The first thing you think of when you hear the word yoga is probably stretching, or black pants, or balancing on one leg. But these things only make up one aspect -- the physical part -- of a true yoga practice.
Raja yoga is a term used for the complete practice: not just time spent on the mat, but the spiritual and emotional components of yoga philosophy, as well. Because of this, the ultimate goal of raja yoga is not mastering a handstand or getting flatter abs. It's about achieving peace of mind with a regular meditation practice.
Raja, or "royal" yoga, refers to the eight limbs of yoga laid out in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra -- an ancient Sanskrit text that's served as the foundation of classical yoga -- more than 1,700 years ago. During most modern-day yoga classes, we tend to focus on just one or two of these limbs: asana, the physical movements involved with yoga; and pranayama, the connection to our breath. The other limbs may be more easily ignored or neglected in an hour-long studio session, but they are important for Raja yoga, nonetheless. [Source: Herbert] The eight limbs include:
- Yama: ethical practices, such as nonviolence and truthfulness
- Niyama: self-discipline, such as cleanliness, attending church regularly, and keeping up with a personal meditation practice.
- Asana: the physical practice of moving through different yoga postures.
- Pranayama: the ability to control one's breath; literally meaning "life force extension"
- Pratyahara: the withdrawal of the senses, and the ability to step back and look out ourselves objectively
- Dharana: intense concentration; the ability to focus intensely on a single point in preparation for meditation
- Dhyana: meditation or contemplation; the ability to silence the mind without any specific focus or thoughts
- Samadhi: a state of ecstasy and peace that can be reached by following the first seven limbs
A studio that advertises Raja yoga classes will likely focus more on the last two limbs of yoga -- dhyana and samadhi. The practice of silent reflection and meditation may be a larger part of the class than what you're used to, and the instructor may discuss the concept of yoga beyond just stretching and breathing. [Source: Herbert]
The terms Raja yoga and Ashtanga yoga are sometimes used interchangeably; Ashtanga means "eight-limbed," and also refers to this all-encompassing philosophy. But in modern-day American yoga, Ashtanga is usually used to describe a specific sequence of postures, whereas Raja is considered a more general term.