The 8 Limbs of Raja Yoga

Raja yoga consists of eight ‘limbs’ or parts:

The first two, Yama and Niyama, denote, in general way, self-control. The discipline of Yama includes non-injury, truthfulness, non-covetousness, chastity, and non-receiving of gifts; all these bring about purity of mind, without which spiritual contemplation is not possible. Without self-control, the practice of Yoga can injure both the Yogi and others. A Sanskrit proverb says: ‘To feed a cobra with milk without first taking out its poisonous fangs is only to increase its venom.’ Niyama signifies certain habits and observances, such as austerity, study of the scriptures, contentment, purity of body and mind, and devotion to God.

The third limb of yoga is Asana, or posture. That posture which comes easiest to the student is recommended. Different postures are prescribed; but the general principle is to hold the spinal column free. The Yogi sits erect, holding his back, neck, and head in a straight line, and resting the whole weight of the upper body on the ribs. With the chest out, he finds it easy to relax the body and think deeply.

The fourth limb is Pranayama, generally called the control of the breath. According to Hindu philosophers, the universe consists of two primordial elements: Akasa and Prana, which are the sources of matter and energy respectively. Through their interaction all tangible objects come into existence. Prana, which pervades the universe, is manifest in the human body in the movement of the lungs; and this motion is related to the breath. By controlling the breath one can gradually control the whole physical system and even the cosmic energy. The breath is like a flywheel of a machine. In a large machine, first the flywheel moves, and then the motion is conveyed to the fine parts, until the most delicate mechanism is set in motion. The breath supplies the motive power to all parts of the body. When the breathing is regulated the whole physical system functions rhythmically. By the regulation of breathing, the Yogis can perform such supernatural feats as remaining buried alive for a number of days, lying on a bed of nails, curing diseases both in themselves and in others, generating gigantic will-power, and transmitting thoughts to others. But the regulation of the breath, and the other Yogic exercises, should be learnt from a competent teacher, or they will injure a man’s body, nerves, and mind.

Pratyahara, the fifth limb of Yoga, consists in training the mind to detach itself at will from a particular sense organ. We retain the impression of an object only when the mind is attached to it through a sense organ. Thus we may see, during the daytime, a thousand faces, but we remember at night only the face to which the mind felt attached. By means of Pratyahara, the Yogi can check the outward inclination of the mind and free it from the thralldom of the senses. The mind of the average person may be likened to a monkey which, restless by nature, has taken a deep draft of liquor, thus aggravating its restlessness. Further, the monkey has been stung by a scorpion, and finally has been possessed by a ghost. Just so, the naturally restless mind, after a deep dose of worldly pleasures, becomes intensely restless; it is, further, stung by jealousy, and finally possessed by the ghost of egotism. How is one to calm the excited monkey?

One method is to allow it to jump about until at last it becomes tired. Likewise, the aspirant may allow the mind to move in any way it likes, himself remaining relaxed, and witness its restless movements without trying to suppress his thoughts. Whether they are good or bad, he should let them come to the surface; thus he will be able to know his inner nature, and such knowledge is, in itself, a great gain. Gradually, as the mind grows tired, the thoughts become fewer. And then the mind can be brought under control and detached from any sense organ. Another method is to control mental restlessness by sheer power of will.

The sixth limb of yoga, Dharana, consists in holding the mind to a certain part of the body, making it feel that part alone, to the exclusion of all others. For instance, the yogi may remain aware only of the tip of his nose.

The seventh limb if yoga is called Dhyana, meditation. In this stage the mind acquires the power to think of an object uninterruptedly. The flow of the yogi’s mind to the object is unbroken, like the uninterrupted sound of a gong struck with a stick.

The eigth and last limb of yoga is called Samadhi, or total absorption, a state of mind in which the yogi rejects the external part- the name and the form- of the object of meditation, and contemplates only its essence. He thus comes face to face with the true nature of the object, ordinarily hidden behind the outer name and form, and is no longer deceived by appearances.

The last three limbs – Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi – taken together are called Samyama. The mind first concentrates on an object, then continues in that state for a length of time, and lastly, by continued concentration, is able to dwell on the essence of the object. Through the application of samyama with reference to various objects, the Yogi obtains supernatural powers. When by a supreme act of discrimination he rejects all the powers that come to him, regarding them as obstacles to liberation, and thus attains perfect desirelessness; the yogi achieves Kaivalya or isolation. Then he realises that the soul, completely separate from the body and mind, and untouched by time, space, and causation, is non-material. It is pure consciousness, unchanging and immortal. The yogi who has attained Kaivalya may be compared to a ripe nut in which the kernel is separate from the shell; he feels his soul, detached from his body, rattling inside it, as it were. An ordinary man is like a green nut: the kernel is attached to the shell.

According to the Sankhya philosophy, on which Raja Yoga is based, attachment to nature is the cause of the soul’s bondage, and detachment from nature is liberation.Yet she (nature) is not regarded as a man’s enemy in his quest to realise the ultimate goal; on the contrary, she is his helpmate. She has taken upon herself, as it were, the unselfish task of assisting him, entangled as he is in the world, to attain liberation; and with that end in view she makes him pass through various experiences in different bodies, higher and lower. At long last, when, becoming dissatisfied with these experiences, he isolates himself from nature and regains his lost glory, nature’s task with this particular self-forgetting soul is accomplished, and she comes to the rescue of another who has likewise lost his way in the trackless wilderness of life. Thus mother nature, man’s beneficent nurse, is ceaselessly at work, guiding one lost soul after another – through pleasure and pain, good and evil – to the haven of peace and freedom.

The Upanishads speak of the beginningless Prakriti, or nature, as consisting of three Gunas, namely, Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas, which by their combination produce the various physical bodies and objects of enjoyment. ‘One birthless soul becomes attached to Prakriti for the purpose of enjoyment, when another birthless soul has left her after his enjoyment is completed.’ Both the Sankhya and Yoga philosophies postulate, as ultimate categories, an infinite number of Purushas, or souls, and one Prakriti, or Nature. The souls are conscious entities, whereas Prakriti is insentient.

Patanjali asserts that through Samadhi one becomes omniscient. The real source of knowledge is in the soul; the brain cells do not create knowledge but serve as channels for its outer expression. When it is said that by destroying part of the brain the knowledge of a man can be interrupted, what is really meant is that the channels for manifesting knowledge are blocked. The purpose of study or observation is to open up the cells; the greater the number of cells functioning in the brain, the greater is the availability of a man’s knowledge. While certain gross cells may be opened by means of ordinary education, certain other cells, subtler in nature, may be made to function by means of Yogic disciplines. It is said that in Samadhi all the cells in the brain begin to function; thus a perfected Yogi claims omniscience.

Samadhi is a superconscious state of the mind, in which ego is completely transcended. After experiencing it a man becomes a saint or a prophet. It is a higher state of mind, beyond both instinct and reason. In the realm of instinct, there is no I-consciousness, as for instance in animals, and very few mistakes are made; but the area of instinct is extremely limited. Reason functions in a wider area and is accompanied by I-consciousness. But one does not obtain certainty through reason. Furthermore, working through the data furnished by the senses, reason is incompetent to deal with the supramental experiences of God, the soul, and immortality. There is a vast area outside reason, which is the realm of super consciousness and which can be known only by a faculty higher than reason, called intuition, inspiration, or direct and immediate perception.

Through proper disciplines instinct can be transformed into reason, and reason into intuition or direct perception. All profound religious experiences are related to the area of the super conscious: it is from this that the seers and mystics draw their knowledge. The higher religions lay down disciplines for the attainment of the super conscious experience, but one can stumble upon it without going through the discipline. Generally such a person becomes dogmatic and makes fanatical claims of having found the truth. Or a person can become deranged if this exalted experience is forced upon him, just as a penniless beggar may lose his balance of mind through suddenly coming into a fortune, which he has never dreamt of. A spiritual experience, like ordinary wealth, can be enjoyed to a greater degree when it has been earned by a man’s own effort than when it is thrust upon him. The source of all spiritual experiences is beyond reason; reason takes a seeker of supramental truths as far as it can and then bows itself out. But although super conscious experiences are not directly obtained through reason, they must not conflict with reason. And again, when these supramental truths are presented to the world, the presentation must be couched in rational terms.

Samadhi can be attained, through proper steps, by all human beings. Each one of the steps has been reasoned and scientifically tested.

It is said that practice of Raja Yoga becomes easy for those who are born with natural inwardness of mind and the power of concentration. But for many who are not so fortunate, and who want to practise Raja Yoga, the disciplines of Hatha Yoga are first recommended. The two Yogas are closely connected. Hatha Yoga prepares the way for Raja yoga. As there exists a close relationship between the body and the mind, one finds it helpful and easy to control the mental states by certain physical exercises laid down in Hatha Yoga. For the practice of Hatha Yoga, a qualified teacher is absolutely necessary.

Two major disciplines of Hatha Yoga are posture and control of the breath. Eighty-four postures are prescribed; these make the body firm, light, and free from disease, and also help in the practice of concentration, the suppression of carnal desire, and the correction of the humours of the body. Next comes control of the breath. It is a matter of common observance that there is a close relationship between the breath and the mind: when the breathing is irregular, and the mind wanders, and when the breathing is controlled, the mind is calmer. One invites serious physical malady through incorrect practice of breath control. The teachers of this yoga also speak of various other exercises for the inner cleansing of the body. The main purpose of Hatha Yoga is to increase the strength, vitality, and digestive power, as well as to remove various physical ailments. A healthy body and long life are important factors in the realisation of the spiritual goal in the present life.

It appears from the study of the religious history of India that at different times different types of spiritual experience have been emphasized. Thus, for instance, happiness in heaven was prized during the early Vedic period, the realization of the non–dual Brahman (Supreme Reality) – through Vedantic disciplines – at the time of the Upanishads, and communion with the personal God – through love – at the time of the Puranas. This is, of course, a very general statement. During the nineteenth century Ramakrishna and his great disciple Vivekananda laid special emphasis on the manifestation of God in man. Ramakrishna experienced the highest fruit of all the Yogas and communed with God in various ways. But in the end he said that the manifestation of God in man appealed to him most. He asked his disciples to serve men as visible images of God and to alleviate their misery; but he derided the idea of showing them pity.

One day the young Vivekananda prayed to Ramakrishna for the boon that he might commune with God in Samadhi for several days at a time, opening his eyes once in a while to take a little physical nourishment.

Ramakrishna reproached him and said: ‘Why are you so eager to see God with eyes closed? Can’t you see Him with eyes open?’

He explained that the presence of God was felt not only when one shut the eyes; God could also be seen when one looked around. Service to the hungry, sick, and ignorant in the proper spirit was as effective as any other spiritual discipline. For several days before his passing away, Ramakrishna instructed the disciple as to how to minister to the spiritual needs of humanity. He also said many times that he himself would be willing to come back to earth even as a dog if given the privilege of serving others.

After the passing away of his master, Vivekananda practised intense austerities, following the time honoured disciplines of the monastic life, and several times resolved to end his days in meditation in a mountain cave; but each time he was thrown out, as it were, by an unseen power. At last he discovered that one of his missions was to serve the Indian masses by removing their poverty, sickness, and ignorance. He came to America to explore the possibilities of applying scientific and technological knowledge to achieve that purpose. Another mission was to serve Western men and women by bringing to them the message of Vedanta in order to deepen their spiritual consciousness and their religious outlook. Later he established the Ramakrishna Order of monks, whose members take the two vows of personal liberation and service to humanity.

The spiritual discipline of the monks of the Order alternates between worship and service.
At the conclusion of his poem ‘To a Friend’ Swami Vivekananda wrote:

Thy God is here before thee now,
Revealed in all these myriad forms:
Rejecting them, where seekest thou
His presence? He who freely shares
His love with every living thing
Proffers true service unto God.

Before his death Vivekananda said: ‘May I be born again and again and suffer thousands of miseries, so that I may worship the only God that exists and the only God that I believe in: the sum total of all souls.’

continue with part 3 

For Sri Ramana Maharshi’s views on the other aspects of Raja Yoga (such as morality, meditation and Samadhi) read the following pages:


Direct Path


Self- Atma


Consciousness-the three states

Freedom and Bondage

Raja Yoga by Swami Nikhilananda -Sri Ramakrishna Math,Mylapore

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Atma Jñani (Sarva Devata Svarupini)

Visionary, Seer, Yogini, Komyo Reiki Do Ocuden, Peaceful way-shower-lightworker, High Priestess, optimist oriental dancer and tribal fusion lover, Fashion designer-stylist, arts+crafts addict, a secret kitchen witch, always in love with him<3

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