Perhaps surprisingly, in traditional texts Asana is barely discussed beyond describing the characteristics of sitting meditation posture as being stable, alert and at ease. Sitting at ease for meditation though is not easy and some physical training with a teacher is required. Equally, the grounding of consciousness in the body takes time and asana training helps, particularly for those of us “recovering intellectuals”. Traditionally, Asana was viewed mainly as a means of preparing the body for meditation…
PRANAYAMA: Breath Control and Energy Awareness
As we refine awareness of our inner environment, and are less distracted by muscular tensions and external stimuli, we can become more attuned to a sense of vitality or life force circulating within the body, traditionally known as Prana. Breathing and our state of mind have an interrelationship that can be observed; working with our breath helps harness and harmonise our minds, our physiology and our Prana.
Examples of Pranayama Techniques:
PRATYAHARA: Sense Withdrawal, Turning the Senses Inward
Much yoga practice relates to our inner life so we can train our senses to relax and become tools for “inner listening” as well as outward information gathering. The word ahara means “nourishment” and Pratyahara translates as “to withdraw oneself from that which nourishes the senses.” When the mind register an object through the senses, the mind is drawn to it. With this practice, we cut the link between mind and senses, letting both rest. Normally the senses become our masters instead of our servants, enticing us to develop all sort of cravings. In Pratyahara, we cultivate the opposite: we put the senses in their proper place, allowing us to respond more creatively than reactively to our yoga practice and life situations in general. As well as helping us to develop our intuition or inner wisdom, it is also a prerequisite for the next stage in the yoga path: concentration.
DHARANA: Concentration, Single-pointed Awareness
Not to be confused with the furrowed-brow concentration of our working life, it is more the initial training of the mind to settle in meditation. An anchor is chosen such as the breath, a mantra or an object, and the mind is repeatedly trained to focus on this so that internal mental chatter can quietened. The essential idea in this limb is to hold the concentration or focus the attention exclusively in one direction. The more we encourage one single activity of the mind, the more all other activities fall away and disappear. We are then only one step away from Dhyana.
DHYANA: Meditation, Contemplation
When the trained mind is quietened, a non-conceptual awareness arises. This is the realm of meditation and we can then begin to free ourselves of deeper tensions and thought patterns in body and mind. When the mind is completely focussed, there is no fluctuation of thoughts and an internal feeling of absorption is created. Dhyana is the gateway into Samadhi, the final step in Patanjali’s path.
SAMADHI: Pure Awareness or Divine Bliss
As meditation deepens, Samadhi relates to deep levels of absorption into subtle layers of the mind. The ultimate level of Samadhi is the realisation that we are also connected to something universal beyond our body and mind. Samadhi means to “to bring together, to merge”.
These last three limbs are closely interrelated, and together, they are referred to as Samyama: In Dharana we focus the mind, making contact with whatever we are focussing on (the breath, a mantra, an area of the body, an image, a notion, etc.). In Dhyana, the mind links with the object of attention and maintains this union, and there is a communication or interaction between the two. In Samadhi, the mind blends and becomes one with the object of meditation.
The deeper and more consistent our meditation, the easier it becomes to live in alignment with Yamas and Niyamas. In this way the eight limbs of Patanjali are interconnected and mutually supportive; trying to live by the Yamas and Niyamas will assist in practicing asana, pranayama and meditation and vice versa.