The beginnings of the yoga tradition are no doubt shrouded in the mists of antiquity, but it is universally recognized that Indian Yoga constitutes one of the oldest and most important scientific spiritual legacies of humanity and has been preached as well as practiced uninterruptedly since the dawn of human history.
In this article we will have a look at the basic philosophy of yoga – Sankhya and Yoga, the two closely related darsanas (philosophies), are generally accepted in the Indian spiritual tradition as the earliest in the long line of codified systems of transcendental thought and spiritual practice. These two massive structures of the intellect based on transcendental experiences of individual researchers are referred to in many Sanskrit texts.
The Main Objective of Yoga practice is a transformation to be brought about by the conscious effort at the level of the mind, intellect, and consciousness. Patanjali’s classic definition of yoga: Yogas-citta-vrtti-nirodha, postulates a mental state where all ripples in the pool of consciousness have subsided. Citta is the instrument of consciousness and cognition in man.
Any ripple, any movement, any process, any modification in this pool of citta is called a Vrtti and represents an act cognition, an experience in consciousness. The aim of Patanjali’s yoga – and that is generally the ultimate goal of all yogic paths, whatever may be their immediate or intermediary objectives, is no less than the transformation of the Citta to a clear, still and transparent medium wherein the normal Vrttis have subsided altogether and a different and superior mode of cognition gradually asserts itself.
The eight limbs of ancient yoga (Ashtanga Yoga) as defined by Patanjali can be considered as the steps to follow yoga fundamentals.
- Yama (Abstention)
- Niyama (Application)
- Asana (Stable Posture)
- Pranayama (Energy Control)
- Pratyahara (Withdrawal of the Senses)
- Dharana (Concentration)
- Dhyana (Meditation)
- Samadhi (Absorption – Unitive Experience)
Niyama strengthens and safeguards Yama. Asana is how you relate to your body while Pranayama is relating to the breath and spirit. Pratyahara is the withdrawal of sense organs and Dharana or concentration is how you relate to your mind. Dhyana or meditation is moving beyond the mind and Samadhi is the meditative absorption, i.e. deep realization and inner union.
At the beginning of Patanjali’s eight-fold path of yoga or Ashtanga Yoga (Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi) is the Yamas: the moral, ethical and societal guidelines for the practicing yogi. These guidelines are all expressed in the positive, and thus become emphatic descriptions of how a yogi behaves and relates to his or her world when truly immersed in the state of the union in yoga.
Patanjali considered the Yamas the great, mighty and universal vows. In his Yoga Sutras, he guides us that they should be practiced on all levels (actions, words, and thoughts) and they should not be confined to class, place, time or concept of duty. While we may not strive to reach such a pure state ourselves, the Yamas are still highly relevant and valued guides to lead a conscious, honest and ethical life.
Yoga teachers or practitioners have a choice to live and teach the whole of yoga as instructed and defined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, or they can simply focus on the physical practice of asana. If they choose the whole of yoga, the first two steps of the eightfold path are the Yamas and niyamas. These ethical and spiritual observances help us develop the more profound qualities of our humanity.
The reason for practicing the Ashtanga Yoga is to develop attention as the tool for discriminative knowledge, which is the means to liberation or enlightenment. The Yamas and Niyamas build a foundation from which to do these subtle practices.
The five Yamas are considered codes of restraint, abstinence, self-regulation, and involve our relationship with the external world and other people:
- Ahimsa: non-violence, non-harming
- Satya: truthfulness, honesty
- Asteya: non-stealing
- Brahmacharya: continence
- Aparigraha: non-possessiveness, non-coveting
Ahimsa is the practice of non-violence, which includes physical, mental, and emotional violence towards others and the self. We create violence most often in our reactions to events and others, habitually creating judgment, criticism, anger or irritation. One of the main purposes of yoga is to cultivate feeling and awareness in the body, and violence only achieves the opposite result. At root, ahimsa means maintaining compassion towards yourself and others. It means being kind and treating all things with care.
Satya (truthfulness) urges us to live and speak our truth at all times. Walking the path of truth is a hard one, especially while respecting Patanjali’s first Yama, Ahimsa. Since Ahimsa must be practiced first, we must be careful to not speak a truth if we know it will cause harm to another.
Practicing Satya means being truthful in our feelings, thoughts, words, and deeds. It means being honest with ourselves and with others. Living in the truth not only creates respect, honor, and integrity but also provides the vision to clearly see the higher truths of the yogic path.
Asteya (non-stealing) is best defined as not taking what is not freely given. While this may on the surface seem easy to accomplish, when we look further this Yama can be quite challenging to practice. In a broader sense, practicing Asteya encourages generosity and overcomes Lobha (greed). Asteya does not only consist of “not stealing,” but also rooting out the subconscious beliefs of lack and scarcity that cause greed and hoarding in all their various manifestations. Patanjali says, “when Asteya is firmly established in a yogi, all jewels will be present in him or her.”
Brahmacharya (continence) states that when we have control over our physical impulses of excess, we attain knowledge, vigor, and increased energy. To break the bonds that attach us to our excesses and addictions, we need both courage and will. And each time we overcome these impulses of excess we become stronger, healthier and wiser.
One of the main goals of yoga is to create and maintain balance. And the simplest method for achieving balance is by practicing Brahmacharya, creating moderation in all of our activities. Practicing moderation is a way of conserving our energy, which can then be applied for higher spiritual purposes.
Aparigraha (non-coveting) urges us to let go of everything that we do not need, possessing only as much as necessary. The yogis tell us that worldly objects cannot be possessed at all, as they are all subject to change and will be ultimately destroyed. Aparigraha is the greed that is rooted in jealousy. When we become greedy and covetous we lose the ability to see our one eternal possession, the Atman, our true Self.
While we practice the Yamas we are striving towards living a healthier, holier and a more peaceful life and at the same time strengthening our powers of awareness, will and discernment and further progressing along the path of yoga. The best way or the only true way for the yoga practitioners or teachers to teach the yamas is to live them. We should practice them in our actions and embody them in our behavior and character, incorporate and integrate the discussions on how to practice yamas and niyamas while practicing asanas.
The second limb of Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga system contains the five internal practices of Niyama (observance). These practices extend the ethical codes of conduct provided in the first limb, the yamas, to the practicing yogi’s internal environment of body, mind, and spirit. The five niyamas are constructive tools for cultivating self-growth.
The practice of Niyama helps us maintain a positive environment in which to grow and gives us the self-discipline and inner-strength necessary to progress along the path of yoga.
Shaucha (purification) is a central aim of many yogic techniques and is the first principle of Patanjali’s Panch Niyama. The yogis discovered that impurities in both our external environment and our internal body adversely affect our state of mind, and prevent the attainment of real wisdom and spiritual liberation. The practice of asana, pranayama, and meditation cleanse and purify the body and mind, as well as strengthening their capacity to maintain a pure state of being.
We must also consciously work at surrounding ourselves with a pure environment (including food, drink, relationships, and behavior) to not add any external impurities back into our bodies or minds. Shaucha is not only the foundation for physical health – it is also the doorway to deeper and more tranquil states of meditation.
Santosha (contentment) is not craving for what we do not have as well as not coveting the possessions of others. This comes from an experience of acceptance – of life, of ourselves, and of whatever life has brought us. The yogis tell us that when we are perfectly content with all that life gives us, then we attain true joy and happiness.
It is easy for the mind to become fooled into thinking that we can attain lasting happiness through the possession of objects and goods, but both our personal experience and the teachings of the sages prove that the happiness gained through materialism is only temporary. Practicing contentment frees us from the unnecessary suffering of always wanting things to be different, and instead, fills us with gratitude and joy for all of the life’s blessings.
Tapas (asceticism) is a yogic practice of intense self-discipline and attainment of willpower. Basically, Tapas is doing something you do not want to do that will have a positive effect on your life. When our will conflict with the desire of our mind an internal “fire” is created which illuminates and burns up our mental and physical impurities. This inner fire can also be used as a source of spiritual energy; the yogis say the sole practice of Tapas can lead to the release of kundalini and attainment of enlightenment.
Tapas accompanies any discipline that is willingly and gladly accepted in order to bring about a change of some kind – whether it be improved health, a new habit, better concentration, or a different direction in life. Tapas focuses energy, creates fervor, and increases strength and confidence. The practice of asanas is a form of tapas for the body; meditation is a tapas that purifies and focuses the mind.
Tapas transforms and purifies us as well as enables the conscious awareness and control over our unconscious impulses and poor behavior. Tapas builds the willpower and personal strength to help us become more dedicated to our practice of yoga.
Svadhyaya (self-study) is the ability to see our true divine nature through the contemplation of our life’s lessons and through the meditation on the truths. It is the effort to know the Self that shines as the innermost core of our being. Life presents an endless opportunity to learn about ourselves; our flaws and weaknesses give us the opportunity to grow and our mistakes allow us to learn.
Examining our actions becomes a mirror to see our conscious and unconscious motives, thoughts, and desires more clearly. The yogic practice of Svadhyaya also involves the study of sacred and spiritual texts as a guide to our interior world where our true self-resides. Self-study requires both seeing who we are in the moment and seeing beyond our current state to realize our connection with the divine.
Ishvara Pranidhana (devotion) is the dedication, devotion, and surrender of the fruits of one’s practice to a higher power. This Niyama fuses two common aspects of yoga within it: the devotion to something greater than the self and the selfless action of karma yoga. Patanjali tells us that to reach the goal of yoga we must dissolve our egocentric nature and let go of our constant identification with ourselves.
To do this, our yoga practice and all of the benefits we may receive from our practice must be seen as an offering to something greater than ourselves. Through this simple act of dedication, we become reminded of our connection to our higher power, and our yoga practice becomes sacred and filled with grace, inner peace, and abounding love.
Self-surrender is not a process of defeat or of mindlessly submitting to another’s will. It is the act of giving ourselves to a higher purpose. The process guides us toward wholeness and the fulfillment of our inward quest.
The foundation limbs of Patanjali’s eight-fold path of yoga, Yama, and niyama, create a solid foundation and strong container for the yogi to move into the deeper stages of yoga with focus, inner strength, and success. Practicing the Yamas and Niyamas is a journey and process. We should take one step, one Yama or Niyama at a time and proceed with compassion and without worry of perfection.
Asana or posture is the third limb of yoga. This prepares one’s body and mind for meditation, as the disciplined body is required to control the mind. Patanjali had said, “Posture is mastered by freeing the body and mind from tension and restlessness and meditating on the Infinite”.
The various postures in Yogic practices include Asana (Pose), Kriya(Processes), Mudras (Symbols) and Bandhas (Locks). Each of these postures is specific for a particular part of the body or for a particular function of a specific part of the body.
Asana means a steady and pleasurable psychosomatic pose (i.e. one involving body and mind together). Asanas are countless. However, in the old texts such as Hatha Yoga Pradeepika, Gheranda Samhita, Shiv Samhita, Goraksha Samhita, etc., some selected asanas are described.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are 196 sutras or aphorisms. The Yoga Sutras were compiled by Patanjali taking materials about yoga from older traditions. Together with his commentary, they form the Patanjalayogasastra.
Asana is the practice of physical postures. The practice of moving the body into postures has widespread benefits; of these the most underlying are improved health, strength, balance, and flexibility. Traditionally, the purpose of asana (which translates as “to sit”) was to prepare the body for the internal practices that follow. On a deeper level the practice of asana, which means “staying” or “abiding” in Sanskrit, is used as a tool to calm the mind and move into the inner essence of being.
Asana is nowadays used to describe a large component of physical postures that offer a ton of health benefits including increased flexibility, core strength, physical and mental balance and detoxification of both body and mind. The challenge of poses offers the practitioner the opportunity to explore and control all aspects of their emotions, concentration, intent, faith, and unity between the physical and ethereal body.
Indeed, using asanas to challenge and open the physical body acts as a binding agent to bring one in harmony with all the unseen elements of their being, the forces that shape our lives through our responses to the physical world. Asana then becomes a way of exploring our mental attitudes and strengthening our will as we learn to release and move into the state of grace that comes from creating a balance between our material world and spiritual experience.
As one practices asana it fosters a quieting of the mind, thus it becomes both a preparation for meditation and a meditation sufficient in and of itself. Releasing to the flow and inner strength that one develops brings about a profound grounding spirituality in the body. The physicality of the yoga postures becomes a vehicle to expand the consciousness that pervades every aspect of our body.
The key to fostering this expansion of awareness and consciousness begins with the control of breath, the fourth limb – Pranayama. Patanjali suggests that the asana and the pranayama practices will bring about the desired state of health; the control of breath and bodily posture will harmonize the flow of energy in the organism, thus creating a fertile field for the evolution of the spirit. This down-to-earth, flesh-and-bones practice is simply one of the most direct and expedient ways to meet yourself.
This limbo of yoga practice re-attaches us to our body. In reattaching ourselves to our bodies we re-attach ourselves to the responsibility of living a life guided by the undeniable wisdom of our body. The needs of the body are the needs of the divine spirit which lives through the body. The yogi does not need to look heaven-ward to find the Infinite as he knows that the Infinite is within.
Pranayama is the practice of breath control, the fourth limb and a fundamental aspect of Ashtanga (eight limbs) yoga system. In yoga, breath is the key that unlocks the heavy doors that keep the unconscious mind far from our awareness. Pranayama is the fourth limb of Ashtanga Yoga. It can be described as a breathing exercise that promotes proper breathing.
The technique of Pranayama is used to measure, control and direct the breath of the practitioner. The aim of the technique is to restore and maintain the health of a person and promote evolution. Pranayama controls the energy within us, teaches us the proper way to breathe.
With proper breathing technique, we increase the capacity of our lungs, bringing more oxygen supply to the body to function well. It is the science of breath control.
Prana is the life force or energy that exists everywhere and flows through our body. Pranayama is derived from the following words:
- Prana – “life force” or “life energy”,
- Yama – “discipline” or “control”
- Ayama – “expansion”, “non-restraint”, or “extension”.
It consists of series of exercises, especially projected to meet the body’s needs and keep it in vibrant health. The deep and systematic breathing through Pranayama helps in reenergizing our body. Pranayama is the measuring, control, regulation and direction of the breath, in order to purify and remove distractions from the mind, making it easier to concentrate and meditate. It also restores and maintains health and promotes evolution.
Pranayama goes hand in hand with the physical practice. In the yoga sutra, the practice of pranayama and asana are considered to be the highest form of purification and self-discipline for the mind and body. The basic movements of pranayama are inhalation, retention of breath and exhalation. The practice of pranayama produces the actual physical sensation of heat (tapas) or the inner fire of purification.
It is taught that this heat is part of the process of purifying nadis, or subtle nerve channels of the body. This allows a more healthful state to be experienced and allows the mind to calm down. As we follow the proper rhythmic patterns of slow deep breathing, the patterns strengthen the respiratory system, soothe the nervous system and reduce craving. As desires and cravings diminish, the mind is set free and becomes a proper vehicle for concentration.
The Four Stages of Pranayama
- Arambha: This is the initial stage wherein the person’s interest in Pranayama is awakened.
- Ghata: This is the second stage where the three sariras (bodies) gross, subtle and casual merges to cover the soul.
- Parichay: The stage where the yogi gets familiar with the knowledge of Pranayama
- Nispatti: The final stage of Pranayama allows the yogi to go beyond his physical body, and unite with the supreme
Breathing is an automatic function of the body. The process is performed even without concentrating on it. It is a normal part of our life, though many times we fail to pay attention to it.
Benefits of Pranayama
- Pranayama prevents one from acquiring diseases by reducing the toxins and body wastes from our body.
- It also plays a vital role in maintaining the digestive system and helps in one’s digestion
- The proper way of breathing helps in improving one’s metabolism and health condition
- Pranayama develops and improves the concentration level as well as focus
- It banishes stress and relaxes the body. It also gives tranquility, calmness, and peace of mind borne out of controlling one’s breathing
- Pranayama offers better self-control that also involves control over one’s physical body
- It improves the concentration thus, making it easy for an individual to handle temper and reactions
- It allows mind to function clearly, avoiding arguments and wrong decisions
- Last but not the least, Pranayama leads to a spiritual journey through a relaxed body and mind.
The aim of pranayama is therefore to control the prana, the vital energy and this manifests itself mainly through the function of breathing exercises. It is often said that the yoga asana practice is incomplete without pranayama. It is just as asana is seen as food for the body, pranayama is seen as food for the mind. In other words, asana without breath is just stretching; it is not yoga. The breath heightens the practice of yoga by connecting the mind and drawing the attention of the yogi inwardly.
There are many techniques of pranayama and there are many that are centered on stopping the breath through inhalation and exhalation. The many different traditions of yoga focus on various pranayama techniques: samavritti pranayama (equal breathing), nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), ujjayi pranayama (victorious breath), bhramari pranayama (humming bee breath), kapalabhati pranayama (pumping breath), kumbhaka (breath retention). All these techniques work on calming the mind and improving concentration.
The ultimate goal of pranayama is to calm the mind and prepare it for spiritual concentration. Pranayama, if practiced regularly, can bring a striking feeling of plenitude; thus reducing anxieties, excitement, and restlessness. Pranayama can help improve concentration and enable focused prayer/reflection/contemplation which ultimately leads to a more positive and healthier lifestyle.
In the yoga sutra of Patanjali, the system of Ashtanga Yoga is presented as a series of practices which begin with external limbs like ethical precepts and move toward more internal limbs like dhyana or meditation. The fifth step or limb is called pratyahara and is defined as the conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses.
We seem to inherently understand the basic physical teachings like asana (the practice of posture), and pranayama (the use of breath to affect the mind). But for most of us, the practice of pratyahara remains elusive. Pratyahara or abstraction is that by which the senses do not associate with their own objects and imitate, as it were, the nature of the mind (Chitta).
Pratyahara itself is termed as Yoga, as it is the most important Anga or limb in Yoga Sadhana. This is the fifth step in the yogic path. The first four steps deal with ethical training and purification of body, mind, and nadis. Now with Pratyahara, proper Yoga begins which eventually culminates in Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi.
Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses (indriyas) from the objects. The senses are assimilated into the mind which is rendered pure through the practice of Yama, Niyama, and Pranayama. The mind further calms down. The nature of the senses is to have a constant connection with the objects. Where the vision is turned outward, the rush of fleeting events engages the mind.
The outgoing energies of the mind begin to play. When they are obstructed by the practice of Pratyahara, the other course for them is to mix with the mind and to be absorbed in the mind. The mind will not assume any form of an object. The senses become restrained as the mind is restrained.
He who has practiced Pratyahara can have good concentration and meditation. The mind is always peaceful and this demands patience and constant practice. It takes some years before one is well-established in Pratyahara. He who has mastery over Pratyahara will never complain of Vikshepa or distraction of mind. Pratyahara gives power to the practitioner.
When the Indriyas or senses are withdrawn from the objects, then you can fix the mind on a particular point. Pratyahara and Dharana are interdependent. One cannot practice one without the other. Pratyahara practices lead to a profound state of relaxation, expanded self-awareness, and inner stability. They help us master both the body and the mind.
The senses tend to suspend their activities naturally through pranayama. When the breath flows evenly in both nostrils – which occurs through various pranayama techniques – the mind no longer attaches itself to what’s going on around it and moves inward. Many pratyahara practices incorporate breath awareness, for this reason, using the physical breath to awaken awareness of the movement of prana through the body.
Pratyahara, often translated as sense withdrawal, lies on the threshold between external practices like asana and pranayama and internal ones like dharana and dhyana (concentration and meditation) that lead to samadhi (spiritual absorption).
The problem, of course, is not that we inhabit the world in which we are keenly aware of, and often act upon, what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. After all, from a spiritual perspective, our actions and what we experience through the senses are of utmost importance – they are the vehicle for achieving our purpose in life and giving us what we need for self-knowledge, spiritual wisdom, and ultimately, true and lasting freedom (moksha). The problem arises when we are not able to let sensations go, and we get swept away by the sensory world, only to get exhausted and confused in spite of our best intentions.
The ancient text Katha Upanishad uses a metaphor to describe how attachment to sensation can derail us. The body is a chariot carrying the Self as a passenger pulled by horses (the senses), and driven by our innate intelligence (buddhi), using the sensory mind (manas) as reins. Without a disciplined mind and right understanding, we suffer from the distractions of our uncontrolled senses, just as a charioteer suffers from trying to control untrained horses.
When the mind is guided by the wandering senses, then it carries away one’s understanding, as the wind does to a ship on the water, says the Bhagavad Gita in a poetic description of the relentless pursuit of sensation at the expense of our physical, emotional, and mental health.
Most spiritual traditions recognize the problems that arise from wayward senses and the overpowering attraction of the sensory world. Over the millennia they have countered with practices as varied as fasting, silence, and celibacy as well as more extreme approaches like long years of solitude. In the yoga tradition these types of practices fall under the definition of tapas, usually translated as penance, austerity, or self-discipline.
Sleep, which is a natural form of pratyahara, occurs as our consciousness spontaneously detaches itself from the sensory and motor channels of experience. It’s not the same as true pratyahara because during sleep we lack conscious awareness and the ability to integrate the inner and outer worlds. The systematic yogic relaxation practices of pratyahara train the involuntary systems of the brain to avoid falling asleep as the subconscious mind begins to surface.
Consciousness becomes far more sensitive when it detaches from the senses. As the senses withdraw, the intuitive mind awakens. Thus the practices of pratyahara free our conscious awareness from old patterns and habitual thinking. Awareness is an attribute of buddhi, the intellect, or pure intelligence. The word itself is derived from the root both, which means, to be aware of, to have experience, to know.
Buddhi is a quality of consciousness itself, and the pivot point between sensory awareness and awareness that expands beyond the limited range of the senses, memory, and ego-bound self. Buddhi directs our attention, consciously or not. In our usual waking state, the senses perceive whatever external objects the mind is fixed on. In the practice of pratyahara, the senses no longer perceive external objects because the mind is fixed on an internal region.
A regular practice of asana and pranayama, which can awaken inner awareness, also supports us in turning out and turning in. Asana balances energy flow releases tension and puts us in touch with inner sensations, giving the mind space and an internal resting place. The body naturally becomes more still, and when that happens, the mind can come to rest. We feel grounded, more at ease, and able to steer the chariot down the right path.
Balancing poses of yoga asanas with proper concentration, various pranayamas for deep relaxation and withdrawal of the senses will break up stress patterns and flood the body and mind with healing energy. Leading a disciplined life, restricting habitual engagement of the senses is a powerful way to check and control your desires. As the senses withdraw, the intuitive mind awakens; one becomes steadier mentally and physically. You are able to fix your gaze, which stabilizes vision, the most active of the cognitive senses, helps to focus both the body and the mind.
Dharana, the sixth limb of Ashtanga Yoga means to hold, the immovable concentration of mind. The essential idea is to hold the concentration or focus of attention in one direction. This is not forced concentration; rather dharana is a form of meditation which could be called receptive concentration.
It is the concentration of the mind joined with the retention of breath. The objective in dharana is to steady the mind by focusing its attention upon some stable entity. Before retracting the senses, one may practice focusing attention on a single inanimate object.
The particular object selected has nothing to do with the general purpose, which is to stop the mind from wandering – through memories, dreams, or reflective thought; by deliberately holding it single-mindedly upon some apparently static object.
When the mind has become purified by yoga practices, it is able to focus efficiently on one subject or one point of experience. If the yogi chooses to focus on a center (chakra) of the inner energy flow, he or she can directly experience the physical and mental blocks and imbalances that remain in their system.
This ability to concentrate depends on excellent psychological health and integration and is not an escape from reality, but rather a movement towards the perception of its true nature.
We create the conditions for the mind to focus its attention in one direction instead of going out in many different directions. Deep contemplation and reflection can create the right conditions, and this one point that we have chosen becomes more intense. We encourage one particular activity of the mind, the more intense it becomes – more the other activities of the mind fall away.
While describing the eight aspects (angas) of Ashtanga Yoga, Patanjali has stated Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi as the last three aspects. It is also stated by him that all the three aspects are collectively termed as “Sangam” (control). This implies that all the three aspects should be considered together. We should also bear in mind while studying that Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi are progressively advanced stages of concentration.
The highest stage of mental concentration described by the modern psychologists is more or less similar to the description of Dharana i.e. the primary stage of concentration as described by Patanjali. This indicates the thoughtfulness of Patanjali while describing the three stages.
Another characteristic of these three stages is that there is no dividing line in between these sages. When certain progress is made in the studies of Dharana, Dhyana stage is automatically entered into and with the progress in Dharana stage, the practitioner (Sadhaka) automatically enters the Samadhi stage. The three stages mingle with each other as easily as three colors are mixed into each other on the canvas of an artist.
Deshbandhas chittasya dharana
Patanjali has stated this definition of Dharana. The natural meaning of this sutra is “deshbandh of chitta is dharana”. Chitta i.e. the mind is extremely wavering; to engage it in a particular area is Dharana. The mind will be free within the periphery of this area, but it should not cross the boundary. This exercise is known as Dharana.
Concentration (dharana) is the process of holding or fixing the attention of mind onto one object or place and is the sixth of the eight rungs.
Concentration comes more easily with the preparation and effort to stabilize the mind; minimizing the distractions through kriya-yoga and the first five of the eight limbs. Without such preparation, the efforts to concentrate the mind often lead only to an inner battle. The noisy mind leads people to say they cannot meditate, and that they will meditate later in life after all of their problems are gone.
There is some truth in such intuition, but the key is not to merely delay meditation until some future time, which seems to never come. Rather, the truth of the intuition is that preparation is needed. With preparation, concentration comes much more naturally. Without the preparation, little or nothing happens of value.
Even brief concentration is a success. It is also easy to think that a meditation session was not good because it did not bring some deep sense of bliss. Actually, when one understands the tremendous value of simple concentration training, then even the brief, shallower practices are seen in a proper context of having a positive value.
Even the few minutes or few seconds where the mind is gently focussed on its chosen object are fruitful in the path of meditation. Each moment of positive experience leaves its positive trace in the depth of the mind field. It may seem invisible at first, but those moments add up over time, as concentration eventually begins to become meditation which in turn sets the stage for glimpses of samadhi.
During dhyana, the consciousness is further unified by combining clear insights into distinctions between object and the subtle layers of veils that surround intuition. We learn to differentiate between the minds of the perceiver, the means of perception, and the objects perceived; between words, their meanings, and ideas, and between all the levels of evolution of nature.
We realize that these are all fused in an undifferentiated continuum. One must apprehend subject and object clearly in order to perceive their similarities, for a clear grasp of the real identity of two apparently different things requires a clear grasp of their seeming difference. Thus dhyana is the apprehension of real identity among ostensible differences.
During Dharana the mind is moving in one direction, like a quiet river, nothing else is happening. In dhyana, one becomes involved with a particular thing – a link is established between self and object. In other words, you perceive a particular object and at the same time continuously communicate with it. Dharana must precede dhyana because the mind needs focusing on a particular object before a connection can be made. Dharana is the contact, and dhyana is the connection.
Obviously, to focus the attention on one point will not result in insight or realization. One must identify and become “one with” the object of contemplation, in order to know for certain the truth about it. In dhyana, the consciousness of the practitioner is in one flow; it is no longer fixed on one subject as in dharana.
Patanjali has explained in his Yoga Sutra the eight limbs of yoga (Ashtanga Yoga). Those are Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. The initial four stages are the basic stages which help the person to attain “Sthirram” (stability of mind) which is the prior necessity for practicing the further stages of meditation.
Dhyana is a full concentration of the mind focused on one of those experiences. It is perfect contemplation which involves concentration upon a point of focus with the intention of knowing the truth about it. In simple terms the spontaneous concentration of the mind on the object is Meditation.
The mind can recollect past experiences, keeps thinking about the future and experiences the present with all its might and we do not have any control over our minds journey. Dhyana (meditation) is the study of deep concentration, calmness, and tranquility of the mind. It is the study of attaining complete control over one’s mind. Meditation takes the consciousness beyond conscious, subconscious and unconscious states to superconsciousness.
An unbroken flow of knowledge in that object is dhyana. The mind tries to think of one object, to hold itself to one particular spot, as the top of the head, the heart, etc., and if the mind succeeds in receiving the sensations only through that part of the body, and through no other part, that would be dharana, and when the mind succeeds in keeping itself in that state for some time, it is called dhyana (meditation).
Its flow becomes steady by habit. The flow of this continuous control of the mind becomes steady when practiced day after day, and the mind obtains the faculty of constant concentration.
The repeated continuation or uninterrupted stream of that one point of focus is called absorption in meditation (dhyana) and is the seventh of the eight steps. (tatra pratyaya ekatanata dhyanam)
- tatra = there, therein
- pratyaya = the cause, the feeling, casual or cognitive principle, notion, the content of mind, presented idea, cognition
- ekatanata = one continuous flow of uninterrupted attention (eka = one; tanata = continued directedness)
- dhyanam = meditation
Meditation (along with concentration and samadhi) is a tool for examining the inner world, so as to experience the center of consciousness. Gross objects and subtle objects are systematically experienced, examined and set aside with non-attachment, gradually moving past the layers of ignorance or avidya.
Samadhi is the state of consciousness where Absoluteness is experienced attended with all-knowledge and joy. In Samadhi or Oneness the mind becomes identified with the object of meditation; the meditator and the meditated, thinker and the thought, becomes one in the perfect absorption of the mind.
Sage Patanjali mentions two systems of yoga in the ‘Yoga Sutra’: Kriya yoga (comprising austerity, self-inquiry, and surrender to God), and Ashtanga yoga, the well known eightfold path. Together they systematize and explain yoga practice in a manner that makes both the goal of yoga practices and the way in which the practices lead to the goal exceptionally clear.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra describes the transformation of mind that unfold over the course of what for most of us is years of sadhana (spiritual practice), and it does so by focusing on the relationship between the mind and the object of meditation.
Most of the experiences that occur in the lowest stages of samadhi contain many personal and cultural elements. Further, they are related to the particular object the meditator has chosen. In the higher stages of samadhi there are many more universal elements because all objects have the same source, but even then, the experiences of those who attain these levels are not always identical in every feature.
By describing the activity of the mind in relation to the object of meditation, rather than focusing on the content of the experience itself, Patanjali has created a system that can be applied more universally.
The first level of samadhi, savitarka, is simply a deepening of dhyana. Second, it is important to understand that when we say that a person achieves samadhi during meditation practice we do not necessarily mean that the mind always goes into the state and maintains it uninterruptedly for a long period.
While this can happen, often sadhaks experience samadhi for a short period of time, and then their mind goes outward again and drops to a lower level of consciousness. Third, samadhi is not a single state, but rather a series of stages that unfold in a progression.
Every stage of samadhi invariably yields two kinds of fruit: some type of directly experienced knowledge and some degree of non-attachment. As the yogi advances on the path of sadhana the knowledge gained is increasingly profound, and the non-attachment has a more deep and lasting effect on the mind. Each stage may take years and years to achieve and even more, time to stabilize.
As already mentioned the first level of samadhi, savitarka, is simply a deepening of dhyana. In the beginning, we should have faith in our practices because those practices can, in fact, yield the desired results. As our practice advances, our experience will confirm that our faith was not misplaced.
Second, it is important to reiterate that when a person achieves samadhi during meditation the mind may not be able to maintain it uninterruptedly for a long period. While this can happen, often meditators experience samadhi for a short period of time, and then their mind goes outward again and drops to a lower level of consciousness.
This outward flowing of the mind is called Ayutthaya, and it happens when our thoughts, attachments, desires, and memories of the outside world become active again. Through the alternating process of samadhi and vuytthana, the mind makes a comparison between the two states and feels the greater subtlety and peacefulness of the samadhi state. This encourages the meditator to try again to attain the higher state.
Third, samadhi unfolds in a progressive manner and each stage invariably yields some type of directly experienced “knowledge” and some degree of non-attachment. As the yogi advances on the path of sadhana the knowledge gained is increasingly profound, and the non-attachment has a more deep and lasting effect on the mind. Each stage may take months or years to achieve and even more, time to stabilize.
How long this will take can vary enormously, depending on the intensity of the meditator’s desire for liberation, the intensity, and regularity of the practice, and one’s samskaras (mental impressions) from meditation practice performed in the past. Progression through the stages of samadhi is also a process of purification. Each stage purifies the mind, making it subtler and thus capable of penetrating deeper into the levels of cosmic existence in order for the next stage to be achieved.
It is said that the first stages of the meditation process are the most difficult, but each of the prior limbs of ashtanga yoga contributes to the attainment of samadhi. The yamas and niyamas purify the mind; asana makes it possible to sit comfortably for long periods of time; pranayama provides energy to drive concentration deeper. But Patanjali actually defines yoga as the cessation of the thought-waves in the mind, and the first steps toward this goal are to learn to withdraw one’s attention from externals (pratyahara) and to control the expression of the thought-waves by concentrating the mind on an object (dharana).
The term object does not refer exclusively to a physical object. It can be anything which is spiritually meaningful to the meditator, like a particular chakra, an image of a deity, the breath, the image of an enlightened being, inner light, inner sound, mantra, etc. Ultimately it is the concentration itself which produces samadhi, not the object.
And the source of all objects, which appears spontaneously in the mind when higher stages are attained, is the same. But it is a hard austerity to teach the mind to concentrate on one principle exclusively, and we can make it easier for ourselves by choosing an object of meditation for which we feel a personal affinity.
Dharana, the repeated effort to return the mind to one’s meditation object during meditation practice, eventually develops into dhyana (the comparatively effortless flow of awareness from the mind to the object), and dhyana in time develops into Samadhi. When dhyana is repeatedly attained, the peaceful or euphoric feelings produced begin to balance the mind’s resentment toward the discipline of concentration.
Samadhi starts when the relationship between mind and object deepens to the point at which the mind’s awareness of itself concentrating diminishes, and awareness of the object dominates the mind.
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