Raja Yoga commonly refers to the royal or higher Yoga. While the term is not specifically mentioned in the Yoga Sutras for its teaching, the Yoga Sutra tradition has been commonly called Raja Yoga over time. Yet Raja Yoga is an ancient term found as early as in the works of Adi Shankara. It aims directly at a change of consciousness, and relates to the control of the mind and the cultivation of Samadhi, the state of unitary awareness.
Hatha Yoga as a term is mentioned as early as Adi Shankara, though its components like Pranayama, Mantra and Samadhi, like those of Raja Yoga, are as old as the Vedas. It is mainly studied through Shaivite texts like Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the teachings of the Nath Yogis like Gorakhnath who lived over a thousand years ago, though it reflects the older tradition of Pashupata Yoga through the great guru Lakulish going back to the Mahabharata. Hatha Yoga brings in asana as the first of its three components, working with prana as the second component, and Raja Yoga or non-duality as the third, so Hatha Yoga is often regarded as a preparation for Raja Yoga.
Asana as physical posture is one of the outer limbs of Yoga Sutras, Raja Yoga and Hatha Yoga traditions overall. Some people call modern Asana-based Yoga practices as Hatha Yoga because asanas are mentioned in more detail in Hatha Yoga texts. This is incorrect because Hatha Yoga includes pranayama, Kundalini Yoga and directs us to Samadhi. It is not centered on Asana but on Prana.
Types of Raja Yoga
There are several types of traditional Raja Yoga. Patanjali Yoga Sutras is one but there is also the Vasishta Samhita and Yogi Yajnavalkya, which are additional ancient texts in the older Hiranyagarbha Yoga tradition that Patanjali is part of. The most important Raja Yoga text is the Bhagavad Gita of Sri Krishna, which emphasizes inner awareness and discernment and devotion, not asana or Hatha Yoga techniques.
There are additional forms of the higher Yogas like Raja Yoga including Siddha Yoga, which was the Raja Yoga that Shaivite Hatha Yogis aspired to. Gorakhnath teaches this as part of the higher teachings of Shaivite Yoga overall, including direct Self-realization. It is reflected in the works of Abhinavagupta and Kashmir, which similarly has several levels of teachings.
We must also mention the Advaitic or non-dualistic Raja Yoga as in the works of Adi Shankara like Aparokshanubhuti, in which even Asana is defined as resting in the Supreme Brahman, not simply a physical posture but a steady state of awareness. Raja Yoga and Jnana Yoga or the Yoga of Knowledge cross over in many ways and cannot always be separated. In the Yoga Sutras the state of Kaivalya or the natural state of the Self (Purusha) is achieved by knowledge (viveka-khyati).
Bhakti Yoga or Devotion can also comprise a direct or Raja Yoga, as in the Ishvara Pranidhana, surrender to the Divine Self within, emphasized in the Yoga Sutras. Similar devotional terms and practices are found throughout the greater Yoga tradition.
The ultimate goal of Yoga is Self-realization, whether Patanjali or Shankara, which is a radical shift of our awareness from its identification with body and mind to its natural state of pure consciousness detached from body and mind. This Self is the Universal Self, not the bodily self or mental self or the embodied self in any form.
As such, all Yoga is ultimately Raja Yoga, and Raja Yoga includes the outer aspects of Yoga among its preparatory factors, affording it an integral approach. Similarly, Jnana Yoga also includes Hatha Yoga and Karma Yoga as part of its preparatory practices.
Purification of body, prana and mind form an integral part of all Yoga paths as by nature, we human beings have many karmic tendencies and pranic blockages that must be removed so that the mind has the subtlety to reflect the higher Self. Without this preliminary purification, particularly for modern and western Yoga practitioners, there is not the inner composure and discernment to approach the inner Self beyond the mind.
Yoga has many levels and practices, based upon the state and aptitude of the individual, what is called “adhikara” in Sanskrit. There are individual differences of doshas, gunas and karmas as well. The higher Yogas like Raja Yoga cannot be easily understood unless we remove the rajas and tamas, the arrogance and inertia from our own minds. Yet without the higher Yoga teachings and entering into the Inner Yoga of Samadhi and Raja Yoga, we cannot discover the higher truth.