Last month, we covered the sixth limb of Ashtanga yoga – dharana (concentration). Now we are going to explore the seventh limb: Dhyana (meditation).
Just a reminder that the eight limbs of Patanjali’s Eight Fold Path are:
- Yama (restraint)
- Niyama (observances)
- Asana (posture)
- Pranayama (breath control)
- Pratyahara (controlling the senses)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (meditation)
- Samadhi (absolute consciousness)
This month’s focus: DHYANA
The last three limbs of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga are inward practices. The sixth limb, dharana (concentration) and the seventh limb, dhyana (meditation) are higher stages of the same discipline. Dharana is the concentration on a particular physical or spiritual centre and dhyana is a continuous meditation or deep thinking beyond the mind. Next month we look at Samadhi (absolute consciousness or union) which is the ultimate goal of yoga.
When practising dharana (concentration) we focus on a particular object or word/phrase. Dhyana is sustained concentration which we refer to as meditation. As we begin to have focused concentration, we progressively move inwards to a meditative state.
It is very difficult for a beginner to meditate for long periods of time. Asana (postures) is what we usually begin with when we begin yoga for the first time. We begin with the here and now – our body. We are familiar with the physical world. The body is tangible. We can feel it. So what better place to start. Once we work on the body through asana, the body becomes more supple and is able to sit comfortably for a sustained period of time. If the body is not comfortable, how can we hold a seated pose for meditation? With regular asana practice, we become more comfortable in our physical body, which leads to a more ready attitude towards meditation. For this reason, meditation is well practiced and well received by the body and mind at the end of an asana practice. Once you have calmed the body, calmed the mind… you are now ready to take your seat and just be. Simply be.
At first glance, yoga can look like acrobatics or gymnastics. However, it is within the asana practice that we learn many deep inward lessons that translate into our seated meditation practice. You can experience concentration and focus in your asana practice! When you focus your attention on your alignment, you are practicing dharana! As you become more experienced, your concentration becomes much easier and you find yourself ‘lost’ in the practice, where often times you come in and out of a pose and do it ‘without thinking’. This is dhyana. As you become more supple and experienced in the practice, your mind becomes at ease and you focus without strain.
Ashtanga yoga has often been described as a ‘moving meditation’. This has been my experience in the 11 years I have been practicing Ashtanga yoga. At first, I felt lost in the poses, trying to remember the sequence of postures and correct alignment. However after some time, the postures came more easily to me. I didn’t need to focus so hard on my alignment, because it just came with regular discipline and commitment. There are times I have practiced and been so ‘lost in the practice’ that I was uninterrupted by thought and felt like I was in a meditative state. I sometimes get half way through my practice and suddenly stop and think, ‘How did I get here?!”
As the mind repeats asana over and over, your yoga practice becomes second nature. The mind becomes so well trained, that eventually your mind will rest in the present moment. This is dhyana…meditation!
- When you practice asana, observe the mind… are your thoughts focusing on the pose, or is the mind wondering about the chores you have ahead of you?
- Where is your drishti (focused eye gaze) when you practice asana? Your eye gaze is vital in assisting the practitioner to remain focused. The mind goes with the eye…if you are looking at your neighbour…your thoughts will no doubt follow!
“I felt in need of a great pilgrimage, so I sat still for three days and God came to me.” – Kabir (15th Century Indian Poet)