Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
THE SURFACE AND THE DEPTH, PART 2By Graham Fowler
This is the second in a three-part series on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
While the term yoga comes from the root word in Sanskrit, yuj, which means to link together or join, Patanjali’s yoga is less about linking or joining two things than it is about releasing what gets in the way of realizing our unbounded, true nature.
That true nature is revealed through samadhi, which, in its highest stage, is a condition of complete fulfillment, with nothing missing and nothing desired. Samadhi is a state of perfect equanimity, a place of being, not of doing, and an experience of profound rest that is realized primarily through meditation. Ultimately, by its very nature, the word is untranslatable.
In Buddhism, samadhi is the last of the eight elements of the Noble Eightfold Path. And in Patanjali’s system, it is the eighth of the eight limbs of yoga. Also referred to as sat chit ananda, or absolute bliss consciousness, samadhi is both summit and goal of the practice of yoga.
Patanjali makes it very clear that samadhi is available to anyone, in progressive stages. It is even available to those with busy minds. Ideally, samadhi should be incorporated into our daily spiritual practice.
The whole purpose of the eight limbs is to create conditions of the body and mind that are conducive to this high state of samadhi. More significant, they are offered not to bring about samadhi, but to eliminate what’s in the way of it.
Alternating samadhi with each of the other eight limbs nourishes one’s practice by removing obstacles on the path to higher states of consciousness. Gradually, samadhi is cultivated.
First on the gross level, then on the subtle level, then a feeling of bliss, and finally the sense of pure I-AM-ness. (Y.S. 1.17.)
The eight limbs are sometimes misunderstood to be eight steps that must be perfected in sequence. But that is not the case. If it were, how would we ever get beyond even the first two—yama and niyama (abstinence and observance)—to achieve samadhi?
Rather than following them in numerical order, the eight limbs are to be developed simultaneously. As with Buddhism’s eightfold path, cultivating each limb helps the unfolding of each of the others. In this way, a yoga sadhana, or, set of practices, that addresses all eight limbs synergistically nurtures personal transformation and accelerates one’s path to samadhi.
The Eight Limbs of YogaThe first four limbs of yoga—yama, niyama, asana and pranayama—constitute the bhairanga, or outer limbs, of Yoga.
Limbs 1 and 2: Yama and Niyama
Yama is concerned with our behavior in relationships with others. Niyama has to do with our relationship with ourselves. In the Sutras, five yamas and five niyamas help us cultivate more harmonious behavior and helps make the mind more peaceful and more conducive to samadhi. That in turn feeds our process, since a meditation practice that is conducive to samadhi cultivates a peaceful mind and makes us better equipped for harmonious relationships.
Limb 3: Asana
The Sanskrit word asana means seat. The establishment of a seat or connection to the earth is the preliminary stage of support for the practice of any yoga asana. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali is referring specifically to the sitting posture for use in meditation. Our sitting should not distract us from our meditation:
The posture should be steady and comfortable. (Y.S. 2.46.)
Steady, comfortable posture in meditation is conducive to samadhi. At the same time, samadhi promotes steadiness and relaxed effort.
Limb 4: Pranayama
The term pranayama has two subtle yet distinct shades of meaning. Prana-yama means control or regulation of the breath ,or life force, while pran-ayama means expansion of the life force.
Pranayama consists of breathing practices that increase life force, improve health and increase sensitivity to subtle flows of energy in the body. Pranayama also cultivates a more settled state of the body. Breathing becomes slow and refined.
Likewise, as the yogi approaches samadhi in meditation, breathing also gets slow and refined. Effortless and spontaneous refinement and even suspension of the breath are primary physiological markers of samadhi. In fact, the domain of samadhi is the very source of prana.
Limb 5: Pratyahara
With the fifth limb, the yogi initiates a transition into the four inner limbs, the antaranga, of the eight limbs of yoga. It is the realm of meditative states.
Ordinarily, our awareness naturally goes outward through our senses to give us contact with the world around us. Pratyahara is the reversal of that process. Numerous hatha yoga techniques recommend attempting pratyahara by forcefully stifling the natural outward flow of awareness. But rather than using effort to “chain the monkey mind,” Patanjali suggests an effortless alternative in Chapter 2, verse 54:
The senses retire from their objects by following the natural inward movement of the mind.
The important word here is “natural.” Once revealed, the inward flow is just as natural and as alluring as the outward flow. As more subtle levels are progressively disclosed, the mind wants more and more.
Limb 6: Dharana
Dharana refers to steadiness of mind or effortless focus. It is a directed quality of attention on an object. While different from concentration, which implies mental effort, sustained dharana leads to a powerful and focused quality of awareness, called ekagrata, one-pointedness.
But dharana is only a beginning stage of the alchemical process of yoga. The next two limbs have a lot more to say about achieving inner and outer fulfillment.
Limb 7: Dhyana
Dhyana is the dissolving of an object in consciousness. It is a process of moving into progressively deeper stages of samadhi. As that occurs, something profound happens: the resolution of samskaras, unconsciously held remnants of past experiences that cloud perceptions and judgments. They reside in great numbers in seed form in our subconscious or unconscious mind.
When triggered, samskaras erupt in habits, addictions and behaviors that are often not in our best interest. We might try to not repeat these patterns, but good intentions may not be enough.
So to loosen their grip on us, we have to transcend the cognitive thinking process. Levels of samadhi reached during dhyana “roast” the seeds of our samskaras so that they cannot sprout or cause us any further suffering. The process is cumulative, spontaneous and effortless.
Limb 8: Samadhi
Samadhi is the goal, summit and essence of our practice.
When the mind has settled, we are established in our true nature, unbounded consciousness. (Y.S. 1.3.)
The highest stage of meditation is asamprajnata samadhi, a level beyond speech. There, we have access to the Self, where words have no access.
When you see something unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, it’s not that you lose the ability to speak, it’s simply that you have no words for it. Encountering samadhi, there aren’t even words in your head to tell you that you can’t find words. Even when returning from the summit, any description falls short.
Patanjali refers to samadhi as turiya, or “fourth,” implying that it is the fourth state of consciousness. Ordinarily, we cycle through the first three states: waking, sleep and dream states.
Samadhi brings healing on every level: gross, subtle and subtlest. The physical activity of the body is deeply refined and the body is deeply rested and restored.
Coming out of deep meditation, the lingering effects of samadhi are felt as a sense of freshness, clear perspective and inner happiness. Just knowing that we have access to a safe place beyond the reach of change brings a sense of freedom when engaged in the ups and downs of life.
In Part Three, we will discuss how to create a set of yoga practices that support fulfillment of both inner and outer aspects of life. For more information, contact the author at [email protected].