by Swami Karma Karuna: The depth of yoga that is understood and shared in our modern times is primarily touching the tip of the iceberg…
In a goal-oriented, pleasure-mad world, the dynamic postures of Hatha Yoga have captured many and become synonymous with the word ‘yoga’. While postures are an important base, often the greater expanse of yoga remains like hidden gems in the ocean of wisdom.
As yoga teachers and practitioners living in times of incredible over-stimulation and challenge, there is much to be learned and gained from understanding the essence of Raja Yoga.
The most popularised form of Raja Yoga, touched on in many teacher-trainings, is the eight-limbed path attributed to Sage Patanjali, who compiled the Yoga Sutras. The steps laid out by Patanjali, progressively lead the practitioner through certain attitudes, the body, the prana, the mind and beyond.
While Raja Yoga is often accredited to Patanjali, historically, there are earlier references to Raja Yoga in texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Shaiva Yoga Text, Amanaska. They refer to Raja Yoga more as an ultimate goal or a state of experience.
Raja Yoga is called the Royal path. ‘Raja’ means ‘king, ruler or chief’. It could be thought of as the King of all yogas. Alternatively, it implies that one needs to become the Master of the mind. Rulers have control over their subjects and in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna speaks on the mind and describes how if one can befriend the mind and gain control over the mind, that person is the true yogi. Honestly reflecting, how many of us can truly manage the mind including the intellect, the deep-rooted memories, the subtle ego? Much of the time, the mind, body, emotions and the perceptions of our lives are influenced by unconscious thoughts and imbalances at a deep level and they colour our experiences.
The famous Yoga Sutras of Patanjali define yoga as “chitta vritti nirodha” or removing the fluctuations of the mind. While the word chitta is often used generically to cover all the aspects of the mind, there are four interconnecting functions of the mind that make up the whole.
Manas: The lowest aspect of the mind, which mediates the onslaught of sensory inputs and perceptions. It is the field of performance, action and living.
Chitta: Stores and organises the experiences of manas. It holds the impressions, memories and samskaras, which are imprinted in the unconscious, and provides context to the current experiences.
Ahamkara: Ego “I”, self-identity. Aham means “I” and akara “form”.
Buddhi: The highest aspect of mind, the intelligence, rationality or logic. Buddhi helps use to analyse, reflect and make appropriate decisions.
Swami Niranjanananda states that,
“A Vritti arises when one of the four functions of mind-manas, buddhi, ahamkara or chitta- becomes prominent. An altered mental state or outlook is experienced at this time, whether positive or negative. Just as a drop of ink can colour the jar of water, a drop of ahamkara, chitta, buddhi or manas, colours the clarity of the mind. This change in the natural state of mind is called a vritti.”
Mind, Mind Management and Raja Yoga. pg 38.
Modern-day high-speed living, with noise pollution, sensory overload and digital dizziness means that the manas is processing a huge amount of incoming sensory information. We live in an “I” oriented time period in which the “individual” and the “I” identity through social media and our current culture is very strong, compared to even a few generations back. Our memory banks or chittas are overfull and in desperate need of defragging. And our buddhi’s or higher mind can be veiled by the activities of ahamkara, manas, chitta, so that the wisdom, although certainly there, does not always shine through. In short, we don’t experience our true self, as it is clouded by the vrittis, which are influencing every aspect of our perception, our actions and experiences.
In order to address the challenges of the mind, purify it and connect to the higher self more continuously, Raja Yoga describes both a process that leads the mind to stillness and a state of mind that occurs when that stillness is realised.
The fifth stage of Patanjali’s Yoga path, pratyahara is one of the keys to gaining access to the layers of the mind and over time, unfolding a process of purification of the vrittis. Traditionally, pratyahara is described as the state of disconnection of the mind from the senses. Normally in the waking state, the mind is externalised and follows the senses – constantly connected, usually unconsciously, to what we see, hear, smell, taste and feel. Although, happening beneath the surface, it creates a continuous stream of activity at the inner level, pulling up memories, driving actions, thoughts, projections and reactions.
Swami Niranjanananda describes two ways to understand the concept of pratyahara in Raja Yoga Yatra 1, page 40-41.
- Prati + ahara -‘ahara’ means to consume and ‘prati’ means to reverse. Our senses are continually being fed by the outside stimulation, which creates the disturbance in the mind. So the reversal of this is the mind feeding the senses. You are cutting off the outside world and disconnecting from the input. The senses don’t become inactive, but rather they are fed by the input from the mind itself.
- ‘Pratyayas’ means impressions. The inputs from the senses and the experiences of life are all stored in the deep mind and form the layers of consciousness. They relate to the past, so another definition of pratyahara is to clear the past impressions, to remove the pratyaya and lighten the mind.
In the pathway laid out by Patanjali, the first four stages are the external steps; the fifth is a transition and a preparation, whereas the last three limbs are internal. The first four stages support the experience of pratyahara and the last three steps are a result of pratyahara.
- Yama – Social codes or disciplines (harmonise external interactions)
- Niyama – Personal codes or disciplines (harmonise inner life)
- Asana – Steady and still physical postures (harmonise body/mind)
- Pranayama – Breath techniques (harmonise vital energy in body)
- Pratyahara – Withdrawal of the mind from the senses
- Dharana – Concentration
- Dhyana – Effortless flow of awareness (the state of meditation)
- Samadhi – Self-realisation
The Yamas and Niyamas are qualities of mind to develop, not religious or moral codes. They help to harmonise the external interactions and the inner experiences. Qualities such as non-violence, truthfulness, non-possessiveness, cleanliness and contentment create the right condition for deeper practice. If the mind is disturbed due to inner violence or attachments, then it will be impossible to experience a meditation state.
Asana from the point of view of Patanjali is not the dynamic postures that we think of as yoga.
It is described as a steady, still, comfortable posture, which can be held for a length of time. Swami Niranjanananda explains the comfort as not just a physical state, but says; “mental happiness and physical stability come together to create the experience of comfort.” Raja Yoga Yatra 1, pg. 16. The attachment to the sense experiences and the constant association with them triggers craving and stimulus to the nervous system, which in turn influences the mind and creates disharmony. This discord does not allow us to be still and comfortable either physically or mentally.
Asana approached from a Raja Yoga perspective are held for longer and with concentration, for example on a chakra. The focus is not only the body but rather on the state of mind in the practice. This helps to train the mind, to become more present and aware, as well as to develop pratyahara, withdrawal from the external inputs. Ultimately, the Raja Yoga approach to asana focuses on seated meditation postures with mudras, in which the physical postures trigger the nadis, flows of energy, in a particular way. The postures are used to help balance the prana. If the vital energy is not flowing harmoniously, again the mind will be influenced.
When Sage Patanjali described pranayama, he did not go into the many different techniques such as Bhastika and Nadi Shodhana, but rather, he says that pranayama is the cessation of the breath. As long as inspiration and expiration are occurring, then metabolism is being triggered. This activates the nervous system and disturbs the underlying pranic field, which is also connected to the mind. So in order to experience mental stillness, the goal, it is necessary to extend the space between the inhalation and exhalation, called kumbhak.
Yamas, Niyamas, Asana and Pranayama are supports to pratyahara, which marks the transition from the external stages towards the subtler, higher stages. Pratyahara involves the extension, detachment and the withdrawal of the awareness from the senses.
Drawing attention to the sensory input through extension of the awareness into the external environment begins to reduce the impact of sense impressions – and facilitates detachment and withdrawal. As long as there is contact with name, form, time or idea the five senses continue to operate. The aim is withdrawing the awareness from the sensory inputs, connecting it to the inner realms and establishing the witness. The flow of thoughts, memories, visual or auditory impressions and emotions still occur, but the observer is non-attached and peaceful.
Pratyahara allows for a process of mental shuddhi or purification of the mind. The normal activities of the senses, memories, ego and intellect continue to block the higher mind. In the same way that Hatha Yoga can be utilised to detoxify the body, with the practices of pratyahara, the mind can be lightened.
Different Levels of Pratyahara
Physical Pratyahara: It begins as a physical experience in which the senses that are normally linked to the outside world are disconnected from the external environment and sense pratyahara is developed, often described as pulling the legs and head of the turtle into the shell.
Mental Pratyahara: As the focus turns inwards, one needs to develop the witness in order to be less influenced by the movements of the mind.
Prana Pratyahara: Swami Niranjanananda explains that the thoughts have energy behind them. Once the energy is withdrawn from something, like for example the physical body, it ceases to exist. In the same way, prana within the limiting vrittis, needs to be removed, so that thought will not longer disturb the mind. This is a more advanced form of pratyahara, thus the starting point is with the physical and mental pratyahara.
Practices to Enhance Pratyahara
Kaya Sthairyam-Body Stillness
The word ‘kaya’ means ‘body’ and ‘sthairyam’ translates as ‘steadiness’. This is a preliminary practice that is necessary to perfect to experience dharana or concentration. The first stages include focus on the body sensations. By concentrating the mind on the external input and witnessing the experiences without moving or reacting, the awareness gradually turns off from the sensations and inwards in a natural way, allowing for development of body stillness. Stillness of body creates stability also in the mind, through the reduction of sensory input.
Antar Mouna-Inner Silence
The practice of the Antar Mouna, leads one through the different stages of pratyahara. In the first stage, focus is on the external stimuli, the feeling sensations, sounds, smells, tastes and sights. Through the scientific process of habituation, when the senses receive a continual input for some time, after a while, a disconnection occurs. Imagine walking into a room that smells of burnt toast. After a few minutes, you are no longer aware of the burnt toast.
By drawing conscious awareness to an area, it enables the mind to be freer in that area. Gradually the mind is withdrawn from more and more distractions allowing the awareness to turn in upon itself. Once in the inner realms, the constant flow of thought comes to the surface. The aim in stage two, is to develop the witnessing attitude, so rather than getting caught in the thought, one watches it, like standing on the platform at a train station, watching the trains by. This second stage deepens the state of pratyahara, in which the thoughts lose some of their power due to the unaffected observing. This begins the process of mental pratyahara. With regularity of practice, the deeper material can come to the surface and the pratyaya (subtle impressions) begin arising.
The third stage allows one to work consciously with the impressions and memories. By being the witness, the chitta vritti can be gradually witnessed and released. It creates understanding of the workings of the rational and irrational mind. The essence of the technique is acceptance and respect for the mind, and the ability to remain an impartial witness to all of its manifestations.
Yoga Nidra leads one progressively through the pratyahara process, the transition of the awareness from external to internal – from gross to subtle. In the body rotation, physical pratyahara is systematically developed, by releasing physical tension. The prana also can flow more freely, so relaxation of the prana occurs which is a first step in prana pratyahara. Mental pratyahara is developed by releasing mental and emotional tensions, which arise when the mind is in the state between waking and sleeping. If the practitioner remains the witness, they can be released.
The experience of life is a projection of the mind. We are wearing glasses, which are clouded by the activities of the ego, the memories and sensory inputs, and the peace and balance is disturbed. If we want to see clearly, we need to clean the glasses of our mind. The steps of pratyahara, allow one to manage the sense impressions that are so prevalent. As the state of pratyahara is deepened, the unconscious layers are purified and eventually the ability to reconnect with the higher wisdom is a natural outcome. The path of Raja Yoga, the Royal pathway, provides a golden brick road, leading us home to our own higher self.
Yoga Nidra is an incredible yogic practice to do daily and have in your tool belt in case of emergency. If you feel called to experience the life-changing benefits of this practice, learn more about it, and take control of your mental, physical and emotional well being, join us at Anahata Yoga Retreat for a Yoga Nidra & Restorative Yoga Immersion. To go even deeper with the practice and learn to teach it, you can stay for the Yoga Nidra & Restorative Yoga Teacher Training course, which includes a 3-month training package. Find out more at www.anahata-retreat.org.nz