The last three limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga are often studied together and are called Antaratma Sadhana, or the innermost quest. We will consider them in turn.
The practice of pratyahara prepares us for the sixth limb, dharana, or concentration. Pratyahara relieves us of outside distractions to enable us to turn inward and focus on self observation.
Dharana involves slowing down the thought processes by concentrating on a single object, physical or mental. This can be an energetic centre of the body, an image of a deity or sacred symbol, a natural object or even a sound. Although the previous limbs develop concentration through fine tuning, awareness and self-observation our attention travels. Dharana is different, our attention is one-pointed, a single thread to a single point.
These extended periods of concentration naturally lead to meditation.
In chapter III, verse one, Patanjali explains concentration as the ‘binding of consciousness to a [single] spot.’
In asana practice, pranayama and meditation we actively seek out this depth of concentration but dharana can be achieved whenever a person is fully present and focused on an object or activity.
The seventh limb of Yoga is Meditation or contemplation, which can be described as uninterrupted flow of concentration.
Dharana and dhyana are very similar but where dharana practices one-pointed attention, dhyana is ultimately a state of being keenly aware without focus. The state of dhyana has a quiet and still mind, few or no thoughts are produced at all. Far from requiring a lack of action, this stage requires a lot of physical and mental strength and stamina (hence the preceding steps!).
The final stage of Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga is described as a state of ecstacy. The meditator merges with his or her point of focus and transcends the self realizing that they have a connection to the divine, an interconnectedness with all living things or a sense of bliss and feeling of being at one with the universe. This final stage might seem a little ‘far-out’, a little lofty, but when you examine what you really want out of life most people would say joy, fulfillment and freedom.
Samadhi can relate to daily life. It brings with it the possibility of hope about the future of human beings, the possibility of every one of us experiencing Samadhi, becoming whole and fully present. Even just understanding this is an understanding of our true nature.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda, Integral yoga Publications (2003)
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Georg Feuerstein, Inner Traditions (1989)
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Christopher Chapple and Yogi Ananda Viraj, Sri Satguru Publications (1990)