Yoga is the science of right living. Yoga appeals to those persons who desire change within, who are dissatisfied with the present state of affairs both within themselves and in their exterior lives, and who desire a fundamental transformation.
The word yoga literally means union, communion, merging, or much better, fusion. Yoga means a process of reintegration of the lower consciousness with the higher and mightier consciousness in man. It also means union between the intellectual personality or conscious forces and the subconscious and unconscious forces in man. Yoga is a very comprehensive term which includes asanas, pranayama, mysticism, meditation, selfless activity, surrender to the supreme power, experiencing of super-consciousness and the awakening of mental powers and capacities.
In yoga there are four main paths for treating the different kinds of tensions. These are the paths of bhakti yoga, devotion and self-surrender to God or a guru; karma yoga, perfect work with perfect detachment; raja yoga, mental control, which includes asanas, pranayama and meditation; and gyana yoga, self-analysis and enquiry leading to wisdom. These are the yogas emphasized in the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras.
In the modern world raja yoga is the most commonly practiced of all the yogas and fits most closely the popular conception of what yoga is about. This is especially true in the western countries despite their emphasis on intellectual knowledge, and the reason is because the results are very good. Raja yoga is for every person, whatever his nature, because it includes all the requirements for higher spiritual life, from start to finish. Yoga nidra is a method of raja yoga. In recent years the popularisation of Indian mysticism in the west has seen a great development of bhakti yoga, but raja yoga is still the most widely practiced form of yoga.
Raja yoga it concerned with consciousness and its various manifestations: conscious, subconscious, unconscious and super-conscious. The classic exposition of raja yoga is to be found in a book called Yoga Sutras, a masterful collection of 196 aphorisms written by the ancient sage Patanjali some time before the birth of Christ (see Four Chapters on Freedom, published by the Bihar School of Yoga). Patanjali divided the path of raja yoga into eight stages, starting from the basic rules of character change in the individual and ending with the final stage of samadhi or self-realization. The stages are as follows:
The first four stages of this yoga refer to specific practices but the last four refer to states of consciousness as well as the practices needed to achieve them. At first the consciousness is withdrawn into the state of pratyahara and then it is expanded towards samadhi, which Patanjali says is only reached when all the stages have been developed.
It should be clear by this point that yoga embraces a very wide field, but in the popular mind it is still restricted to the physical exercises or postures (asanas) and breathing practices (pranayama) which together make up hatha yoga. Asanas and pranayama are very important, but they are only preliminary.
At the same time, the so-called physical exercises of hatha yoga do not only give health benefits - benefits such as weight reduction, toning of muscles, beauty treatment and treatment of conditions like sinus, ulcers and asthma. Scientists have discovered that asanas and pranayama also influence negative, psychosomatic, mental and vital conditions which appear in the form of psychological diseases. Mental conditions such as restlessness, anxiety, neurosis, sleeplessness and worries can safely be cured through the yogic science of physical postures, for not only do these remove physical defects and problems but they influence and stimulate the various glands which act upon the emotions.
When we come to the practices of meditation, we find that there are many hundreds of methods of 'going in', from external awareness to internal awareness. In yoga, meditation plays a central role as a very effective method of bringing mental and physical relaxation and freeing the mind from tensions and deep-rooted complexes. Meditation in the west is regarded as a process of contemplation of a particular idea, but here it is defined as a process of awareness development by which we try to come closer to our higher self. In meditation one tries to acquire complete knowledge of the mind and to systematically train and regulate the infinite potentialities of the mind, The method is not so difficult but a suitable technique must be found for each person. All techniques aim to lead the individual through pratyahara into dharana where pure meditation or dhyana may occur, There are many effective techniques such as japa yoga, ajapa japa, mantra siddhi yoga, yoga nidra, antar mouna, chidakasha dharana, trataka nada yoga, prana vidya and kriya yoga (see Meditations from the Tantras, published by the Bihar School of Yoga). The two of these most useful for modern man are japa yoga and yoga nidra.
Meditation itself comes spontaneously, but to develop meditation you have to go through a whole process of relaxation. The process is accomplished by withdrawing from the external environment and going deep within yourself. You progressively withdraw your awareness from the world outside, from your body, your breathing, your conscious mind, your subconscious mind, and also your unconscious mind, this last being difficult. In yoga it is said that when consciousness is withdrawn from all of these, complete relaxation takes place and true meditation begins. In Patanjali's system this represents the complete practice of pratyahara, dharana and dhyana.
Many of the techniques listed previously accomplish pratyahara by systematic practice of body awareness, breathing awareness, sound awareness and mantra repetition. They effect withdrawal partly by concentrating the mind and partly by keeping it engrossed in internal things, so that it forgets the surroundings. When pratyahara is complete the mind becomes one-pointed, and there arises then the problem of how to hold the consciousness at that particular point and maintain awareness internally. If pratyahara is continued, consciousness becomes completely withdrawn into unconsciousness, i.e. you fall asleep. For this reason when the consciousness becomes restricted to a limited area, a psychic symbol is chosen as an object of concentration. This should be a concrete object rather than an abstract idea, it should have a form. It may be a human figure, such as Christ, Buddha or your guru, or it may be a lotus flower, a triangle, a chakra symbol, a golden egg or a simple mandala or yantra. It may also be a mantra which has taken on its own form or image. In yoga nidra these psychic symbols are provided for you.
At this stage of the practice your awareness is moving into the area of the subconscious. Especially in the beginning, when you try to concentrate on your psychic symbol or image, many other images arise to disturb or distract your attention. These images are really subconscious eliminations - instinctive expressions, hidden motives, unfulfilled desires, memories, experiences - symbolic expressions of the deeper layers of your personality. In yoga they are known as samskaras or impressions that make up the sum total of the ego-centred mind; in western psychoanalysis they are described as inhibitions, complexes, suppressions, neuroses, fears, phobias and psychoses. They are the cause of our deep-rooted tensions and the constant restlessness of the mind, and they lie at the very source of our behaviour. They condition our conscious thoughts and experiences and compel us to act in certain predictable ways. In yoga it is very important to purge these manifestations of the sick personality in order to make progress.
This subconscious, emotionally charged material is always waiting for expression at the threshold of your mind and starts to arise as soon as muscular and mental relaxation is achieved. It is not necessary or even desirable to analyse these impressions but they must be exhausted before you can proceed to deeper levels of meditation. When they first arise, these images may take on disturbing or frightening forms, such as demons, dragons, ghosts, serpents, devils and so on. Gradually, however, their aspect changes and you start to sec beautiful gardens, serene lakes, rolling landscapes, holy men and yourself at peace, various images of the higher self. Whatever experiences you have or images you see, it is most important that you do not become involved; simply regard them as things taking place on a movie screen in front of you. You should only remain aware and detached. Awareness breaks the bonds of your attachments, it is the way to let go of your samskaras or impressions. Eventually all images cease to arise, perhaps after months or years of practicing meditation, and you become firmly established in the stage of pure meditation or dhyana.
Yoga nidra is a complete method of meditation that guides you from pratyahara into dharana, and eventually into dhyana. As normally given it is a method of sense withdrawal leading to relaxation, but the higher and subtler stages are also accessible to the aspirant who persists with his practices.