Part of our “Eight Limbs of Yoga” series
In the final part of our Eight Limbs of Yoga series, we’re exploring the latter four limbs: pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. These are the tricky ones, but once you understand them, this is where the truly magical powers of yoga are found.
I prefer to think of the eight limbs as practices that all grow together like the spreading branches of a tree, but to understand the latter four limbs, it’s actually easier to think of them sequentially. These limbs are the step-by-step path we follow as we journey deeper into meditation.
We begin with pratyahara. This translates as “to withdraw oneself from that which nourishes the senses”.
Our senses are so important. They tell our brains what’s going on around us, so they can react appropriately to keep us safe and well. That could be by noticing a sunset that makes us smile, or by noticing the smell of burning that threatens our life. While our senses are fantastic, they can also be very distracting. Pratyahara recognises that. By closing off some of our senses, we can actually make it easier to focus on the task at hand.
If you’ve ever been in “flow”, you’ve already experienced pratyahara.
Flow is the mental state where you are so intensely focused on what you’re doing that you don’t notice what’s happening around you. It’s the state kids naturally drop into when they’re completely absorbed in a video game, and don’t hear you calling them! In this state, the mind is so intensely focused that it ceased to notice the stimuli of the senses. That’s not to say that those senses switched off – chances are if the fire alarm sounded we’d snap out of it. It’s more like the senses are subservient to the mind, so while the subconscious mind observed the senses, the conscious mind wasn’t distracted by them.
Pratyahara is the intentional practice of withdrawing the senses to allow the mind to focus. This is great for improving concentration, relaxation, or learning to cope better with sensory overload.
Shanmukha mudra – Covering eyes, ears and mouth
The shanmukha mudra is used to practice pratyahara and pranayama. The practice uses a hand gesture to close the “six gates of perception” – the eyes, ears, nose and mouth. This mudra restricts sensory input, bringing your focus to the internal sound of your breath.
To practice, sit comfortably with your spine straight. Bring both hands up to your face with your elbows pointing to the left and right. Then use your thumbs to close your ears. Close your eyes and use your index fingers to touch the inner corner of your eyes and gently rest your fingers on your eyelids. Place your ring fingers just above your mouth and your little fingers just below, symbolically holding your mouth closed.
Maintaining this position, breathe through your nose at a comfortable pace.
Focus your attention on the inner sounds of your breathing. I often find myself picturing the ocean while practicing this mudra, as my breath sounds like crashing waves.
Initially, we practice pratyahara by intentionally withdrawing sensory input. We can then develop this to find pratyahara even when surrounded by stimuli, and we practice choosing what to ignore and what to respond to. The goal is to reach a point where we are capable of noticing stimuli without being distracted or triggered into acting.
Once our senses have been calmed through pratyahara, we come to the next stage of meditation with dharana.
The most common objection I hear from meditation sceptics is “I can’t meditate, I just have too many thoughts and they won’t stop.” This comes from the idea that meditation is the practice of making your mind go blank. But that’s not really what meditation is!
The human mind is miraculous. It is constantly processing what’s happening inside and outside us, and reacting to keep us alive and safe. We don’t want to stop it from doing that job. But we do want to quiet some of the non-essential thoughts that our brain tosses up.
Pratyahara teaches us to quiet the thoughts that arise from distractions of the senses.
Dharana teaches us to quiet the other thoughts we have, including ruminating on the past and the future. We do this by concentrating intensely on a single point or object.
While focusing on the object, thoughts will still pop into our minds. The practice of dharana is to choose to ignore those thoughts and bring our focus back to the object, allowing our concentration to grow deeper as our thoughts grow quieter.
We can practice by focusing on anything. It could be on a sound, such as the sound of your breath, waves, or a musical note. It could be on an image, such as a mandala, a photograph, or an object. One of my favourite things to use is a candle.
Candle meditation – trataka
In this practice, we use the hypnotic property of fire in an open-eye meditation known as trataka. This is a great practice to quickly quiet your mind if you are feeling flustered, improve your concentration, or relax before going to sleep.
Sit comfortably in a dimly lit room with no phone or devices nearby. Light a candle and place it in front of you, at least an arm’s length away. This should be at or just below eye level. You should be able to hold your gaze on the flame without discomfort in the neck, or collapsing your spine.
Take a couple of deep breaths to settle in, then direct all of your attention to the flame. Notice the colours and movements. Allow the image of the flame to fill your mind. Keep your eyes still and open, with a steady gaze on the flame.
If your eyes start to water, keep focused on the flame and this will pass.
If your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to the flame.
Eventually, everything around the flame will fade into darkness, and all you will be able to see is the flame. When this happens, don’t panic. Embrace the deep focus and quiet mind.
Continue for as long as you feel comfortable. When you’ve had enough, slowly move your eyes around the room, and watch the darkness clearing as your vision returns to normal.
I think practicing pratyahara and dharana is one of the most important things we can do to survive our society. We are surrounded by devices that call for our attention. We are expected to always be available for our friends, colleagues and family. We are told we need to exercise more, to read more, to watch the latest Netflix show, to play with kids, to walk the dog. We multi-task to fit more into our day, and we are often overwhelmed and stressed by all that we need to do.
Pratyahara and dharana teach us how to choose which stimuli to respond to, and help us relearn single-tasking! We practice giving our complete attention to one thing at once, and revel in the calm that comes as our mind quietens. A few minutes spent focused on a candle or a sound is incredibly refreshing and a great stress reliever.
Having progressed through pratyahara and dharana, you reach the stage where you can choose to concentrate intently on a single point of focus, ignoring sensory distractions and quieting your thoughts. The next step is dhyana. This is where the uninterrupted flow of concentration on the object of your focus is so strong that it becomes effortless.
This is sometimes described as “becoming one with the object of your focus”. I really struggle with this description of dhyana, as I can’t comprehend “becoming one” with an object like a candle or a picture. The description that works for me comes from T.K.V. Desikachar’s book, Heart of Yoga.
Desikachar explains that all of the first six limbs (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara and dharana) require effort to practice them. It takes effort to move our bodies, to control our breathing, to quiet our senses and to focus attention. Dhyana is distinct from these, in that it doesn’t require any effort. Dhyana occurs the moment when concentrating on an object no longer requires any effort.
For example, imagine practicing trataka, the candle meditation. As you focus intently on the flame, your other senses are quietened as you focus on what you can see (pratyahara). Each time a thought pops into your mind, you gently dismiss it and bring your attention back to the flame (dharana). Eventually, through practice, your peripheral thoughts go quiet more quickly and stay quiet for longer periods of time.
Dhyana is reached when you can maintain that concentration with no interruptions, without any effort.
There are no practices for dhyana or for samadhi; practices require effort. The last two limbs are stages you will reach during meditation.
The final limb is the deepest state of meditation.
“Samadhi is the end of the sadhaka’s quest. At the peak of his meditation, he passes into the state of samadhi, where his body and senses are at rest as if he is asleep, his faculties of mind and reason are alert as if he is awake, yet he has gone beyond consciousness.”B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga
Samadhi can be thought of as transcendence from this world; the point beyond consciousness. To understand this, let’s go back to the example of the candle meditation.
I explained that dhyana occurs the moment that it no longer requires any effort to maintain the connection with the flame. In dhyana, you are still aware of yourself and the flame as distinct entities, but your attention is completely absorbed in it without effort. In samadhi, that awareness of yourself disappears, and there is only the flame. This is what Iyengar means by “gone beyond consciousness” – your sense of self has disappeared and merged with your awareness of the flame.
Remember that the focus of your meditation doesn’t have to be a flame. It doesn’t even have to be a physical object, it could be a sound, an idea or an emotion. Suddenly, we understand meditation is a tool that allows you to become completely immersed by an idea or concept, and better understand it.
Is Samadhi the ultimate goal of yoga?
“The ultimate goal of yoga is to always observe things accurately, and therefore never act in a way that will make us regret our actions later.”T.K.V. Desikachar, Heart of Yoga
As we come to the end of our series on the Eight Limbs of Yoga, we are now better able to consider the relationship between the limbs, and what we gain from practicing them.
The last four limbs, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi are the deepening stages of meditation. To reach samadhi is to develop the ability to immerse yourself fully in any object of your meditation and perceive it fully; the goal of yoga. But we can’t achieve the level of focus required if our mind and body are agitated. That’s where the first four limbs come in.
The yamas and niyamas teach us to live a moral and ethical life that eases our conscience and allows us to practice isvarapranidhana: laying our actions at the feet of God, knowing we’ve done all we can. By practicing the yamas and niyamas we don’t need to feel guilty or worry about our actions.
Asana helps us to prepare our bodies for meditation, stretching and strengthening so we are physically able to sit for long periods without being distracted by aches and pains. Pranayama helps to clear our body of negative energy and bring calm, ready for concentration. In this state, we are ready to practice meditation.
To reach the ultimate goal of yoga, it’s not enough to go to a yoga class and practice asana. We must incorporate all eight limbs.
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