Raja Yoga argues that the material world is a manifestation of the thoughts and ideas that exist in our minds. The underlying reality is always the driving force behind physical reality, and thus our inner thoughts and emotions are the source of the external world. In a similar manner, the observable actions and phenomena in the external world are the tangible expression of the underlying, subtler forces at play within the internal world. He who succeeds in discovering and mastering the subtle forces within will also master the forces of external nature. The yogi aims at nothing less than to acquire mastery over nature, to transcend what we call natural laws so that he is unaffected by them and is master of both the external and internal worlds. The advancement of human civilization comes precisely from man’s ever-increasing mastery over nature. Individuals and nations have different preferences when it comes to the concept of domination. Some believe that by mastering one’s internal nature, such as emotions and thoughts, one can achieve mastery over everything. On the other hand, others argue that by exerting control over external factors, such as resources and territory, one can attain ultimate power. These differing perspectives on the concept of domination can be seen among individuals as well as among nations. In reality, both perspectives are valid, as in nature there is no clear distinction between the external and internal. These distinctions are artificial constructs that do not truly exist in the natural world.
Individuals who focus on the external and internal factors will eventually arrive at the same conclusion when they reach the limits of their understanding. Just as the physicist, when the metaphysician reaches the extreme limit of his knowledge of physical phenomena, he finds out that mind and matter are distinct aspects of a single substance. The ultimate goal of all scientific inquiry is to discover the underlying unity from which the diversity of the world emerges. The Raja Yoga expounds the method of studying the internal nature, and once mastered, the external nature will be mastered as well. This enterprise is very ancient, and although in India was always the most powerful bastion of Raja Yoga, it also had its practitioners in other countries. In the West, Raja Yoga has been called mysticism, and many of those who tried to practice it independently of religious dogmatisms, died at the stake or in torment accused of sorcery. For various reasons, the Raja Yoga fell in India in the hands of unscrupulous people who corrupted ninety percent of its virtuality and wanted to make a deep secret of the rest. In modern times, many so-called instructors are worse than the false ones of India, because at least the latter knew something of the Raja Yoga, while the former do not know half a word. All that is presented to us as secret and mysterious in the Raja Yoga should be resolutely discarded.
The best guide in life is strength, and in religion, as in any other matter, anything that threatens to weaken us must be repudiated. From the time when the system of Yoga was established, more than four thousand years ago, it was perfectly delineated and taught in India. It seems that the more recent the commentator, the more mistakes they make, while those who are more experienced tend to be more rational in their analysis. Most of the modern treatise writers have made Yoga something interior and secret, instead of illuminating it with the lights of reason; and they have done so for the purpose of monopolizing psychic powers. Believing something blindly is very dangerous. It is always better to make use of reason and judgment and practice the method to see whether or not the things promised are true, exactly like science. There is no mystery in the practice of Yoga and can it can be taught in the public in the light of the day.
Before entering fully into the study of Raja Yoga, it is useful to outline the Sankhya philosophy on which Raja Yoga is based. According to the Sankhya philosophy, the process of perception begins with external objects making an impression on our bodily senses. These perceptions are subsequently sent to the brain’s corresponding areas, where the mind processes them. The mind then passes the impressions on to the “determining faculty”, which is responsible for interpreting the impressions and deciding how to respond to them. The determining faculty then sends the impressions to the soul, or the “Self” (Purusha), which is responsible for experiencing and interpreting the impressions. Finally, the soul sends responses in the form of orders to the nerve centers in the body, which then proceed to take the corresponding actions or omissions. In this way, the Sankhya philosophy explains how external objects are perceived and responded to by the body through a complex series of interactions between the senses, brain, mind, determining faculty, and soul.
For the Sankhyas, the whole external world is material, and they give the generic name of Prakriti to the matter or substance of which they are constituted, but there are various degrees of density of this matter, and the mental matter which constitutes the mind is of a very subtle degree. The only immaterial thing, according to Sankhya philosophy, is the spirit, which is called Purusha, and there are as many Purushas as there are living beings. Therefore, between mental matter and physical matter there is only a difference of degree of density. The mind is the instrument through which Purusha perceives external objects, and it is fickle, inconstant and changeable; but once disciplined, it can concentrate on one or more senses or abstract from all of them.
For example, one who pays deep attention to the chimes of a tower clock will not perceive anything with his sight even if his eyes are open, because the mind concentrates entirely on hearing. But the disciplined mind can concentrate at the same time on all the organs of sensation and has the reflective faculty of concentrating on itself. The yogi aspires to actualize this reflective faculty and to concentrate the mind on itself in order to know what is going on within. There is no question of belief in this. It is the analysis that the yogis made of themselves. Contemporary physiologists assert that the eyes are not the primary organ of vision, but rather that this function is carried out by a specific area of the brain. This idea was also proposed centuries ago by the Sankhya philosophers. The yogi aims to reach a higher degree of perception in which he realizes the various states or attitudes of the mind. He has to perceive the transit of sensation, how it is received by the mind and transmitted to the determining faculty which in turn transfers it to purusha. Like all sciences, Raja Yoga requires certain preparation and has its own peculiar method to which the one who wishes to understand it must submit. It requires a certain discipline in the diet, so that the food is conducive to mental purity. The energy of our body comes from the transmutation of the delicacies that serve us as food. In that sense, when undertaking the practice of Raja Yoga, one should be careful with the dietary regimen; but when the practice is already somewhat advanced, one should not be so scrupulous in this respect. When a plant is in its early stages of growth, it should be protected by a barrier to prevent potential harm. However, once it has matured into a tree, the barrier should be removed as it is strong enough to withstand any potential damage on its own. The extremes should be avoided by a yogi. The body, symbolized in the flesh by Western moralists, is not in itself an enemy of the soul, but its instrument of manifestation in the objective world so it is not to be tortured in any way. On the contrary, it is to be mastered by the action of the will and not of violence.
The Raja Yoga is divided into eight stages, grades or stretches of the path, as follows:
1. Yama (things to avoid)
2. Niyama (things to adopt)
3. Asana (postures)
4. Pranayama (yogic practice of focusing on breath)
5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses)
6. Dharana (concentration of the mind)
7. Dhyana (contemplation and meditation)
8. Samadhi (state of meditative consciousness)
Yama consists of not killing or stealing or lying or fornication and not receiving gifts. Niyama means purity, contentment, righteousness, study and complete surrender to God. Asana is the bodily position or posture in which the practitioner should place himself. Pranayama is the government or regulation of the breath. Pratyahara is the detachment of the senses from objects of sensation. Dharana consists of fixing the mind on a certain object. Dhyana is equivalent to meditation. Samadhi is the ecstasy or state of super-consciousness. Yama and Niyama are moral disciplines without the perfect mastery of which it is useless and even harmful to indulge in the practices of Raja Yoga. Once Yama and Niyama are firmly established, the practitioner will be able to obtain some fruit from the practice, but without them he will not obtain a positive result. The practitioner must not harm absolutely no one, neither man nor animal nor vegetable nor mineral by thought, word or deed.
To reach the higher degrees, certain physical and mental exercises are required, practiced daily, and it is therefore necessary to place oneself in a posture that can be endured without fatigue for a long time. Of course, it is not possible to indicate a certain posture for all exercisers, because what is comfortable for some will be uncomfortable for others, and so each one has to assume the one that best suits him to stay in it without discomfort for as long as the exercise lasts. The nervous currents will take a new direction and a new vibratory tonic will be established, so that the whole physical constitution will be transmuted. The greater part of the activity will be located in the spinal column, so that the only indispensable condition in the posture to be adopted must be that chest, neck and head be kept erect in a straight line without deviating in the least the spinal column and allowing the weight of the trunk to fall on the ribs. It is not possible to have very noble thoughts, with the chest sunk and the head down. This grade of Raja Yoga is somewhat similar to Yoga Hatha, which deals especially with the health and vigor of the physical body.
The practice or exercise called the purification of the nerves is repudiated by some treatise writers who do not consider it proper to Raja Yoga; but such a prestigious authority as Sankara advises it in his commentaries to the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, in the following terms: “When Pranayama removes all dross from the mind, it becomes fixed in Brahman. First the nerves have to be purified and then pranayama can be practiced. For this purpose, the right nostril is covered with the thumb and the air is inhaled through the left nostril, and without interruption the left nostril is covered with the thumb to exhale the air through the right nostril. Then cover the right nostril with the thumb and inhale through the left nostril and exhale through the right nostril, then switch and cover the left nostril and exhale and inhale through the right nostril.
This exercise is repeated alternately about five times at the following times of the day: before dawn, at noon, at sunset, and at midnight. At the end of a month of continued breathing practice the nerves are purified and the pranayama exercise can proceed. The practice is absolutely necessary. No matter how much one hears or reads about Raja Yoga, one will not advance a step without practice. You never learn a thing well until you personally experience it, and theories alone hinder rather than stimulate practice. The first difficulty encountered in the practice of Raja Yoga is an unhealthy body, for without full health it will be in vain to attempt the practice; and so it is advisable to be very careful with the diet and to observe rigorously the laws of physical and mental hygiene, without forgetting that health is one of the means to the end. If health were the end, we would regress to the animal kingdom, a stage in which the mind is embryonic and instinctive. The second challenge is uncertainty or skepticism. We tend to be skeptical of things we have not seen or experienced for ourselves. People cannot trust mere words no matter how hard they try and when they first hear of the practice of Raja Yoga, they may doubt the truth of what they are told. But if you undertake the exercises, you will soon receive a glimpse of the truth which will encourage and stimulate you to follow the path with joy.