Meditation: Exploring The Seventh Limb Of Yoga

Do you struggle to stay focused in your meditation practice? Do you feel like your mind is just too busy or that you're simply not cut out for meditation?

If so, know that this is a totally normal feeling. Many yogis have felt this way in the beginning. 

The key to a successful and enjoyable meditative experience is preparation. But how should we best prepare ourselves?

Well, we can find the answer to this question by exploring yoga philosophy, particularly the teachings of the eight limbs of yoga.

Don't worry if you've never heard of the eight limbs before, as I'm about to break down exactly what these ancient yogic teachings say about meditation in yoga practice.

So make a cup of herbal tea, get comfy, and let's dive in!

The Eight Limbs Of Yoga

If you've been practicing yoga for a while, you may have an inkling that there is more to yoga than downward dog and tree pose. 

Asana (yoga poses) is just one of the eight limbs of yoga, as taught by Patanjali in the famous text, "The Yoga Sutras".

In his teachings, Patanjali outlines eight aspects of yoga that traditionally serve as a progressive pathway toward self-discovery and spiritual enlightenment.

  1. Yama - Moral and ethical guidelines on interacting with others and the external world
  2. Niyama --Personal observances or inner disciplines on how we should act toward ourselves
  3. Asana - The physical postures we practice on the mat
  4. Pranayama - Breathing techniques that involve breath control and regulation
  5. Pratyahara - Turning inwards by withdrawing the senses from external stimuli
  6. Dharana - Cultivating focused concentration by directing your attention to a single point, object, or thought
  7. Dhyana - The state of meditation and continuous flow of awareness that arises from sustained concentration (Dharana)
  8. Samadhi - The ultimate goal of yoga, often described as a state of union with the divine or the realization of your true self

Diving Into Dhyana

When first learning about the eight limbs of yoga, many yogis get confused about the difference between Dhyana and Dharana.

According to the yoga sutras, Dhyana is the state you enter by engaging in sustained concentration (Dharana). 

Dharana involves intermittent moments of concentration, while in Dhyana, you experience a continuous flow of awareness, becoming absorbed and at one with the object of meditation. 

When you reach the state of Dhyana, your mind becomes quiet, and you can transcend the ego and enter higher states of consciousness and self-realization. 

So, while Dharana is required for meditation, Dhyana is the state of meditation itself.

However, while you experience uninterrupted awareness in the meditative state of Dhyana, you do not yet gain complete control over your mind. This comes from entering the final limb - Samadhi.

Modern-Day Benefits Of Dhyana

Along with aiding spiritual growth and self-discovery, meditation has many mental benefits, including:

  • Increases ability to maintain concentration in daily life
  • Improves memory
  • Improves clarity of thoughts
  • Enhances willpower and discipline
  • Reduces fatigue
  • Reduces stress and anxiety
  • Improves sleep quality

How To Practice Dhyana In Yoga

As the eight limbs of yoga function as a pathway or ladder to self-realization, the practice of each limb prepares you for the following ones.

So, both asana and pranayama are believed to bring the body and mind into a place of calm and stillness, which is needed for meditation (Dhyana). 

Firstly, asana relaxes and stretches the muscles and relieves physical tension so you can sit comfortably in a seated position for long periods. Secondly, pranayama soothes the nervous system, signaling your body and mind to relax, which, in turn, reduces activity in the brain.

This is why, when incorporating meditation into your yoga practice, I recommend doing it at the end of the session rather than the beginning. If you struggle with excessive mental activity, you might find it easier to drop into a meditative state this way.

Now let's take a look at the method of Dhyana…

Choose Your Object Of Concentration 

To practice Dhyana, you must first practice Dharana by choosing an object of concentration. Typically, this will be:

  • The breath
  • A mantra
  • An external object like a candle

Meditating On The Breath

If you're new to meditation, use your breath as your focal point. Try to maintain awareness of its natural rhythm as you breathe in and out through the nose. There are a few ways you can do this.

  • Follow your inhale, feeling the air move from your diaphragm to your lungs. Notice the sensation of your lungs being full of air. Then, slowly exhale and feel the breath travel back down to the diaphragm as the lungs empty.
  • Maintain your awareness of your belly, noticing its movements as you breathe. Feel the belly expand like a balloon as you inhale and deflate as you exhale.
  • Fix your focus on the nostrils, feeling the cool air entering them as you breathe in and warm air leaving as you breathe out.

Maintain Focus

When meditating, you will likely lose focus and find your mind wandering. But when this happens, avoid getting frustrated. Simply catch yourself and redirect your awareness back to your breath or the object of concentration.

Over time, you will find you can maintain focus for longer as the mind's activity slows and there is more space between each thought. But everyone is different, and there is no fast track to entering a deep meditative state, so patience is key!

How Long Should You Meditate For?

There is no set duration for how long to meditate. I recommend starting with just a few minutes and then gradually increasing. 

Initially, you may not enter the state of Dhyana or enter it briefly only. This is okay, as you are still training your mind for meditation by directing your attention to one thing.

Be sure also to make time (at least 5 minutes) to practice a pranayama technique just before coming into meditation. Breathing techniques quiet the mind further and allow for a more seamless meditation experience.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, yoga and meditation are not separate practices. Meditation is an integral aspect of a well-rounded yoga practice that should come after the physical poses and breathing techniques.

By following the order of Patanjali's eight limbs pathway, you can more effectively prepare your body and mind for meditation and, thus, have a more enjoyable experience.

To kickstart (or deepen) your Dhyana practice, check out our comprehensive 4-part meditation course.