By Kate Duncan.
This is Blog Post Number Seven in our Why You Don’t need a mat to practice Yoga series, and in it we will explore the seventh limb, Dhyana.
Without having experienced these two limbs for yourself, it can be difficult to distinguish Dhyana (contemplation) from the previous limb, Dharana (concentration). From the outside, they can seem like the same thing, but as we will explore in this post, there is one very big difference.
Let’s review all eight limbs…
The eight limbs
- Yama (ethical standards or integrity)
- Niyama (self-disciple and spiritual observances)
- Asana (postures)
- Pranayama (breathing techniques, or breath control)
- Pratyahara (sense withdrawal)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (contemplation, or meditative absorption)
- Samadhi (liberation, bliss or enlightenment)
While the first six limbs are an active processes, I like to think of Dhyana and Samadhi (the eighth and final limb; and ultimate goal of yoga) as the fruits of practice. They arrive of their own blessing, spontaneously and without warning, when the limbs have been practiced well. This means that we simply cannot force, fake, or will these states to arise. Instead we can only put in the work, and remain patient for the reward.
Once we have purified body and mind, withdrawn from sensual desire, learned to sit still and concentrate, the mind is free to move into contemplation or absorption. But what is absorption, and what exactly does Dhyana mean?
It helps first to understand the sixth limb of Dharana, which is where we concentrate our mind on one object. For example, we decide to sit in an easy pose and concentrate on the breath. We may choose to focus on the sensation of air as it moves in and out of the nostrils. It may take hundreds and thousands of efforts to bring our monkey mind back to this place as it swings and wanders away from where we have asked it to stay. This active process of bringing the mind back, however tedious, is Dharana.
If we’re lucky, and we have been practicing well, we may spontaneously find our mind resting in complete awareness. Now the focus has moved from the object of concentration to the full experience: in other words we are now effortlessly contemplating or reflecting on the experience of breath. Dhyana is non-judgmental, open awareness of it’s object of Dharana. We know all it’s aspects, forms and consequences. The state of Dhyana is uninterrupted, absorbed and immensely peaceful.
In simple terms, you could consider Dharana as the attempt to meditate, while Dhyana is the meditation.
As with samadhi, it is almost better not to think to much about Dhyana, or to read up on its theory. Rather, it is more helpful to learn and practice the first 6 limbs well, and to allow these two blissful states to arise on their own. Often, the expectation of peacefulness, union, bliss or awakening can be detrimental to our practice, leaving us to feel like we are failing when we sit to meditate and our mind is wild or busy.
A wonderful example of this is in our asana practice. Perhaps we are at the studio and have been led through a difficult vinyasa class. We have worked hard to maintain balance, to concentrate on our postures. We’ve engaged in pranayama, and we have been trying to still our minds and stay focussed on each pose.
At the end of class, the teacher leads you into Savasana, corpse pose. You lie still, knowing that you have nothing to do now but rest. Your mind enters a state of pure awareness. It is empty of thoughts and relaxed. You feel one with body and mind, even for just a few moments. You didn’t will this state to come, and you didn’t force it. It simply arrived as a result of you practicing well.
This is Dhyana.
For many of us, it may seem far-fetched to reach these elusive states. And yet, as demonstrated by this example, you’ve most likely already experienced small glimpses into the divine. At times, we see something breathtakingly beautiful: a sunrise, a snow-covered mountain peak, the full moon on a winters night, or a newborn child. For a moment we become completely immersed.
As such, we can reach Dhyana spontaneously and without effort. Or, with repeated practice of Dharna and the other five limbs, we can find ourselves here more often, and for longer periods of time.
Eventually, as our mind rests in Dhyana, we open the possibility for Samadhi; the pure awakening that is the ultimate goal of yoga.