Writing the introduction to Rāja Yoga and its first 5 limbs made me realize how difficult it is to write about spiritual practices. But it was a wonderful exercise in discovering what I have understood in order to convey the essence to you. At this stage, learning continues to be an intense study, with frequent challenges and rare aha moments, propelled by vacillating effort. I have to believe that each limb prepares me for the next and brings me one step closer to the most sought after state of everlasting calmness and Bliss.
The last 3 limbs – a deceptive phrase suggesting that we are on the home stretch to destination, Rāja Yoga, royal union. I am certainly not implying that at the end of this read you will know exactly how to get from Asana to Bliss in eight steps. Hopefully, you’ll find inspiration within these paragraphs to join me on this quest.
Paramahamsa Yogananda taught Rāja Yoga, – but the limbs 5- 8 may be referred to as Kriya Yoga. Traditionally, the first 5 limbs are referred to as the external limbs, Bahiranga Sadhana, which are practiced simultaneously to prepare the body and breath for the next phase of practice. The last three limbs, referred to as the internal limbs, Anataranga Sadhana, are practices to silence the vrittis, thoughts, which must be practiced sequentially.
I’ve learnt that in the ancient gurukulas, when personal attitudes, habits and daily practices are streamlined (yama and niyama), a comfortable seated position (asana) and a slow deep breath (pranayama) are obtained, only then one is introduced to Anataranga Sadhana, internal limbs. However, that’s not the case in today’s world. It has become a practice to begin yoga with asana, poses or meditation, but it is essential to add the complete study of the 8 limbs for spiritual progress.
Last 3 Limbs of Raja Yoga
|Dhaarana||धारणा||Concentration, Focussed Attention, Single-mindedness|
|Samadhi||समाधि||Spiritual Union, Self- Realization, Liberation, Oneness, Ever-New Bliss|
The sixth limb, Dhaarana, power of concentration, begins when we become somewhat successful in channelling our awareness inward. Now, we begin dealing with the distractions of the mind. This practice too, is not easy. However, when the mind is able to draw inward consistently, Dhaarana, is used to train the mind to concentrate on a single object, usually the breath, a chosen deity or mantram. The purpose of Dhaarana is to create the conditions for the mind to focus its attention in one direction only, instead of going out in different directions.
According to Gurudev, I have already begun to develop my powers of concentration in the previous three stages – asana, posture, Pranayama, breath control, and Pratyahara, training of the senses. When practicing asana my attention juggles between movement and stillness, but in pranayama, I am becoming aware that my attention is sustained for short periods during a specific breathing technique. In the practice of concentration, I am learning how to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object: my breath or silent repetition of a spiritual sound, mantram.
The purpose of the object is to stop the mind from wandering through memories, dreams, or reflective thought. An arbitrary selection to focus the attention upon some static object creates boredom leading to inconsistency or giving up of the practice altogether. Selection of an appropriate object for concentration is a serious process, one that requires your effort as well as guidance from a spiritual teacher.
For example, I was inclined towards choosing a mantram as an object of concentration for Dhaarana. According to Eknath Easwaran, the author of The Mantram Handbook, a mantram is a spiritual formula, when invoked has the ability to calm, heal and develop divine attributes. Let’s assume I chose the mantram, ‘Krishna’, which means the Lord of Love, among other meanings. This formula helps to achieve the mental state of pure love where the mind, intellect, and ego are purified and offered to the Lord for His use and in His service without the feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. Keeping the mind focused, and at the same time, releasing attachment to ‘I’ thoughts is extremely challenging. Selection of an object of concentration that can bring about such transformation, therefore, requires some serious forethought, and must be chosen with a sense of reverence, surrender and gratitude.
Yogis declare when one obtains the ability to concentrate the mind on a single object to the point of being completely absorbed in it, then one has moved into the 7th limb – Dhyana, meditation, uninterrupted flow of concentration. The attitude of effort is evident in the previous limbs, however, in Dhyana, the state of meditative mind happens when these previous limbs have been mastered. Yogis call this effortless effort.
An ancient yogic analogy: Dharana, concentration is compared to a dripping faucet where the space between each drip is the time when the concentration peaks – which can be short or long based on the rate of dripping. Then, visualize concentration as a continuous flow without breaks just as the flow of oil being poured without drips. This is Dhyana, the seventh limb, the meditative state of mind.
Recently, I was speaking with someone who had been referred for yoga. Over the phone, I gathered that his doctor had prescribed yoga and meditation along with medication to deal with poor health, stress and anxiety in his life. I asked him to come in for a consult and an asana class to find out more. He kept repeating the question, “what techniques of breathing and meditation can you teach me?” I explained to him that I needed more information about his health, personality and lifestyle to make the right suggestions. Then he asked how long would it take to notice improvement. It is difficult for me to answer these questions at an instant, without having met in person.
Watching closely how my practice has progressed and morphed over the years of studying and practicing Rāja Yoga, my answer is – a few years to say the least. Best guess – he was not looking for this answer. Of course, I did not want to scare him off by giving this answer. The only reason I mention this is to highlight the fact that meditation, Dhyana is the seventh limb of Rāja Yoga; meaning it is preceded by six important, preliminary limbs that are absolutely necessary to prepare the body, breath and mind to achieve a meditative state.
It is said that when the mind is completely absorbed in Dhyana, thoughts cease and the mind stills. Although the dictionary defines meditation as awareness, stillness, reflection, contemplation, absorption – many descriptions; its best to begin practicing the yogic techniques and directly experience this stillness. This stillness is alluded to as the meditative state of mind, and when sustained, leads us to the last limb, Samadhi, the ultimate state of yoga, blissful union.
In Samadhi, Paramahamsa Yogananda and other yogis guarantee that one sees pure awareness reflected on the still surface of the mind. Enlightenment, Self-Realization, Union, Liberation, Superconsciousness and Ever-New Bliss are all words used to describe this pure awareness. Here, the object of concentration, the subject, you, and the act of perceiving, all merge into an awareness of Oneness. In other words, the mantram or chosen spiritual formula as the object is God or Divine. If my chosen mantram is ‘Krishna‘ then in Samadhi, my awareness becomes Pure Love.
As the Indian mystic, Meher Baba puts it, “you and I are not we, you and I are One.” I understand this as: with dedicated and systematic practice, eventually, I will arrive at this universal awareness – where there is no difference between you and me, hence no conflicts or favoritism, no misunderstood intentions, just complete acceptance and unconditional love. This is the promise of Rāja Yoga to a dedicated seeker.
With this realization comes the “peace that passeth all understanding”; the experience of bliss and being one with the Universe. This can neither be explained by another, taught or read from a book; it can neither be bought nor possessed. It can only be experienced, with surrender to the Guru, with persistent effort and total devotion by the seeker.
This is my effort to bring you the last 3 limbs of Rāja Yoga from a place of limited understanding. But, the 7th limb, Dhyana, meditation and 8th, Samadhi, Liberation, can only be explained using the words of illumined masters. Although, it was a futile attempt on my part to bring them to light, this was more of an exercise to validate my Ahbyasa, and deepen my faith – so that I may experience the state of Self-Realization, Samadhi – sooner than later.
Yogananda, Paramahamsa. 1955. Autobiography of a Yogi. Rider Press, CA
Bell, Charlotte.2007. Mindful Yoga Mindful Life. Rodmell Press
Easwaran, Eknath.2008. The Mantram Handbook: A Practical Guide to Choosing your Mantram and Calming Your Mind. Nigiri Press, CA