The classical yoga system, described by the sage Patanjali, contains eight divisions or limbs (ashta-anga). These eight limbs form a system of practice and point toward a final goal: the realization of one’s pure and essential nature. Each limb has a distinct role to play in this unfolding process, and together they provide both an order of practice and a measure of attainment.
Students are not expected to perfect each of the lower limbs before proceeding on. The process is organic. The first two limbs (yama and niyama) describe attitudes toward life and practice and are essential for all students to cultivate. The next three limbs (asana, pranayama, and pratyahara) form the foundation for meditation practice, and when they are eventually mastered they lead to a deep and relaxed state of concentration. The final three limbs are attained gradually and are described as even deeper levels of concentration—pure, delightful, undistracted, and sustained over increasing lengths of time.
The Sanskrit terms for the eight limbs are both rich and precise in meaning, but some translate into English more successfully than others. For example, dharanaor “concentration,” the sixth limb, is a familiar concept and one that appears relatively easy to understand. (In the yoga system, however, the word has a far more specific meaning than our everyday language gives it.)
On the other hand, neither pranayama nor pratyahara translate very meaningfully. Pranayama, the expansion and mastery of vital energy, is the fourth limb, following asana (a steady seated posture) and preceding pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses). Unfortunately Patanjali does not provide many details about how one might practice these limbs. And, as one commentator has noted, hearing the details does not often lead to understanding anyway. Systematic, daily practice of these limbs is the source of real understanding.
So put on your practice clothes and let’s examine some of the basics of the journey from asana to pratyahara. We’ll start with sitting, the place where the daily drama of meditation begins.
Cultivating a Steady Posture
Meditation is a process of paying attention, and the essence of meditating is developing one-pointed concentration. Then, freed from the tendency to engage with distractions, the mind becomes profoundly peaceful.
But as you may have discovered, the conditions for attaining one-pointed concentration are elusive. Even when there are few outside interruptions, inner distractions have a way of intruding upon us, which is why the first formal step in the process of meditating is establishing a steady and comfortable meditation posture. Such a posture provides the stability and sense of isolation necessary to serve as an inner workplace.
Even when there are few outside interruptions, inner distractions have a way of intruding upon us,
There is a wide variety of sitting postures to choose from, depending on your flexibility. The primary ingredient of a good posture is an erect spine. But remember, “erect” does not mean strained or uncomfortable—if the posture is maintained by straining, then that postural tension will become a mental distraction.
In order to be completely comfortable in your posture you will probably need to strengthen your back muscles, improve awareness of your sitting habits during the non-meditating hours of your life (so that you don’t tear down what you are building up), and put in some regular practice sitting for meditation. It will help to perform hatha yoga postures that teach you how to use the pelvis, hip joints, and back in a healthy way. Eventually you will be able to maintain the posture with little effort, and it will be comfortable and steady.
Let’s suppose that you have gotten into your posture and can remain in it quite comfortably. Your body gradually settles down, and you sense a feeling of stillness emerging. You relax.
Breathing and Relaxation
As you relax, you become aware of your breathing. The breath flows through the nose in an even, natural rhythm. It is propelled by contractions of the diaphragm, which expand the sides of the lower rib cage as well as the upper abdomen with each inhalation. Watching the breath flow, you make modest changes until it becomes deep, smooth, even, soundless, and free from pauses. The breath cleanses and nourishes you effortlessly—over and over.
Then, as the breath becomes steady, you travel systematically through your body, bringing your awareness to major muscles, joints, surfaces, and inner spaces. This process usually begins at the top of the head, proceeding down to the toes, and returning to the crown of the head. During this journey the sense of physical stillness continues to develop, and the breath deepens, remaining steady and smooth. Now you are ready to make the transition from body to breath.
From Posture to Breath Awareness
Space is around you and within you. The entire universe is pervaded by space. Normally we pay attention to the objects that rest in space, but you can also sense the space in which things rest. But to do this you will need to tune yourself to it. The sense of space is apparent when you are quiet, breathing, and paying attention.
With your eyes closed, the most self-evident space is the one you are occupying in your sitting posture. As you relax, your body becomes like a space within a space. You perceive it as almost void—as space-like—resting in the vaster space around you.
Now let your breath flow into this space as you inhale. Let the inhalation seem to expand within you until the entire space is filled. As you exhale, your breath shrinks within you as if it were disappearing into your heart center, at the top of the diaphragm. Regularly pulsing in this way, the breath expands, filling the space in which your body rests, and then emptying it. You breathe as if your whole body breathes.
Continue watching the flow of the breath. Don’t imagine that you are reaching enlightenment, dissolving your ego, awakening kundalini, or undergoing any other radical transformation. There are many, many miles to go before any such profound experience will take place. Simply watch the flow of breath with a sense of contentment.
As you continue you may notice that you develop a less forceful and more serene breath. One of the effects of the practice is that the flow of breath becomes very fine. As it does, your awareness is freed to turn even further inward.
From Breathing to Sense Withdrawal
In the act of concentrating, it is natural to disregard disturbances that would lead away from your focus. During the time you have been reading this article, for example, there have been many noises and sounds around you, but for the most part you have let them come and go without disturbing you. You spontaneously detached your awareness from outside sounds, and your sense of hearing rested.
This is the essence of pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses. Here, the mind engages fully—one-pointedly—with its internal object, and having no reason to become active during this period of concentration, the senses rest, withdrawn from their normal objects.
In a very technical analysis, the sage Vyasa notes that yoga/meditation is the cause of liberation for two reasons: first, it uproots old ways of knowing; second, it leads to the acquisition of a new, discriminative awareness. Or, in the words of another sage, “Dig up from here [said while pulling an onion plant from the ground] and plant over here [said while putting it firmly in its new hole].”
The senses have created deep grooves in the mind, however, and they must be trained to relax. This takes place gradually, over an extended series of meditations, each of which is marked by movement toward an inner focus. The deeper and more relaxed the focus, the deeper the withdrawal of the senses.
How does the breath lead to such a focus? First, you feel the touch of breath in the nostrils—warm with the exhalation, and cool with the inhalation. The breath is unbroken, smooth, and without pause. There is no break in the breathing, and no break in the awareness of the touch of the breath.
How does the breath lead to such a focus?
Then, feeling that touch, the sound of the breath is simultaneously heard in the mind. To hear the sound you must, of course, first think the sound: during the entire inhalation you think the sound so and throughout the length of the exhalation you think the sound hum. The sound is not vocalized or heard externally; it is completely in the mind.
Bringing this sound into awareness while you are feeling the touch of the breath creates an inner harmony. The body, the breathing mechanism, the senses, and the mind are coordinated. Momentum is gathered toward one-pointed awareness. Eventually the touch of the breath, too, is left behind, and awareness rests purely in the inner sound. This is the natural progression of meditation. It leads one from body to breath; from breath to senses; and finally, from senses to mind.
The Practice in Brief
For the sake of training, meditation can be organized into the five stages outlined below. Each has been described in this article. These stages are related to the eight limbs of yoga, particularly limbs three through five, which establish the foundation for concentration.
Breathing techniques of many kinds form the bridge between the seated meditation posture and the gradual withdrawal of the senses. While advanced forms of pranayama have not been explained, the techniques discussed here form a solid footing for practice and can be integrated into your daily meditation routine. Try following the five stages below, giving special attention to the various practices involving the breath. Don’t hurry from one stage to the next; let your practice unfold slowly.
Establish a steady posture that leads to a feeling of stillness.
Develop relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing.
Relax systematically, finishing by breathing as if the whole body breathes.
Establish breath awareness in the nostrils.
Hear the sound of the breath in the mind.
As your focus deepens, attention finds its own quiet center. Then, transcending techniques, your mind will rest within.