Raja or “royal” yoga is the method of seeking salvation through mind control. It is believed that the mind is a fine part of the body, or the body a gross part of the mind (such that the two words are often conjoined in yoga literature as bodymind), and so if the yogi can learn to control his body he can also control his mind. This belief in the interrelationship between body and mind is the basis for yoga’s emphasis on physical disciplines and postures, since it is believed that they will help the yogi achieve the pure state of consciousness that is the goal of classical yoga.
Swami Vivekananda, perhaps yoga’s most respected missionary to the West and virtually the first, wrote: “According to the Raja-Yogi, the external world is but the gross form of the internal, or subtle….The man who has discovered and learned how to manipulate the internal forces will get the whole of nature under his control. The Yogi proposes to himself no less a task than to master the whole universe, to control the whole of nature.”9
Vivekananda stressed that yoga was the perfect religion for the scientific Western culture that was losing faith in its theistic roots: “Each one of the steps to attain Samadhi has been reasoned out, properly adjusted, scientifically organised, and, when faithfully practised, will surely lead us to the desired end.”10 How can a religious discipline be considered scientific? The answer is that within a monistic system there can be no division of the supernatural from the natural. All is one; thus all spiritual phenomena have their explanation in natural laws. When a yogi masters the “whole of nature” he has conquered and can now manipulate God Itself.
Raja yoga is distinct from any other approach to yoga in that it can include or provide a larger context for all of the other approaches, including the minor approaches listed below. In this sense, almost this entire two-part article is about raja or ashtanga yoga, in one aspect or another.