The following post is an omitted part of my upcoming book. Please remember, the opinions are mine alone and do not reflect yogic culture. Just like ALL commentaries and interpretations, this is opinion alone. No facts exist.
As per my book, this is a discussion between the student and teacher.
Student - Before you explain the eight steps that Patanjali has mapped out for us, could you please explain the concept of “non-attachment” that Patanjali talks about? It is incredibly confusing.
Earlier in the Yoga Sutras, 1.15, Patanjali also introduces us to the famous “non-attachment” or “vairagya”.
Second only to dhyana, I would say the word “vairagya” is the most misunderstood in all of yogic lore. Vairagya translates loosely to “non-attachment” or “detachment” The idea is to free the mind of that which it is attached to: repulsion, fear, attraction, pain, pleasure and the like. It does not mean that we must create an environment of “non-attachment” as suggested by many people. But then again, this is open for interpretation. The idea of Patanjali’s non-attachment is very misunderstood in yoga circles.
Most yoga people have little idea of what vairagya means, how to apply this concept to their lives, or even whether they should apply this to their lives. Yoga teachers just speak of non-attachment because like most yoga terms, repeating them over and over again in front of naive Western students will make them all look like yoga gurus. They pretend to be this yoga character and feed this projected image with Sanskrit words that they seldom understand. As long as this deception is not discovered or exposed by others, our social character (not our real character) keeps on going from strength to strength. At some point in time, the so-called yogi can no longer tell the difference between himself and the character he so shamefully portrays. The reason for such fabrication is that deep down, we all suffer from an inferiority complex. Deep down, we fear we are a nobody. So we go through life finding ways to hide this insecurity from others. We create many alter egos and many illusions all trying to prove to others (not ourselves) that we are somebody special. We are not ordinary but yogis. If we do not keep up this appearance, then maybe someday someone will recognise that we are simply ordinary. So the next time you hear someone speak about “non-attachment” in a yoga class, roll your eyes and ask for a refund.
Non-attachment could also mean that we should try and not be dependable on certain things as a source of our happiness. If we are, there is a possibility that we could become attached to the source. However, this is a warning and not a religious commandment. If non-attachment is to be understood directly and as a commandment, is being attached to my wife wrong? Patanjali would say this is only true if it is an unhealthy attachment that can create suffering. He would ask if we are both independent and can we survive without each other? The answer is yes. Somehow, we survived life before we met so we can survive without (although not ideal!). Love is not an attachment. If your happiness is dependent on the other, you become dangerously attached. This will become a possible source of your suffering. Further, this is not true love anyway as attachment is not love, it is possession.
In 1923 the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, in his celebrated work, “The Prophet” said, “Let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow”.
I personally consider “The Prophet” to be one of the most beautiful books ever written and have been reading it to my wife's pregnant belly over the past few nights.
The concept of non-attachment does not mean a literal non-attachment. If I am attached to certain people and certain things, this does not mean that I am against Patanjali’s yoga. Patanjali is not against us enjoying life, he is simply recommending that we do not make our life and happiness dependant on anything. This is not an immediate action but a lifelong process. Patanjali implies that the reason man is unhappy, disillusioned, sick and highly stressed is because of an unhealthy attachment to things and people. We rely on these “things” for our sanity. We have created an unhealthy attachment to certain emotions. The eighth century yogi Gorakhnath famously said, “Die O yogi Die”. If you are afraid of death, then you will desperately hold on to life and various attachments. If we let go of the attachments that have become our sources of happiness, we lose the fear of dying. Gorakhnath also said, “Die as a drop and become the ocean. The art of dying is the art of attaining to absolute life”. We in the West cannot be expected to let go of all attachments immediately. But yoga is a sadhana - a lifelong dedicated practice after all.
So vairagya or non-attachment can be summarised as follows: Attachment may or may not lead to suffering. The Buddha supposedly said that attachment is the source of all suffering. This is something we should think about and understand. It is not a commandment: “Thou shall not be attached”. This has to be understood because we may misunderstand and assume that Patanjali is against life. He just warns us of the pitfalls, but we are in charge of our own lives. Religion appears to create obstacles and drills what we should not do into our minds. However, Patanjali does not do this. He just makes us aware of the potential danger. This is another reason why raja yoga, the yoga of Patanjali, is not a religion - it is moral guidance that is accessible to all.
Let us now go back to the eight steps.
The eight steps outlined by the genius Patanjali are very logical and straightforward. These steps are essentially a map or a guide that takes you from where you are to your ultimate destination. It follows a very logical and methodical sequence: One step after another.
Steps 1 & 2: Yam and Niyama
The first two steps, yam and niyama, could be considered as your moral, social or ethical code. An entire book could be devoted to the first two steps so my apologies for my simplification. The idea is that the first thing to be done when embarking on your yoga journey is to ensure you have the read and understood the ethical guidelines: What is expected of you? How should you behave?
They are broken down into two sections:
The yamas are often translated to mean “restraint”. These include the following:
* Ahimsa (non-harming or non-violence in thought, word and deed);
Ahimsa to mean non-violent is one of the most complicated concepts in all of Patanjali’s Sutras. In modern times it has created a vegetarian crase and a one must not harm another life mindset. Which is all fair. But many people miss the point of the overall message from Patanjali. Your act of non-violence has to come from your core and not from your consciousness. By that, I mean your actions of righteousness, towards eating meat etc have to be genuine and true to your nature. If you do not eat meat because you feel that is what is expected of you, that does not mean you are non-violent and adhering to Ahimsa. It means you are conforming to social expectations. If you are raised to not eat meat then this also does not mean that you are necessarily non-violent. It means you are just acting on your conditioning. You were raised to feel like meat is repugnant. You have made no real moral choice or decision of your own. It is just conditioning. Ahimsa has to be something that you grow to understand. You cannot be ‘non-violent’ (in the yogic sense) because your teacher or your teacher training says you should be. You should be ‘non-violent’ because this is your understanding. This is now in the core of who you are. If it is not who you are you will always know that deep down you are being fraudulent. You are just trying to keep up appearances. If one’s appetite to be a decent and proper human being is based on greed, it is not decent, but simply greed. What I mean by this is most often, the action of Ahimsa is undertaken on the premise that there will be some sort of reward. This could be a social reward where people applaud you for your stand against violence. It could be to gain more Instagram likes. The other type of prize people hope to gain from their Ahimsa is a reward from their god. If you abstain from violence then your god is likely to reward you. This is not real Ahimsa but the cunning work of mans overwhelming desire for more. Again, Ahimsa has to come from the core of who you are. Similar to prayer and penance. The Sufi Idries Shah has said; “I will not serve God like a labourer, in expectation of my wages”.
The teacher who does not eat meat as an act of Ahimsa will still drink a glass of wine. Alcohol and the effects it can have on your body and mind is also against the principle of Ahimsa. Alcohol is considered a destruction of ones life hence is its referred to as Himsa - something that can cause you harm (the opposite of Ahimsa). But ‘yogis’ have such a limited understanding of Ahimsa they only seem to associate it with being non-violent towards animals.
I went to dinner once as I was invited by a friend. I was hesitant as I knew there would be plenty of yoga teachers on the table. I was a few minutes late and everyone else on the table has already ordered. The waitress came over to me and asked if I would like to order. For some reason there was a silence. I replied; “Yes. I will have the Chicken with a side of sweet potato fries”. I took a look around the table and there was a look of horror/disgust on most of the faces. One such woman was looking at me like I was pure evil. Then finally one lady said; “Oh I am so glad you are not a vegan! – Can I have the chicken too!”. Then another woman laughed and ordered the same thing.
Why create a circle of yoga friends when you feel you will be judged for your choices? I am not going to say I don’t eat meat because this is expected of me as a yoga teacher. My expectations on myself are more important than how others will perceive me. I eat less meat today than I have done at any stage of my life. And maybe there will be a day where I stop. When I do, it will be an honest, legitimate and wholeheartedly true to who I am and what I have come to understand. Lao Tzu has said that if you constantly act in a way according to the expectations of others, you will always be a slave.
I am not an advocate for meat eaters or saying that anything is right or wrong. What I am trying to say is that whatever decision you reach about your decisions and in regards to Ahimsa, should be your own and not something forced. You have to draw the conclusion for yourself and not allow the so called noble yoga community to make you feel bad for still being on your journey of understanding. In Light on Life - Iyengar has said; “We should not use truth as a club with which to beat other people. Morality is not about looking at other people and finding them inferior to ourselves.” This is what Ahimsa has become in modern times. A way of showing yogic superiority over others.
I was once asked by a yoga teacher; “Do you eat meat Zahir?” My response was “Yes”. She responded; “How can you? That is so un-yogic!”. I just laughed at said it wasn’t me making the judgement.
Part of Ahimsa is compassion and non-judgement. The really interesting things is the less someone understands something or a concept, the more firmly they believe in it. A little knowledge is very dangerous because all this is, is not really knowledge. It’s what we think we know. This is the root of ignorance. Gandhi has said; “I cannot teach you violence, as I do not myself believe in it. I can only teach you not to bow your heads before any one even at the cost of your life.” And this is what yoga students do and are made to feel like they should do. Bow their heads in shame for being who they are. This is Himsa. This is the worse type of violence you can bring onto yourself.
And no, Ahimsa/non-violence does not mean you should not push your body in the poses either. Many yoga teachers say this and again it shows such a limited understanding of the concept. If you hurt yourself in a yoga class because you are trying to be the best version of yourself, this does not mean you are being violent with yourself. It means you are adhering to your dharma (your sense of responsibility) and simply trying to do your best so you can be the best version of who you are. You believe in your divinity/ability. You have heart. You are courageous. Your dharma overrides everything.
Martin Luther King has said at the center of non-violence stands the principle of love. So adhere to your principles through love for what you do. If you wholeheartedly love what you do and love your poses and by doing so inadvertently hurt yourself - this is not Himsa. You are doing what you love. So leave the judgement to the so called ‘yogis’. Just keep on going as you are.
Continuing with Yams…
* Satya (truthfulness);
* Brahmacharya (correct use of sexual energy rather than complete suppression);
* Aparigraha (non-possessiveness);
* Asteya (honesty).
A zen story I was told on the subject of honesty. An old Indian-Chinese Buddhist tradition holds that someone who makes false statements concerning the dharma, the spiritual way or truth, will lose all their facial hair. So Chan master Cuiyan (9-10th century), at the end of one summer spiritual intensive remarked to all those assembled, “Since the beginning of this summer session, I have talked much. Please see if my eyebrows are still there!”
The following may or may not have happened.
The sage Vasishtha (as in Vasishtha-asana) was one of the seven great sages from India . When he held his yoga “meditation” weekends, pupils from many parts of India were in attendance. During one of these gatherings, a pupil was caught stealing. The matter was reported to Vasishtha with the request that the culprit be expelled. But he ignored the case.
The pupil was later caught in a similar act, and again Vasishtha disregarded the matter. This angered the other pupils who drew up a petition asking for the dismissal of the thief. After he read the petition, Vasishtha called everyone before him. “You are wise brothers,” he said, “You know what is right and what is not right. You may go somewhere else to study if you wish, but this poor brother does not even know right from wrong. Who will teach him if I do not? I am going to keep him here even if all the rest of you leave.”
Upon analysing this story, we can see how quickly people turn their backs on those who commit crimes such as stealing - just as the pupils did. However, a person who commits a crime is not always a bad person. They could be someone that simply needs to be shown the path, and this is what Patanjali does with the first two steps. He ensures that we understand what is expected of us before we embark on our quest.
* Saucha (cleanliness);
* Santosha (contentment/cheerfulness);
* Tapas (discipline, austerity);
* Svadhyaya (self-awareness)
* Isvara Pranidhana (surrender to a higher being or the contemplation of a higher power).
If the above, Isvara Pranidhana refers to ‘god’ then this can be looked upon as a religious text. But it does not say A god or thee god. It can be understood to mean your god or an understanding of a ‘divine entity’. Be that science or the universe or the cosmos. Something greater than us mortals. The idea is to ‘surrender’ to this concept so we don’t become overly attached to life.
Assuming that you have been raised with the correct moral code, the basis of the yamas and niyamas do make sense. The others that sound quite strange to us (restraint of sexual energy and the like) just require more exploration. Interestingly, these other stages eventually make more sense to us once we immerse ourselves into step number three - the asanas. Nevertheless, I believe that we Western yoga students will spend the rest of our yoga lives just meandering around within the bottom three stages. And this is perfectly fine.
All the rules or moral guidelines are not easy to apply, but even limited understanding and effort can lead to greater peace of mind.
Step 3: Asana (the poses)
Immersion into asanas, the yoga poses, is where most of us commence our yoga journey. We start with the body because that is the outermost layer and the one that is the most accessible to us. This is where we start and in all honesty, if we are genuinely true to ourselves, this is where our journey ends. I believe that the steps that are above asana are not for the Western yogic practitioner. Not only are they not for us, they are seemingly impossible to attain. This will be discussed in more detail later; for now, let us examine Patanjali’s definition.
On asana, Patanjali has said, “Steady and comfortable should be the posture”. A more contemporary translation of this verse from Mr. Iyengar elaborates on this a little more saying, “Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit”. The posture as a summary should be graceful or become graceful. “Graceful” is not fragile, weak, flimsy or frail but is poised and elegant. This elegance of posture is the illumination of the body.
The purpose of an asana, according to Patanjali, is to balance the different nerve impulses, feelings of pain and pleasure and all other opposing sensations until the asana becomes steady and comfortable.
Again, Patanjali says the asana when practised should be steady and comfortable. The meaning of this should be properly understood. In the poses, we work using effort until effort has ceased, therefore making the pose “steady and comfortable”. In order for anything to become easy, one must first know hardship. We must experience and then overcome tension in order to know and experience what “steady and comfortable” is. Many yoga teachers will teach their students that each pose when practised must be steady and comfortable, and this is not an accurate understanding of the sutra. This false understanding of the sutra allows a teacher to remain within their insecure nature. Some teachers fear certain postures, and they use their limited and often naive understanding of “steady and comfortable” to justify their reasons for not advancing in their practice. This is acceptable for them as this is their personal choice. But it is however no longer acceptable when they share this “teaching” to students and limit their potential along with their own. In actuality, the idea is that one must arrive at a stage where the posture is steady and comfortable. But how can one know exactly what is “steady and comfortable”?
How can one know what day is without experiencing night? How can we explain and appreciate the magic of daylight without facing darkness? In order to understand the real meaning of “comfort”, we must experience discomfort. You must work through a posture until you arrive at an almost impossible place where all effort has ceased. The asana must be so perfectly relaxed that all muscular tension has left the body. There should be no effort or any sign of stress in the pose. There should almost be a loss of awareness of the body. We should no longer think about the body. How can we be comfortable if we are fidgeting or constantly moving? Thus, movement should also cease and the feeling of the body should be dissolved and it is then that comfort rises.
Sadhguru Jagi Vasudev said the following on effort: “Logically, somebody who never put effort into anything should be the master of effortlessness. But it is not so. If you want to know effortlessness, you need to know effort. When you reach the peak of effort, you become effortless. Only a person who knows what it is to work understands rest. Paradoxically, those who are always resting know no rest; they only sink into dullness and lethargy. This is the way of life.”
On asana, Patanjali says the following in the Yoga Sutras, “Perfection is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached.”
This is not an easy achievement. Think of the number of postures you have fought and clawed your way into over the past few years. In how many of these poses have you experienced a cessation of effort? The answer is probably none. Even a simple pose like the mountain pose requires our utmost focus and concentration. It feels like we are constantly up against an iron wall. I am not sure whether we Western students will ever reach a point where we can silently sit down, subdue all effort and then merge into the expanded field of unified consciousness. But is this our goal? Are we trying to merge with the infinite? If not, then we should have no desire to master the practice of asana. We should continue to just do the best we can. As I have said earlier, all that is expected of us is our willingness to do the best we can - science will take care of the rest as mentioned in the Asana chapter (of may book).
All modern day yoga practitioners who practise yoga for their health and minds alone without a desire to be one with the universal consciousness or to be with god, should make this step - asana - their goal and destination. As you read on and discover the secrets of the following steps, you will understand why. The remaining steps are not for you and me. They are for the “yogi” who seeks union with the highest form of consciousness with Shiva or Bhairav - an experience of Nirvana.
On a final note, without creating confusion, I think Patanjali could also just be referring only to meditative seated postures and not the modern poses of hatha yoga we are so familiar with today. The practice of physical yoga was perhaps a preparatory practice before one embarked on the yoga journey according to Patanjali. In fact, he begins the Yoga Sutras with, “Now the instruction in yoga . . . ” The implication is that one arrives at the “asana” rung of Patanjali’s ladder having already immersed themselves in the bending and crackling poses of hatha yoga. These hatha yoga poses are an important means in that they make the seated and meditative posture more accessible. Thus, one can argue that Western yoga practitioners, who have accumulated so much stress on their bodies from playing sports, their occupations and injuries caused by simply maintaining their Western lives, will always stay within the realms of hatha yoga - the system that preceded Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. However, this is just a theory believed by some. I have found constant contradiction among translators and commentators on this sutra. Is Patanjali talking about the poses we are so familiar with today? Many commentators say “No” while some say “Yes”. Since Mr. Iyengar is one of the few people in the history of yoga teachers who I trust, I will go with his theory that Patanjali is indeed talking about the poses of hatha yoga. Thus, we should continue to work through our poses until all effort has ceased - yes, all of them.
Student - How is “effortlessness” achieved?
In the asana chapter, we spoke about the relevance of science in yoga. If you turn up to class and practise with nothing but your willingness to try, science will take care of the rest. Over time, the effort being put in ceases because the body is no longer resisting being distorted into so many shapes. The muscles that you had to train to work now work unconsciously, and the pose is now steady and comfortable.
A zen master put it so simply when he said, “When walking just walk. When sitting just sit. Above all, do not wobble”.
When we first adopt a yoga pose - the headstand is a perfect example - we have to literally switch muscles on to create the integrity of the pose. We have to tell our arms to support us and take the weight, and we have to tell our core muscles to switch on. Why would they switch on automatically? How would they know what to do while you are upside down? We have to consciously switch our muscles on to create the desired pose. After a period of time, the muscles develop memory that is very cleverly called “muscle memory”. The muscles now do not wait for you to tell them to switch on, they just switch on unconsciously. This is a little bit like when you walk. You do not need to think about using your hip muscles to walk. They just switch on when you walk. You have trained your muscles to work since you were a child. The same will take place with a headstand. After a period of time, there will be so little energy used to create the pose that it will get steadier and much more comfortable.
The next element to consider is your breathing. If you are holding your breath in the poses, then we have a long way to go. With slow breathing, the body will receive the oxygen it needs and your mind will stay calm. Why is the mind important? The mind is the voice in your head that first tells you that you cannot do a headstand. It reminds you of how feeble and pathetic you are and convinces you to skip the headstand. This is because there are seeds of doubt in your mind that have been previously planted. These could be from a previous headstand attempt or even your childhood. And by refusing to do the headstand, you water these seeds of doubt and nourish them until they cause the flowering of more doubt. The mind has thus now convinced you that a headstand is not possible for you. But on the flip side, your mind also has seeds of courage and perseverance. You can water these seeds rather than the seeds of doubt. So the answer exists within your mind. It comes back to the title of the book and the paradox we exist in - the wrong use of the mind is madness, and the correct use of the mind is meditation.
The key for me has been to not overthink a pose by not allowing your mind to pester you. Do not give the mind time to develop a personality. Instead, take courage and try. You should have a willingness to attempt new things. In an old Bollywood movie Kuddah Gawah, I clearly remember Amitabh Bachchan saying, “Don't think so much. If the thoughts become deep, then the decisions become weak” (“Itna mat sooch . . . sooch gehri ho jaaye . . . toh faisle kamzor ho jaate hai”).
So once the mind is under your control, once breathing is mastered (in the pose) and once all of the muscles in your body work unconsciously, there is mastery of asana. It is as simple as that! You now see why Mr. Iyengar spent his entire life immersed in asana. It is an arduous ordeal that is not mastered in just a few years.
People imagine how hard it can be to gain mastery of the poses and find themselves feeling disheartened and disillusioned. It all seems so wonderful at first when the teacher tells you that each pose you do should be steady and comfortable, and no effort is required. But nothing is achieved in life without effort. Nothing in the world is worth having unless they are obtained through effort from the sweat of your own brow. Simply wishing is for fools, but actually doing is for those who thrive. There is no effort that is not beautiful because to exist requires effort. You can easily just float aimlessly and heedlessly through life but to live, to actually live, requires effort.
Step 4: Pranayama
So, let's just say you do master asana in this lifetime - stranger things have happened - you move onto rung or step number four: pranayama.
“Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Forget this and attaining enlightenment will be the least of your problems.”
When broken down, the word “pranayama” can be explained as follows: “prana” is the subtle life force. It also means breath, respiration, vitality and energy. “Ayama” refers to control, restraint or extension – meaning to stretch, regulate, expand or prolong.
The word “pranayama” itself simply means the expansion of this subtle life force. It means the prolongation of breath and its restraint. The sivasamhita (one of the earliest texts on hatha yoga) calls it “vayu sadhana” (vayu = breath; sadhana = practice, quest).
However, prana is not like a gross physical energy - it is a subtle energy. Prana or prana-sakti is a life principle or life force. This life force expresses itself in each breath. B.K.S Iyengar says, “Prana is usually translated as breath, yet breath is just one of the many manifestations of prana within the human body”. Iyengar adds that it is as difficult to explain prana as it is to explain God.
Prana is a subtle biological energy that catches breath and transmits it to the physical body. It is the transportation system that carries oxygen into your body. Prana and breath are intertwined. Prana is the driving power of the world and can be seen in every manifestation of life.
Tradition says it takes mastery of breathing to experience prana as it takes years to become so sensitive to the subtle sensations of breathing. We must experience the breath in “a touch” - this is the moment the breath is known. Then, we will have known prana - the vitality. It is only experienced upon mastery of the breath. With unconscious control of our breath, we are able to maintain life. This is no small achievement. This is a miracle in itself. Every moment of the day that we function is due to the unconscious management of our breath. Through this, not only are we able to survive, we are also capable of achieving amazing feats: athletically, intellectually and even spiritually.
When we experience first-hand what occurs when we are deprived of oxygen, we start to appreciate why the people of the subcontinent worship this prana-sakti as a goddess - Mother Nature is the giver of life.
The science of yoga explores what possibilities lay ahead of us if we are able to control the very praṇa that is responsible for life. If without thinking about our prana we as humans can achieve so much, imagine the possibilities if we were able to control, direct and expand our prana. Through control and mastery of prana via breathing, we are then ready for the next step.
The great Lao Tzu once said, “A perfect man breathes as if he is not breathing at all.” Thus, mastery of breathing is life itself.
The pranayama of Patanjali is NOT the pranayama you may do in a yoga class. These may both have the same name but are very different in actuality. This is similar to how mediation and dhyana are both very different concepts. The pranayama done in a yoga class (alternate nostril breathing and the like) are breathing exercises. Patanjali’s pranyama deals with the retention of breath. The text says, “The asana having been done, pranayama is the cessation of the movement of inhalation and exhalation”. The cessation of movement is “kumbhaha”. Retention of breath. The stopping of the breath is pranayama according to Patanjali.
Patanjali then says that there are four types of pranayama. However, their techniques must be learnt from a guru - an actual realised guru of which there are few on this earth (a subject I will elaborate on in the book). Thus, pranayama can be understood intellectually, but the practice itself has to be guided by a guru and only upon mastery of asana. However, this is almost impossible.
Nevertheless, “teachers” all over the country continue to teach pranayama because why not - they are yogis after all. Or, as most teachers say, “I have done a course”.
Step 5: Pratyahara
Once there is mastery of breathing control or mastery of the art of breath expansion, the seeker or “yogi” moves effortlessly or glides into step five: pratyahara. Pratyahara is derived from the Sanskrit roots: prati meaning “away” or “against”, and ahara meaning “nourishment”. Therefore, the whole word refers to a withdrawal from that which nourishes the senses.
You could translate this to mean the withdrawal of your senses. This means that if we switch off the input channels to our brains (the senses), there is no way for us to respond to the outside world. We cannot sense the world because the mechanism for the senses has been “switched off”. Thus, we desensitise our bodies to the external world. The ultimate law of survival says that we must sense the change in our environments and adapt to the change. These include natural disasters, human interferences or animal interaction. It is actually this law that has made us humans the most advanced species in the world. However, pratyahara requires the switching off of these senses - this is essentially sensory deprivation.
You could be sitting silently with your eyes close immersed in your breathing exercise. A spider or two could be crawling on you, but you will not have a reaction. This is because your mind is under your control and is not directed outwards. There is instead an inward turning. There is no reason to flinch and nothing to fear. You cannot fear because your input channels (your sensory nerves) have been told to not respond.
“Just as the tortoise withdraws its limbs, so when a man withdraws his senses from the sense objects, his wisdom becomes steady”, explains the Bhagavad Gita. Consciousness becomes far more sensitive when it detaches from the senses. Further, as the senses withdraw, the intuitive mind awakens. It is however impossible for the yogi to explore the inner realms of the mind if one is easily distracted by the external senses.
Next time your yoga teacher is sitting upright with a perfect posture and hands in some sort of mudra teaching “yogic” meditation, go and pinch her arm. If she screams, you can ask why he/she has not withdrawn his/her senses since this is a precursor to meditation and if such a wise teacher is teaching yogic meditation, how did he/she feel that pinch?
Step 6: Dharana
“Dharana” means the concentration of mind. It is the step before meditation and is concerned with fixing awareness on one object while excluding all others. This is possible because there is no longer external stimuli. Well there actually is, but you have to switch this off. The only stimulus that now exists is the fixed observance of your mind. It could be fixed on your breathe. You could be so oblivious to the external world that all you experience (internally) is the sensation of your breathe.
The dharanas are what Shiva revealed to Parvati all those years ago when he manifested the existence of 112 concentration techniques. Thus, all Patanjali did is create an order - a list of pre-requisites for Shiva’s methods.
Step 7: Dhyana or Meditation
This step is an extension of dharana. From dharana, there is a fall into the true reality - this is yogic meditation. The few traces of the mind that remain are collections of thoughts, imaginations and memories that have all been already stored. The external environment has been completely switched off and now all that remains is what is “inside your brain”. If these final traces of the mind are switched off too, the mind ceases to exist. This is a state of no-mind, and this is yogic meditation.
The finite is within the mind, but in meditation, the infinite is no-mind.
Step 8: Samadhi
“Samadhi” is the homecoming. It is self-realisation. It is Nirvana. You are now a Buddha. You are immersed into the universe.
With no-mind, without the monkey mind and without the clouds in the sky, one is able to experience the transcendental state of their consciousness. This is technically not a step but just an extension of dhyana/meditation in the same way that dhyana is not a step above dharana - it is just an extension.
The above is a very simplistic explanation. A more thorough understanding would take many books so my apologies for the simplification.
Let us do a quick review of the steps.
1 & 2) Yam and Niyama: These are your moral and ethical code
3) Asana: Poses
4) Pranayama: Expansion of breaths
5) Prataharya: Withdrawal of senses
6) Dharana: Concentration
7) Dhyana: Meditation
8) Samadhi: Enlightenment
My Book Madness or Meditation is available Now on paperback or Kindle.