The Eight Levels of Raja Yoga
by Daniel Carr
The real power of Martial Arts and Yoga as a systems of transformation lies in linking physical training to meditation practices. Many adepts in the arts practice breathing and concentration exercises, most of them receiving encouraging results for their efforts. However, very few have an opportunity to participate in what could be defined as a complete system of meditation.
Like Yoga students, Buddhists, and other esoteric aspirants, many martial artists learn techniques that increase awareness and energy development. Regrettably, even the most serious and diligent practitioners of all these sacred arts never achieve the higher levels, levels that are well within their reach.
The problem is in a lack of understanding of how their physical practice, or "Asana", relates to their breathing exercises and concentration techniques. Once this understanding is clear, all levels of training can accelerate.
One complete Yoga system reknowned as the "Royal Yoga", Raja Yoga, breaks down the process into eight levels, which are referred to as "The Eight Limbs of Raja Yoga." These eight levels are traditionally pursued after a sound basis in Hatha Yoga is established. The sort of meditation that is talked about in Raja Yoga is done in lotus position, or some other meditation posture that is equally as challenging, for hours at a time. It must be pain-free and energized by perfect concentration of the mind.
To have this sort of capacity, the a practitioner's body has to undergo a rigorous regime of preparatory practices, i.e. Hatha Yoga. Likewise, the mind has to be naturally inclined to follow the philosophical principles that will guide the practitioner's behavior and psychological growth. This sort of change of lifestyle in favor of simple, healthy, and spiritual living does happen over night. A gradual change in attitude and understanding can take place during the time of preparatory practices. The eight levels of Raja Yoga, clearly spelled out, are as follows:
1. Self-Restraint/ "Yama"
Self restraint can be best defined as the codes of behavior that keep the aspirant at peace with the world he lives in, as well as with himself. By engaging in such "self-restraint," the aspirant is freed from the negative Karma that unwholesome behavior will generate.
Typically, this level of practice in all of the esoteric traditions is to instill a sense of righteous behavior in the aspirant. What many fail to realize is that an absence of past indiscretions also frees the mind in the present. Thus, a mind free from these concerns is at peace and free to focus on meditation.
The Hindus have five precepts for self-restraint, which are very similar to the Buddhists’ five. The traditional prayer greeting of the Buddhists and Hindus is considered a conscious recognition of these five principles, one for each finger, by the exchangers of the sign. The precepts are:
- Non-killing/ "Ahimsa"
- Truthfulness/ "Satya"
- Non-stealing/ "Asteya"
- Sexual Continence/ "Brahmacharya"
- Non-covetousness/ "Áparigraha"
2. Observance/ "Niyama"
Observances build on the concepts of self-restraint, putting those principles into action in daily life. Such natural extensions comprise this second level.
- Purity of action
- Study of self-development through classic treatises
- Physical discipline
- The honoring of a guru
- Surrender of ego to the ultimate universal power
Much or most of this is not possible for modern society without having heightened awareness and psychological growth that could only come through some sort of preparatory practice like Hatha Yoga.
3. Physical Practice/ "Asana"
For all practical purposes, this is the level where most Martial Art and Yoga practitioners start and end their practice. Although "physical practice" is considered an absolute necessity to open up and develop the muscular and central nervous systems in all of the traditions, it is not enough.
"Physical practice" overdone creates an artificially low learning curve plateau in the aspirant. This tends to be the norm in America.
In the Yoga tradition, physical practice is most recognizable as the Yoga postures and exercises practiced in a typical studio, everthing from Sun Salutations to headstands. The majority of these exercises are stretching in character, but many "Asanas" build incredible strength. The Buddhist and Taoist traditions have used martial arts and various qigongs that are marked by intense, physical exertion that provide the body a foundation for sitting meditation.
In the truest understanding of Raja Yoga, though, asana relates to the sitting meditation postures of padmasana/lotus pose, siddhasana/accomplished pose for men, and siddha yoni asana/accomplished pose for women. To be able to sit in these poses for hours at a time comfortably with perfect concentration necessitates a high level of accomplishment in the asana practice of Hatha Yoga.
4. Breathing Exercise/ "Pranayama"
Breathing exercises develop the connection between the cultivation of energy/"Prana" and the breath of the aspirant. Various techniques are used in Yoga, from alternating nostrils to forced exhalations to timed inhalations and exhalations. It is at this point where the production of "Prana"/ "Chi" really accelerates and where the luckier aspirants of Martial Arts and Yoga typically end their exploration.
An advanced aspirant learns breathing techniques, some which trace the sensation of the breath up and down certain limbs or energy lines. Energy develops, and the aspirant presupposes that, in the energy felt, the ultimate goal of his exploration into meditation has been realized- the ability to feel energy travel through limbs or spine. The usual goal of such aspirants in Martial Arts is the ability to execute more powerful martial techniques, and the sensation of energy moving through the body provides for them verification that the ultimate goal has been achieved. Punches, kicks, and throws all improve dramatically, and the diligent martial artist surpasses the normal person in strength and fighting skill. The irony of this is that the sincere aspirant misses out on further development because of a preoccupation with these first gains.
5. Sense Withdrawal/ "Prathyahara"
Sense withdrawal is the pulling of the five senses back into the mind and the detaching from the various sense stimuli that the surrounding environment is generating. This level is considered to be the last level of the foundation necessary to be successful in the pursuit of a true a spiritual experience in meditation.
"The excited senses of even a wise man, though he may be strong, impetuously carry away his mind. The practice demands considerable patience and perseverance. It is a trying discipline of the senses."
-Swami Sivananda, "Fourteen Lessons on Raja Yoga"
Prathyahara is also where the techniques of Hatha Yoga end and the techniques of the more advanced Yogas begin.
6. Concentration/ "Dharana"
Concentration is possible once sense withdrawal has begun. The refocusing of the senses on a single concentration point continues the inward turning of the mind.
In the practice of Trataka, seeing an image with the eyes closed at the eyebrow center is one example of such a concentration technique. When one focuses the mind like this, it is akin to all of the light being generated by a light bulb condensing into one point- a light bulb can light a room, whereas a laser can cut through metal. You are training your mind to be like a laser.
Raja Yoga has it that if one can inwardly focus on such a point in this way for 12 seconds without interruption, it is considered a "Dharana." This is much harder than it sounds. Most people's minds will interrupt such an endeavor almost immediately. Most often, aspirants' minds are interrupted from this task by either physical or emotional considerations. Worldly matters force their way into the mind just as a "Dharana" is achieved, necessitating a restart in Pratayahara. Re-examining one's "Yama" and "Niyama" practices is a continuing process for anyone pushing forward to "Dhyana".
7. Meditation/ "Dhyana"
Meditation is the unbroken flow of the mind on a single point for an extended period. In practice, it can be measured by counting the numbers of breaths in one's focus on a concentration point, with or without a mantra.
Each attempt, however successful, strengthens the aspirant. One teacher explained that it was like doing pushups. The first time you try, you can only do a couple and your muscles ache. Years down the road, if you practice hard, doing a couple hundred can be quite an invigorating round of exercise.
8. Superconsciousness / "Samadhi"
Superconciousness is the state of "union" that word Yoga directly refers to. The union achieved is described as:
"In Samadhi, the meditator loses his individuality and becomes identical with the Supreme Self. Just as the river joins the ocean, the individual soul joins the Supreme Soul, the ocean of absolute consciousness."
-Swami Sivananda, "Fourteen Lesson on Raja Yoga"
It is at this level that the aspirant reaches a peak in his/her evolution. Very few aspirantst reach this level of development. It is really not worth talking about, since words fail to convey the experience adequately to any one who has not experienced this directly. All we can do is to continue our exploration with diligence and intelligence.
It is said that this incarnation as a human is an incredible gift for development and evolution. Most people squander this opportunity willfully, while other who are seeking the higher spiritual experience do not have access to the sort of techniques and information necessary to help them realize their potential.
By sharpening our discrimination and aesthetic criteria with respect to the task at hand, we can guide our developments in such a way that we have access to the material that is necessary for success. Then, the real question becomes whether or not we possess the will power to develop ourselves.