Raja yoga is one of the most esoteric forms of yoga practiced by the fewest followers of Hinduism. It concentrates heavily on training the mind, connecting with the life force and withdrawing into the highest states of spiritual life. Raja yoga's precepts are concerned with moral, physical and mental discipline, taught in a set of eight stages. Adherents note that there are both risks and rewards to practicing raja yoga.
Raja yoga is one of the four yogas of Hinduism, along with jnana, bhakti and karma. All forms of yoga have a goal of release from the mundane physical world, which is achieving "moksha." The word "raja" comes from the Sanskrit word for royal or king, and the word "yoga" from the word for union. The main preoccupation of raja yoga is cultivation of the mind. Scholars describe it as quite introspective, and a yoga form that uses the mind as an instrument of research. One of its most notable teachers, Swami Vivekananda, differentiated raja yoga from many religious practices that are based on faith, suggesting that you can use your own mind as a more scientific method of understanding the universe and answering life's questions.
There are eight components to practicing raja yoga. A moral code, or a set of dos and don'ts, comprises the first two. The first is a set of five yamas, or things to abstain from: injuring, lying, stealing, sensuality and greed. The second is a set of five niyamas or things to observe: mental and physical cleanliness, contentment, self-control, studiousness and devotion. The next three components are about physical discipline. Asana involves physical postures to maintain during meditation. Pranayama involves breath control and heartbeats to calm your mind and direct energy. Pratyahara is a practice of withdrawing from physical senses, making the mind more introspective.
Mental Discipline and Meditation
The final three components are about mental discipline. Dharana is about concentration and involves fixing attention on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. Dhyana is a level of mastery of total concentration and deep meditation. Samadhi, the highest level, is total absorption. It is achieving the supreme bliss of enlightenment and uniting the self and the Brahman, the sacred power that is the source and sustainer of the universe.
Mental discipline and meditation are what distinguish raja yoga from other forms of yoga. The practice uses meditation to avoid and separate yourself from mental obsessions and false mental states. Raja yoga is predicated on the notion that thoughts, feelings, perceptions and memories, along with external things, distort the true Self. Practicing raja helps to dissolve these barriers to becoming your true Self, connecting with and controlling the life force and elevating toward the infinite and eternal Self.
Risks and Rewards
Raja yoga confers some unusual benefits when properly practiced, in part because of the connection you make with the Brahman, according to Swami Vivekananda. These include psychic powers, reading other people's thoughts, control of forces of nature, becoming "almost all-knowing," living without breathing, power to levitate and control of others bodies. A report by Lander University's Oriental Philosophy includes cautions by practitioners that when you abuse the raja Yoga practice, "it can create a hell past human imagining." Premature awakening of latent forces can cause mental instability, the report says.