This August I want to take you deeper into the full practice of yoga. This means that we’re going to explore the 8 limbs of yoga from the perspective of the world-changer. I’ll do my best to help you answer the question “just what are these 8 limbs, and what the heck do they have to do with me?”
Over the last few weeks we began an exploration of Asana, the physical practice of yoga; Yama, the abstentions; Niyama, the observances; and Pranayama, breathing. We will now move on to the topic of stillness, which encompasses the last 4 of the limbs of yoga – Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhayah. Even though the last four limbs are considered to be the most important along the yogic path, they go deeper into practice and philosophy than I’m interested in taking you, hence the short and sweet recap. This will be our final chapter in this series!
We’ll look at the sanskrit for each of these four limbs first.
Pratyahara = withdrawal of the senses
In our seeking to still the mind, the senses often cause distraction. The eyes find things to focus on that bring thoughts to the mind, the nose smells things that cause us to feel hunger, the ears hear things that engage the mind… The senses are a gateway of sorts, allowing the outside world to come in. When we turn the senses outward, we take in the world, but if we allow the senses to draw inward, there’s nothing to distract us; this allows us to move on to the next limb.
Dharana = concentration
This can also be thought of as the binding of the mind to a single place, object or idea. Concentration begins to train the mind, getting us ready to meditate. When the mind inevitably wanders from that single focus, we bring it back – over, and over, and over again. In his commentary, Swami Satchidananda compares this process to training a monkey; in our Raja class during teacher training, our mind-monkey was often described as being drunk and stung by a scorpion. So give yourself a break when the mind wanders – it’s a tricky beast to train!
Dhyana = meditation
We reach the state of dhyana when concentration becomes effortless, and turns into meditation. What most beginning meditators are actually doing is just concentrating really hard; there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just the first step along a long path. During true meditation, it often feels as though time is transcended. An hour of meditation can feel like only five minutes has passed.
Samadhayah = a superconscious state / contemplation
Samadhi can also be explained as mental detachment or tranquility of mind. Edwin Bryant describes samadhi as when the mind is so fully absorbed in the object of meditation that it loses all notions of itself as a self-conscious, reflective mind.
These four final limbs are more internal than the first four. We have moved from external (the body and the breath, with Asana and Pranayama) to internal through the course of our exploration. What we find is that if the body is still, it is easier to make the mind still. Through the body, we can control the mind; the mind ultimately needs the body’s cooperation to accomplish anything.
So why is stillness important to us?
In our search for balance and quiet, it means we must first be still. We can’t hope to find relief for the high amounts of stress around us in the world while we’re running around like madmen. It’s when we become still and quiet that we begin to find that capacity within ourselves.
We sometimes get hung up on this idea that in order to “successfully” meditate that we have to sit down for 30 minutes or an hour. Then we think about all the other things we have to do, and we end up doing nothing. It’s like the “all or nothing” trap I wrote about a couple of months ago. But we’re going to start breaking out of that cycle, right?
Here’s my challenge to you:
Find a few minutes every day to just sit still. Find someplace you find beautiful, and just absorb the scene around you. Focus on the beauty, and see if you can’t let your mind be still for just those few minutes. Your to-do list will still be waiting for you after you’re done, but maybe you’ll feel a little more calm as you begin to tackle it.
If you find that even sitting still doesn’t work, take a look at the yoga nidra practice that I shared two weeks ago. 20 minutes, even just a couple of times a week, can help you to find complete stillness, and then maybe you will be able to find a little bit of silence in the mind as well.
It’s not going to be easy. Remember, we’re taming and training a drunk, angry monkey. But, it’s worth it – being able to find a moment of stillness and peace here and there can mean the difference between being over the top stressed out or being able to take that stress in stride. I shared a quote on Facebook last week that I think fits well with this idea:
Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”
Like I said, it takes time, but the best time to start is now. One step at a time, one day at a time, one breath at a time. Find some stillness this week, and let me know if it changes anything!
These explorations of the Yoga Sutras have been fueled by both the Edwin Bryant and Swami Satchidananda commentaries.