Over 1,700 years ago an ancient sage going by the name of Patanjali created a set of guidelines designed to help any who followed them to live a good life.
These guidelines are known as the Eight Limbs of Yoga and include an ethical code of conduct, physical postures, breathing exercises and meditation.
They also include the precursor to meditation, the skill needed when learning to meditate: concentration.
Concentration, of course, sounds easier than it it.
Learning to meditate
Yoga terms are written in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit. The two Sanskrit terms linked to meditation are dharana (the sixth limb of yoga) and dhyana (the seventh limb of yoga). The final limb is samadhi.
In The Path to Holistic Health, revered teacher BKS Iyengar suggests that it is not easy to separate the last three limbs of yoga.1
He says that the ancient sage Patanjali himself grouped dharana, dhyana and samadhi as ‘samyama’, meaning the ‘integration of the body, breath, mind, intellect, and self’.1
Mastering concentration is harder than you think
Dharana is the the sixth limb, and can be said to be the first stage of – or the precursor to – meditation. It is ‘the condition in which the mind focuses and concentrates exclusively on one point’, one thing, one object.2
Could it be applied outside of a typical meditation setting? Could it be seen as something similar to what has been coined a ‘flow state’ by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi?2
TSK Desikachar, another highly respected teacher in the yoga world, offers the following:
‘Deep contemplation and reflection can create the right conditions, and the focus on this one point we have chosen becomes more intense. We encourage one particular activity of the mind and, the more intense it becomes, the more the other activities of the mind fall away.’3
Finally ready to meditate and bliss out
While dharana prepares and concentrates the mind, dhyana is what we most commonly associate with the idea of meditation.
The links are emphasised by TSK Desikachar in The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice(1995), where he says ‘dharana is the contact, and dhyana is the connection’.3
The connection he’s talking about is that of a complete union and integration of ‘body, breath, senses, mind, reason and ego’ that results in a state of ‘supreme bliss’.4
BKS Iyengar takes it a step further, suggesting that when in a state of dhyana– of meditation -– the following is true:
‘Like a streak of lightning the yogi sees LIGHT that shines beyond the earth and the heavens. He sees the light that shines in his own heart. He becomes a light unto himself and others’.4
This last sentence is of particular interest to me. Recently I’ve had a number of conversations with people who view meditation as a self-indulgent act, and meditators as selfish and removed.
Maybe, though, something is amiss. Like with anything, there will be distant, aloof people who meditate, and others who view and label those people as the ‘typical meditator’.
Maybe it’s worth considering what those people might be dealing with in their own lives. Who knows what difficulties they’re dealing with on a daily basis. Meditation is unlikely to be the problem.
Because the purpose of meditation and of reaching a meditative state of being, according to these great teachers, isn’t just about making you happy. It’s not only about tapping into your own bliss.
It is about sharing that sense of bliss and light and insight with the world at large.
References and further resources
- Iyengar, BKS. The Path to Holistic Health: The Definitive Step-By-Step Guide. 3rdedn. 2014. Great Britain: Dorling Kindersley Limited
- Csikszentmihalyi M. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial Modern Classics ed. HarperCollins Publishers; 2008.
- Desikachar, TKV. The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice. Revised Edition. 1995.
- Iyengar, BKS. Light on Yoga. Revised ed. Schocken Books; 1979.