The Limitations of the Path of Raja Yoga

As with Hatha Yoga, the serious practitioner can obtain very solid, even remarkable results through the practice of Raja Yoga. There are of course, practical limitations for most people in practicing Raja Yoga. The stilling of the mind-substance (chitta) is a process which takes serious practice, including all the basic steps to quiet the vital being, stabilize the physical being, and systematically learn how to withdraw the mind from running after or reacting to the impinging sensations from the sense-organs, not to speak of detaching the mind from involvement in plans, projects and results in the outer world, at least during the time of the practice. While one can theoretically close the eyes and shut out visual sensations for the most part, the question of blocking the internal impact of sound and smell in particular is much more difficult to answer.

In today’s world with sounds blasting everywhere in day to day life, few people have the luxury of a quiet environment within which to practice with less need to block out the sounds. Even more of a concern may be the proliferation of electronic devices with their vibratory action taking place subliminally as well as the omnipresent humming they produce.

Thus, to seriously carry out the deeper practices of Raja Yoga, there is a virtual necessity to devote substantial time to it, and do so away from everyday life in the external world for the most part. This turns into a limitation for those who have lives to lead in the world, as they will likely not be able to easily attain the deepest levels of realisation possible; and for those who devote themselves to the practice fully, for they will have to essentially abandon the outer life and the positive impact they could have on that life, in order to carry out their practice.

Sri Aurobindo points out further limitations: “But the weakness of the system lies in its excessive reliance on abnormal states of trance. This limitation leads first to a certain aloofness from the physical life which is our foundation and the sphere into which we have to bring our mental and spiritual gains. Especially is the spiritual life, in this system, too much associated with the state of Samadhi. Our object is to make the spiritual life and its experiences fully active and fully utilisable in the waking state and even in the normal use of the functions. But in Rajayoga it tends to withdraw into a secondary plane at the back of our normal experiences instead of descending and possessing our whole existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Introduction: The Conditions of the Synthesis, Chapter 4, The Systems of Yoga, pg. 32

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The Processes and Methods of Raja Yoga

Raja Yoga first brings about a quieting of the mind and a stilling of the body so that the advanced stages of deep trance or concentration may take place. While Hatha Yoga has a vast array of asanas and pranayama techniques, Raja Yoga, since it is focused on quieting the mental instrument, only adopts a very limited set of asanas and pranayama to avoid getting bogged down with all the physical techniques while providing the “firm seat” needed for its practices. The preliminary practices, called Yamas and Niyamas, establish various standpoints in relation to action in the world, such as ahimsa (non-harming), santosha (contentment) while establishing disciplines for avoidance of greed, jealousy, sexual focus and other forces which not only are distractions from the yogic practice, but which tend to disturb the needed quiet poise of the mental stuff, chitta. The prescriptions are not so much “moral” judgments as practical statements of an understanding of the way the mental substance reacts and vibrates to the impressions of the senses and the impulsions of the vital forces of desire.

As a result of this process of stilling the mental substance, the powers of concentration are enhanced and, as described by Patanjali, various powers of knowledge through identity with the object of concentration can arise. Eventually, the processes of Raja Yoga allow the practitioner to shut out the reactions and responses to the sense impressions, and the state of Samadhi, a deep state of concentrated trance, arises. There are various levels of Samadhi, including those called “with seed” and those “without seed”, indicating the level of completeness of detachment from the normal operation of the sense mind and the senses. Sri Aurobindo describes the result of Samadhi: “By Samadhi, in which the mind acquires the capacity of withdrawing from its limited waking activities into freer and higher states of consciousness, Rajayoga serves a double purpose. It compasses a pure mental action liberated from the confusions of the outer consciousness and passes thence to the higher supramental planes on which the individual soul enters into its true spiritual existence. But also it acquires the capacity of that free and concentrated energising of consciousness on its object which our philosophy asserts as the primary cosmic energy and the method of divine action upon the world. By this capacity the Yogin, already possessed of the highest supra-cosmic knowledge and experience in the state of trance, is able in the waking state to acquire directly whatever knowledge and exercise whatever mastery may be useful or necessary to his activities in the objective world. For the ancient system of Rajayoga aimed not only at Swarajya, self-rule or subjective empire, the entire control by the subjective consciousness of all the states and activities proper to its own domain, but included Samrajya as well, outward empire, the control by the subjective consciousness of its outer activities and environment.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Introduction: The Conditions of the Synthesis, Chapter 4, The Systems of Yoga, pp. 31-32

The Science of Raja Yoga

Whereas Hatha Yoga focuses on the physical body and the vital force that animates it and works through it, Raja Yoga takes as its primary focus the mental body, and more particularly, it addresses what it calls the “chitta” or mental “substance”. The intention of the practitioner of Raja Yoga is to gain mastery over the mental powers, accentuate them and use them to achieve spiritual realisation through a process of identification through trance states known as Samadhi. Raja Yoga as a science was codified by the sage Patanjali, and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are considered the definitive text on the practice of this path. One of the most powerful and lucid introductions and translations of these sutras was provided by Swami Vivekananda, whose book Raja Yoga, published by the Advaita Ashrama is considered to be a standard and classic text in the field.

Sri Aurobindo describes the focus of Raja Yoga: “It aims at the liberation and perfection not of the bodily, but of the mental being, the control of the emotional and sensational life, the mastery of the whole apparatus of thought and consciousness.”

Raja Yoga recognizes that the normal mental functioning is chaotic. Sense impressions lead to a constant whirl of ideas, thoughts, emotions and feelings. The mind tends to jump around with very little ability to focus and sustain a directed action without being diverted or distracted. Attention span is generally weak.

Raja Yoga attempts to bring about control and order into the mental functioning: “The preliminary movement of Rajayoga is a careful self-discipline by which good habits of mind are substituted for the lawless movements that indulge the lower nervous being. By the practice of truth, by renunciation of all forms of egoistic seeking, by abstention of injury to others, by purity, by constant meditation and inclination to the divine Purusha who is the true lord of the mental kingdom, a pure, glad, clear state of mind and heart is established.”

This represents the starting point for the advanced practices for which Raja Yoga is known.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Introduction: The Conditions of the Synthesis, Chapter 4, The Systems of Yoga, pp. 30-31