Dhyana, or meditation, is the seventh limb in the sage Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga. Outlined in the Yoga Sutra text, the 8 limbs were meant to provide yogis with a path to a meaningful and purposeful life. Each practice along the path aims to unify the mind, body, and spirit. The practice of dhyana holds an important place along this path to enlightenment. Below is an explanation of what it is and its significance within the 8 limbs.
What is Dhyana?
Dhyana refers to not only the act or practice of meditating, but encompasses a state of meditative absorption and contemplation in which a continuous and uninterrupted flow of concentration is achieved. One who has achieved a state of dhyana has the ability to move beyond the focus on a single object, and can actually merge with the object on which they are concentrating.
Dhyana leads us to a state of awareness and true consciousness that keeps us fully in the present moment. From this place, we are able to learn and discover our true nature, ultimately leading us to the goal of yoga: bliss and enlightenment.
Preparing for Dhyana
Patanjali’s eightfold path of yoga is carefully structured so that each limb prepares the yogi for the next. Achieving dhyana requires an understanding and practice of the limbs that come before it.
In order to prepare for dhyana, the yogi must first live by moral disciplines and observances (first and second limb), and then engage the body and mind through physical postures (third limb), breathing (fourth limb), and gradually withdrawing the senses so that attention may turn inward (fifth limb). When the yogi reaches the sixth limb, they begin the shift to an internal yoga of the mind. The work done in these first six limbs makes achieving dhyana possible. These techniques, practiced within the preceding limbs, can be particularly helpful in achieving meditative absorption as you reach the seventh limb:
1. Yama (moral discipline) – Practice the yamas: These are moral practices and guidelines. By embracing these values in life, you can come to your yoga practice from a more balanced place, which supports a more balanced mind in your meditation when you reach dhyana. The yamas include:
- ahimsa (nonviolence)
- satya (truth)
- asteya (non-stealing)
- brahmacharya (moderation)
- aparigraha (non-greed, detachment)
2. Niyama (moral observance) – Practice the niyamas: These important practices of self-discipline, observance, and spirituality ensure you can approach your entire yoga practice and dhyana with more discipline and reverence. They include:
- saucha (cleanliness)
- santosha (contentment)
- tapas (self-discipline)
- svadhyaya (self-study)
- ishvara pranidhana (devotion)
3. Asana (body posture) – Practice yin yoga: Yin yoga primarily supports the connective tissue around the hips, pelvis, and lower spine. This makes it an ideal practice for preparing a practitioner to sit in the static position of meditation for longer periods. Incorporating this style of yoga into your asana practice will help you find more physical comfort during dhyana.
4. Pranayama (breath control) – Practice breath control: Breathing techniques help unify the mind and body as you prepare for meditation. Techniques such as nadi shodhana pranayama (alternate nostril breathing) calms and centers the mind by balancing the left and right hemispheres of the brain, while the more advanced technique bhastrika pranayama (bellows breath) energizes the body and clarifies the mind.
5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) – Try yoga nidra: Withdrawing the senses is the bridge that helps us shift from the more external practices of yoga to the internal. Learning a practice such as yoga nidra can give you the tools to cultivate pratyahara while in relaxation poses like savasana. Yoga nidra, also known as yogic sleep, allows you to practice a state of consciousness between sleeping and waking as you are guided inward through a withdrawal of the senses.
6. Dharana (concentration) – Practice trataka: Training the mind to concentrate on a single point is an essential step in preparing for meditation. Trataka, or concentrated gazing, is a useful technique that is most often performed with a burning candle placed about two feet in front of you at eye level. The gaze is fixed on the tip of the wick without blinking. When you are no longer able to avoid blinking, close the eyes and visualize the flame in the third eye chakra (the spot of the forehead between the eyebrows). Stay focused on this inner image as long as possible. This technique can also be used with other external objects such as a flower or statue.
Dhyana: The 7th Limb of Yoga
The yogi experiences progressive stages of concentration as they move through the final limbs.
After training the mind to concentrate (sixth limb) on a single point of focus using a technique such as trataka, intermittent moments of focus become longer and more sustained. When the yogi experiences a sustained flow of concentration without interruption, they have achieved a state of dhyana (seventh limb), or meditative absorption. Dhyana is made possible by the preparation of the mind that takes place in dharana.
In the state of dhyana, the yogi becomes so absorbed in their meditation that they are no longer conscious of meditating. Thoughts, emotions, desires, and memories subside and the yogi becomes only aware of his/her existence, the mind, and the object of meditation. In dhyana’s state of effortless awareness, one is awakened to the inner self or soul, and the nature of existence.
While regular practice of the preceding limbs is the best preparation for achieving dhyana, there are several techniques that can set the stage for your work towards meditative absorption, including:
- Practice regularity of time, place, and techniques. Creating consistency in your meditation practice helps condition the mind to be still.
- Create a separate space for meditation. Having a dedicated space for meditation helps you focus on your practice by limiting the distractions of other spaces that are used for multiple tasks.
- Meditate at dawn and dusk. If possible, meditating at dawn and dusk takes advantage of the time where day and night meet, allowing consciousness and nature to come together. Additionally, these are likely to be the times in which you are least distracted by the business of the day.
Now that you understand the state of dhyana, try Dylan Werner’s Sound Into Silence program on Alo Moves to learn and practice various meditation techniques, and for more on the 8 limbs of yoga check out this breakdown of the yamas and niyamas and ways to practice the yamas.