattered within a few seconds if we come into contact with something that triggers a negative reaction in us. A few harsh words from someone at work or home are enough to make us feel miserable for the rest of the day. We cannot control the world to make it behave the way we want, no matter how hard we try we cannot stop people doing things that upset us. Is it possible instead to change our own reaction mechanisms so that even when those external triggers happen, they bring no threat to our peace of mind? When we do act to bring about change can we do so from a base of calm and open awareness rather than a place of agitation, fear or hatred? Yoga teaches us that this is indeed possible, that we can reach a point at which the external triggers have no power over us, we can maintain our balance of mind and in turn our actions have a balancing and positive effect in the world. When we do act to bring about external change we are able to do so from a base of peace and compassion rather than a place of agitation, fear or anger. It is so easy to want to change things ‘out there’ and it is so difficult to think of changing the habit patterns of our own mind. Raja Yoga certainly does not teach us to be passive or accept wrong, but it teaches us that change begins with ourselves.
Raja Yoga is concerned with alleviating suffering through self-awareness and personal growth. The first stage of self-awareness is knowing that change is possible and that change comes from within. Raja Yoga is the science of developing harmony and overcoming disharmony, with ourselves, with the people around us and with the environment we live in, in order to be happy, peaceful, and a positive influence in the world.