Interview with Mary Reneé on what is Raja Yoga

This Saturday Mary begins a two part series exploring a practice of Raja (Royal/Illumined) Yoga, as this path of yoga is unfamiliar to most I asked Mary to shed some light for us…..

Please explain how a Raja yoga practice differs from the more commonly known Hatha Yoga?

 MR – In the last few pages of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Svatmarama discusses the relationship between Hatha yoga and Raja yoga and prescribes Hatha yoga as preparation for Raja yoga. Some say Hatha yoga disciplines the body and allows one to gain control of physical functions, where as Raja yoga disciplines the mind. Raja yoga is often referred to as Ashtanga Yoga, or the eight limbed path described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. In a Hatha yoga practice, we often explore a few of these limbs, such as asana (physical postures) and pranayama (breath control), but in most classes we don’t explore other limbs, such as the dharana (concentration of mind) or dhyana (meditation). Therefore in a Raja Yoga practice one might incorporate all the techniques and practices of Hatha yoga (asana, pranayama, mudra, etc.) while also incorporating the other limbs in order to prepare the body and mind for meditation. This leads one to the ultimate goal of Raja yoga, controlling the mind in order to reach or attain Self-realization. 

 Can anyone practice Raja yoga?

 MR – Yes, anyone can practice Raja yoga, but some experience of the Hatha yoga practices is necessary. In a typical Hatha yoga class a lot of instruction is given regarding the physical body, whether it is the ailment within a pose or the mechanics of various breathing techniques. In a Raja yoga practice there is less focus on the physical state and more focus on the mental state. Therefore one should have enough experience to safely practice the limbs, such as asana and pranayama, without physical cues, allowing them to focus more on intention and a deeper experience. 

Tell us about your studies of yoga philosophy?

 MR – I was initially introduced to yoga through Patabhi Jois’s Ashtanga lineage. For many years I practiced the physically challenging series of asanas, without exploring yoga philosophy. In 2004, I had just returned from India when I had an accident. Breaking my leg and requiring surgery, the physical practice was not accessible. I began to spend my time studying and reading yoga philosophy. This was an event that changed my life and practice tremendously. 

After moving to Austin I decided to go back to school in order to finish a degree I had started many years ago in Studio Art. As an elective, I took a course through the Asian Studies Department studying the Mahābhārata and Ramayana. I was immediately enthralled and decided to further pursue studies specifically in South Asian Studies. Soon after I met my favorite professor, Stephen Phillips, who was offering a course on Indian Philosophy. It was in that course that my love for philosophy grew. Listening to Phillips debate the various schools of thought within Indian Philosophy without the slightest hint of a personally prescribed dogma and with an obvious wealth of knowledge and passion was absolutely inspiring. Later he offered a course specifically on Yoga Philosophy, and it was during this course I decided I wanted to dive deeper. I recently graduated from UT, but I am hoping to continue my studies and am working on getting into the PhD program. Until then I will be auditing classes and absorbing all that I can within my own studies! 

 Can you give us a brief example of yoga philosophy and how it connects to a on the mat practice? 

 MR – To me the most fascinating thing about yoga philosophy is that it encompasses various beliefs and practices, and although there may be contradicting ideas of what the Self or Consciousness are, each philosophical school of thought referencing yoga does so in order to acquire Self-realization. Two people can have completely different philosophical beliefs, but both can practice yoga with the aim of Self-realization. When specifically practicing Raja yoga, the aim is to control the mind in order to know the Self. As Swami Satchidananda says, “Every thought, feeling, perception, or memory you may have causes a modification, or ripple, in the mind. It distorts and colors the mental mirror. If you can restrain the mind from forming into modifications, there will be no distortion, and you will experience your true Self.” A yogi can take a concept like ahimsa (non-injury or non-harming) and practice it on the mat by observing their body and mind with the intention of non-harming. This not only protects the body from injury during asana practice, which allows them to sit comfortably in meditation, but it also trains the mind as it requires one to observe their reactions by restraining from harmful thoughts or emotions. For example, people often express judgments regarding their physical practice or lack of mental control during meditation. These judgements can be harmful as they “distort and color the mental mirror,” clouding our knowledge of the Self. Therefore, incorporating concepts like ahimsa are extremely important to the practice of yoga on and off the mat. 

For those with an established Hatha practice how easy or difficult will the transition to a Raja practice be?  

It can be extremely difficult to meditate without preparing the body and mind. For those with an established Hatha practice a lot of the work has been done since an established practice requires a great deal of discipline and observation. Therefore, I feel the transition from a Hatha yoga practice to a Raja yoga practice is a natural progression.

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