"While today on the one hand we face the problem of meditators who do not adequately prepare the body for meditation, on the other hand we have Hatha yogis who get stuck in the meaningless drudgery of mere physical yoga. If the yogi does not go beyond the practice of posture and breath work, and does not graduate to and include formal meditation, then Hatha Yoga is not what it purports to be. It is then mere body-building, body-beautifying and gymnastics. There is nothing wrong with those, as long as the label clearly states we are doing only that. The problem with today's physical yoga is that it pretends to be more. And it is so only if it merges into the mental and spiritual disciplines of yoga."
From Yoga Meditation by Gregor Maehle.
This continues the discussion of the elements of yoga in the light of yoga's goal: to see things as they truly are. For more discussion of other elements, read Part 1: Introduction, Part 2: Physical Postures/Asana, and Part 3: Energy Control/Pranayama.
With Concentration and Meditation, we begin to enter the higher realms of yoga practice. Physical Postures (Asanas) use the body to access the mind, and Energy Control (Pranayama) uses the breath. Concentration and Meditation no longer use physical tools to access the mind. They deal with it directly.
Concentration is the first limb to deal with the mind alone. No longer are we accessing the mind though external means like the muscles or breath. Concentration is learning how to focus the mind all by itself. Can we keep the mind from wandering? Can we maintain our attention on a single point?
Concentration "is the beginning of meditation; meditation is the culmination of concentration. They are more or less inseparable." (1) As we improve our ability to focus the mind without wavering, the concept of Meditation comes closer. In Meditation we release our grip on the mind and it stays still, like a bird you hold in your hands. First you must train it to stay put. After you have trained it, you may open your hands and it will not fly away.
"Once it's tamed, it will just listen to you. You will be able to say, 'Okay, sit there quietly.' And it will. At that point you are meditating. Until then you are training yourself to meditate." (1) Such is the mind. If the mind wanders, we need to work on Concentration, training the mind to be still and unmoving.
There are many forms of Concentration - objects and ideas upon which we can focus the mind. I won't deal with those in any detail, only mention a few of them. Common types of Concentration (some call them Meditations) are 1) Single Point Concentration, where the mind is focused on one thing like a candle, a picture or the sound of the breath, 2) Compassion Concentration, where the mind is focused on another person and the nurturing of loving thoughts, and 3) No Point, which is the release of focus of the mind, allowing it to rest quietly. In the tradition of yoga, 'No Point' is what is meant by the term Meditation.
Each type of Concentration and Meditation has its own value to the mind and self. Practice each type until the mind will sit still without needing to be compelled. These practices bring clarity, ease, intuition and happiness.
When the mind comes under control, we cease to be controlled by our reactions. The senses no longer create automatic responses in the mind and body. We begin to see things as they are instead of as how we react to them. This is the purification of the senses.
The Purpose of Yoga, Part 1: Introduction
The Purpose of Yoga, Part 2: Physical Postures/Asana
The Purpose of Yoga, Part 3: Energy Control/Pranayama
*1. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translation and commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda
Why do we practice yoga? Is it for strong abs? To be able to touch our toes? To stand on our hands? To get our heart rate up? To calm our minds? To lower stress? To know God?
Yogis practice for all of these reasons and many more. There are as many reasons as there are people on the planet.
But what is the true purpose of yoga? It is a practice with many physical, mental, spiritual and emotional benefits. Which of these is yoga's true purpose and which are side-effects? Playing guitar will make your fingers tough and calloused, but few would claim that callouses are the purpose of guitar playing.
Yoga is a complex endeavor. Traditionally it has between 6 and 10 diverse areas of focus, or limbs. These include Disciplines and Values, Physical Postures, Breath and Energy Control, Inward Focus of the Senses, Concentration and Meditation, Chanting and Ritual. Some yogis focus intently on one area, others dabble in all of them.
I will explore each of these areas in some depth over the coming weeks, discussing how they aid and hinder us as we progress toward the true goal of yoga. It is simple in concept but unending in practice: to see things as they truly are.
We see the world through a filter that is unique to each of us. Our perceptions are colored by our own experiences and the mental constructs that we have in place to explain the world and the people in it. This is why, if you ask 5 different people for their explanations of an event, you will get 5 different but equally plausible answers. We all see the world differently.
The purpose of yoga is to purify our perception of the world. In the words of Pattabhi Jois it is the "purification of the sense organs." We change the way we see the world, how we interpret and interact with it. Step by step we notice and dissolve our individual prejudices and preconceptions, from the most obvious all the way down to the ones we don't yet know we have.
As William Blake put it, "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern."
With this in mind, let's explore the various practices of yoga, starting with the most common: Physical Postures (Asana).
The Purpose of Yoga, Part 2: Physical Postures/Asana
The Purpose of Yoga, Part 3: Energy Control/Pranayama
I have felt myself change so drastically over the years since I began practicing yoga. It began with my body - physical health, strength and focus - and has shifted to my mind, my energy and my sense of self. As I begin to explore the mind and self with dedication, I perceive deep wells and vast horizons that I have never seen or realized before. My journey inward is beginning to fascinate me and give me great hope and understanding.
Although I have always been a quiet, introverted person, I haven't until now considered that I could develop my "self". I can study and explore the landscape that is the mind, senses and emotions seeking ever truer manifestations of who I am. But I need to make time to do this just like I have made time for the physical Posture practice. It is a new concept for me - exploring and developing inward - but one that holds great promise.
"This is the essential difference between a spiritually minded person and a worldly person. Worldly doesn't mean that you have money or stature. Worldly means that you think the solution to your inner problems is in the world outside. You think that if you can change things outside, you'll be okay. But nobody has ever truly become okay by changing things outside. There's always the next problem. The only real solution is to take the seat of witness consciousness and completely change your frame of reference."
From "The Untethered Soul" by Michael A. Singer
At the beginning we do the postures to serve the body. We make the muscles strong and the joints mobile. At some point the relationship inverts and the body exists in service of the postures. We no longer do the poses to strengthen our abs; we have strong abs to enable us to do the poses.
This begs the question: what do the poses serve? What is the purpose of the postures once they are no longer done in service of the body?
The goal of the postures becomes the same as the goal of yoga itself: to remove suffering. Our unhappiness is made in our minds where we create little universes for ourselves and try to rule them. We try to be the best and the most popular and have the most stuff, or whatever the rules of our ego-driven worlds are. We try to keep control.
The path to happiness is not by conquering our own mind-made universe, but by realizing its nature as a figment of our minds and gradually eradicating it. This is where self-awareness, honesty and meditation come in.
The postures become a place where we can settle our bodies, sometimes for long periods of time, and quiet the mind. They become points of focus. Each posture has a different point, and when we do the posture our mind can focus and rest there. The poses become practice for the mind in concentration and longer periods of shiftlessness.
"When the five senses are stilled, when the mind
Is stilled, when the intellect is stilled,
That is called the highest state by the wise.
They say yoga is this complete stillness
In which one enters the unitive state,
Never to become separate again.
If one is not established in this state,
The sense of unity will come and go."
The Katha Upanishad, Part 2, Chapter 2, Verse 10-11.
The 6th, 7th and 8th limbs of yoga according to Patanjali are commonly translated as: Dharana - Concentration, Dhyana - Meditation, and Samadhi - Bliss or Union or Integration. I have been reading Health, Healing and Beyond by TKV Desikachar, and he translates them slightly differently.
Dharana - The ability to direct our minds.
Dhyana - The ability to develop interactions with what we seek to understand.
Samadhi - Complete integration with the object to be understood.
These translations help my understanding of the concepts, especially with Dhyana. Meditation is one of the main processes that we can use to develop interactions with what we seek to understand, but according to this translation it is the interactions, not the meditation itself that is the focus.
I have always struggled with the meaning of Meditation. What is it? Does the mind stay completely focused or release from focus? Do we meditate on an idea or object, or do we meditate on nothing? These translations lead me to believe that all of these possibilities are useful forms of meditation. These various acts of meditation allow us to interact with what we seek to understand. Sometimes it is something, sometimes nothing.
These translations also shed some light on the meaning and process of Samyama, a concept that Patanjali elaborates in the 3rd chapter of the Yoga Sutras. In my understanding Samyama is a deep integration with an object or idea, somewhere beyond the concept of Samadhi.
Last night, in place of my usual posture practice, I did about 90 minutes of Pranayama (energy, focus and breathing) exercises followed by a Qigong standing meditation.
During the Energy Extensions (Pranayama), I focused on breath retention and evenness of breath and stillness of mind, noticing the changes within my body as I practiced.
The Qigong standing meditation puts the body in a position to allow free flow of energy and holds it there. Over time, about 10 minutes, the energy in the body starts to break down blockages and flow more strongly.
I did this practice last night in an attempt to calm my mind and strengthen my energy. I woke up this morning feeling the most focused and centered that I have in weeks.
One of the great benefits of yoga practice is generating heat in the body. Heat relaxes the body and helps it function optimally. We can generate internal heat through breathing exercises (Pranayama) and bodily postures (Asana). The most advanced yogis can control their circulation and body heat through pure concentration (Dharana).
This journal honors my ongoing experience with the practice, study and teaching of yoga.
1) Sridaiva Yoga: Good Intention But Imbalanced
2) Understanding Chair Posture
2) Why I Don't Use Sanskrit or Say Namaste
3) The Meaningless Drudgery of Physical Yoga
5) Beyond Bikram: Why This Is a Great Time For Ghosh Yoga