Patanjali's Raja Yoga

Swami Satyananda, Bombay, 8th March 1978

The yoga of Patanjali is a system unique in the history of mankind. It is completely straightforward, free of discussion on religious experiences and rituals. Patanjali moves directly to the heart of the problem and one may be sure that the instruction given in his raja yoga system is non-sectarian, scientific and one hundred per cent spiritual. Whether one is Hindu, Muslim, Parsee, Christian or atheist, it makes no difference; the teachings are only concerned with the realisation of the higher, more effulgent dimensions of one's consciousness.

In the Samkhya philosophy, the great rishi Kapila has made it clear that consciousness has its own limitations in differing degrees of manifestation. In physics, matter has inherent limitations of varying degrees until finally, it is transformed into particles, and energy is liberated from it. This energy dissolves into the realm of infinity, beyond our comprehension. Similarly, Patanjali reveals the process of spiritual evolution from finite to infinite.

According to Patanjali, the peak form of awareness or consciousness is experience. This experience is not psychic in nature, nor of devi or devata, sun or moon, or demons. No! It has no category, it is simply an experience by itself, devoid of images or concepts. Furthermore, this state of anubhava cannot occur through the medium of mind. The mind has its own relative personality and limiting boundaries. The mind is not absolute. It has its own laws of determinacy.

Anubhava, the ultimate spiritual experience, moves with undetermined law. The laws of determinacy and indeterminacy must be well understood. When the nature and origin of the experience cannot be explained in terms of the normal language of logic, we then ask, "Who was the experiencer?" I say, no one. Yet when we speak of experience, we imply a duality, namely the experience and the experiencer. Duality cannot exist within the realms of anubhava, thus, two conflicting viewpoints arise. But in samadhi, the rules of logic do not apply. Therefore, the sadhana of raja yoga is not determined according to logical, puritanistic philosophy or in order to fulfil a religious code or morality.

Yama and niyama

Yama (social code) and niyama (personal code) are the first two fundamental stages of raja yoga. At first, one may tend to associate them with religious observance. For example, satyam, meaning truth, is a yama. Truth is advocated in all the religions, so one might argue that when raja yoga insists on observance of truth, is it not leading one into religious observance? Thus, many people who do not believe in religion would immediately reject raja yoga on that basis. But this is incorrect.

Yama is comprised of ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (honesty), brahmacharya (sensual abstinence), and aparigraha (non-acquisitiveness). Niyama comprises saucha (cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (austerity), swadhaya (self-study) and ishwara pranidhana (resignation to God). You will find that these five yamas and five niyamas are primarily designed to eliminate the problems of the mind - the negative influences on the emotional, psychic and mental bodies. The negative samskaras, embedded in the deepest recesses of the consciousness, and which form a barrier in the higher stages of meditation, are removed.

The samskaras can be eliminated in a positive or negative way. In the positive method, one cultivates all the mental, emotional and physical qualities which will saturate the mind with sattva guna (perfect equilibrium). These qualities are maitri (friendliness), karuna (compassion), mudita (gladness) and upeksha (indifference). These positive qualities can be induced into the general structure of one's personality. Consider a person whose personality is glowing with the light of friendliness, compassion, gladness and indifference. He will definitely have fewer problems with dhyana yoga than a person who is jealous, cruel, melancholic, passionate and unhappy with himself and the world around him. This person will have to face many psychotic experiences in his meditation. He may become frightened, disturbed and cry or howl like a dog.

Yama and niyama purify the general chamber of consciousness, just as in a dusty area, one keeps the house clean by closing the doors and windows. Now, you cannot close the doors of the vasanas, the desires, passions and attachments. Each aspirant must decide the nature or limitation of yama and niyama according to his own personality. For one person, observance of all yamas and niyamas culminates in profound meditation, but for another it results in hysteria and psychotic fits. Therefore adhikara, or one's personal qualifications, must be considered. To preserve the health of the mind, remember that whatever makes your mind sick is anti-yama and anti-niyama. Anything that can suppress your consciousness and mind and create suffocation, restlessness and depression in your personality is also anti-yama and anti-niyama.

The use of mantra

The whole affair should be a natural and pleasant experience. If, by the practice of yama and niyama, tensions are caused, then what will happen in pratyahara, not to mention meditation? Therefore, along with yama and niyama, one should practise mantra yoga. A mantra is a word, a vibration, which liberates the mind from samskaras just as energy is liberated from matter. This is the etymology of mantra. It is purely defined in terms of mental and spiritual freedom or moksha.

According to nada yoga, the structure of matter is comprised of millions of sounds, both familiar and unknown. Every object is a dense composition of sound particles, and the aggregation of these particles is conceived by the yogis in the form of a sound or mantram. When you recite the mantram, you are actually working out the problems of your awareness and your mind. This is a most powerful practice.

Let us take, for example, the mantram Om. It is composed of two sounds, O and M, and can be repeated in four ways - audibly, in a whisper, mentally, or automatically. Finally, it becomes a part of your consciousness. As the canvas on which an artist paints a beautiful picture ceases to exist, in the same manner, the mantram is embedded into the general structure of the mind.

You must practise the mantram in four stages. First, aloud, either as Ommmmmm or Ooooomm, allowing the sound to be registered by the brain, which in turn alters its waves so that peace of mind and pratyahara occur spontaneously. After a few months, it should be chanted in a whisper, then mentally, and finally in conjunction with the breath. Pratyahara becomes successful if mantra is taken as the basis of sadhana.


In pratyahara, the awareness is temporarily disconnected from the sensory and motor nerves. The forward going impulses are withdrawn from the karmendriyas (senses related to action) and from the gyanendriyas (senses related to sensation and knowledge). As a result, the awareness is isolated from perception of extraneous stimuli. But within, one perceives a different kind of material, known as samskara.

The flow of experience is blocked, therefore the mind broods upon the accumulated impressions of previous births, together with the last twenty to sixty years of one's present life. As each impression surfaces, a mental explosion occurs. Normally, when you are in the market, or watching television, your mind is quiet and you have no problem. But the moment you take the mala and start mantra japa, concentrating on the breath or one of the chakras, disturbances begin.

Is this good or necessary? Absolutely. These distractions or vikshepas must take place in the initial stage of pratyahara, otherwise you will have to face them in the stage of dharana, in dhyana or even in savikalpa samadhi. If your stomach is upset, it won't make any difference whether you travel to Calcutta, Bombay or Monghyr. You must clean it somewhere, and the sooner the better. It is easier to do the cleansing of the whole chamber of consciousness during the stage of pratyahara. Let everything come out! When sadhakas practise pranayama and experience fears, passions and anxieties, they believe their sadhana is wrong. This is a mistake. Bliss cannot descend upon one immediately. To fully enjoy a meal, the stomach must be clean beforehand. Similarly, to enjoy the bliss of dhyana, the mind must be purified. This process of cleansing is unavoidably painful and unpalatable.


Imagine a candle burning on a small table in a room. The window is open and the flame flickers. Now, if you switch on the fan, the flame will be extinguished. But if you close the window and turn off the fan, the flame will become steady. Your awareness is like the flame and it must be made constant by closing the windows of the senses. Then you will effortlessly experience dharana or concentration. Simply close your eyes, and without mental pressure, you will perceive the object.

Suppose you are trying to visualise the flame of a candle. In the stage of pratyahara, you can't stabilise your mind enough to hold the image. In dharana, however, the light of the candle immediately appears, although this is interspersed with thoughts as the mind is diverted. Basically, in dharana, the symbol becomes effulgent and steady. In order to achieve this, the following practices are important.

The first is trataka. In this practice you gaze steadily at one point, such as a candle flame. The rapid eye movements (R.E.M.) which take place during dharana, break your concentration from time to time, and they also remove the pattern of your symbol. You see the flame and it disappears. This is because the movements of the eye influence the structure of consciousness which is supported by the brain. So concentration on a particular point in trataka will give your eyes the required steadiness. Then, with eyes closed, you will be able to hold your concentration for three to five minutes, and R.E.M. will not occur.

The second practice is shambhavi mudra, in which one focuses both eyes on the space between the eyebrows.

The third practice is nasikagra drishti, in which one gazes at the nose tip. This further strengthens one's ability to control the R.E.M. and thereby enables one to maintain a steady vision of the symbol.


All the practices of the raja yoga system of Patanjali are necessary to refashion the consciousness. Just as a sculptor carves a beautiful masterpiece from a rough piece of stone, so too must the crude and primitive personality of the individual be hewn and purified. The qualities of tamas and rajas must be eliminated. After one is free from unnecessary past karma, his awareness is then left completely isolated, so that consciousness is able to experience itself.

The awareness known as chaitanya, functions on four different levels. In jagriti, the waking state, it functions through the medium of the senses and the mind. In swapna, the sleeping state, it operates on the dreaming level. Sushupti, known as the dreamless sleep state, occurs when all stimuli are removed, and the consciousness does not perceive either an object, experience or vision. In the fourth stage, called turiya, the awareness is free from all impressions, all channels are closed and it experiences itself in its pure form. I know I am. When this knowledge takes place, we have achieved the purpose of yoga - the evolution of human life.

Raja yoga for today

Man, in his ignorance, has been experiencing the horrors of his own personality. He creates problems, and in his anxiety to solve them, creates further problems. It is like a man cleaning a toilet bowl with his own faeces. How can problems ever cure problems? How can a mind which is incapable and impotent, resolve such turmoil? You cannot overcome the dilemma of conflict through the medium of the mind. Many people from both the east and the west who hold great qualifications in the study of the mind and psyche, are unable to solve their own problems. The solution lies in transcending the mind. If you have mental distress, psychoses, and neuroses, you must learn how to master the mind. It is not enough to merely know all its components. This cannot be achieved by observing religious practice or simply submitting oneself to a puritanistic way of life.

Just as there is a science to teach you how to drive and maintain a car, there is also a science in which you can learn to operate this vehicle, this life. Yoga is the science which teaches you to hold the steering mechanism correctly, how and when to apply the brakes, how to run this life in different gears, so that it will flow in harmony and carry you wherever you desire.

The body and the mind are vehicles. The emotions, passions and thoughts are vrittis (modifications of the mind) but they are not the mind. Mind is not bad or good, not evil or divine. Mind is nirguna, born of Brahman, and its shakti is beyond imagination. Just as light, when it leaks through the cracks in a door can enable you to see objects, in the same way, the supreme power is leaking through the mind and that is awareness and consciousness.

Mind is not a mischievous bundle of habits. It is not sinful, or composed of religious dogma. It is the leakage of transcendental reality through the consciousness and the senses. With that little light of the mind, you are able to see and you are aware. This tiny light can be made more effulgent, so that you can realise the cosmos and your creator. The raja yoga system of Patanjali can develop the mind to an infinite degree. It is designed so that a multitude of people in the world who are clamouring for delivery from pain, may tread the path and attain kaivalya - the highest state of self-realization.