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The Seventh Limb of Yoga: Dhyana
Meditation is a hot topic these days. It’s been the subject of countless articles in publications such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Time magazine. Hundreds of research studies have revealed the physiological and psychological effects of the practice. Dozens of apps are ready to be downloaded onto your phone to teach you to meditate, time your meditation, or remind you when it’s time to meditate. It’s taught at Fortune 500 corporations, elementary schools, pricey retreats in exotic locales, prisons, and, of course, your local yoga studio.
There’s no denying it: meditation has gone mainstream. So how does this technique that’s all the rage compare to what the ancient yogis practiced thousands of years ago?
When Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras around 400 CE, he included meditation, or dhyana, as the seventh limb on the eight-limbed path of yoga. Because each limb builds upon the ones before it, it might be considered the next phase of the limb that precedes it, dharana. Dharana is the act of binding the mind to a single point of focus. Dhyana is a profound deepening of the concentration experienced when practicing dharana. The state of concentration (dharana) expands into one of meditative absorption (dhyana).
“When oil is poured from one vessel to another, one can observe the steady constant flow,” writes B.K.S. Iyengar in Light on Yoga. “When the flow of concentration is uninterrupted, the state that arises is dhyana.” Dharana might be visualized as tiny separate drops of oil, representing brief moments of concentration. Dhyana happens when those drops coalesce and become one flowing stream of oil.
Today, physicians, therapists, and counselors recommend meditation for its many physical, mental and emotional benefits. But these were of no consequence to the yogis of Patanjali’s time. Their purpose in practicing meditation was to achieve “oneness” or communion with the universe. By working tirelessly through the previous six limbs of yoga, they prepared their bodies and minds to enter an uninterrupted meditative state, or dhyana.
Dhyana is the final step to be conquered before achieving samadhi (enlightenment), the eighth limb and the ultimate destination on the path of yoga. Dhyana evolves from dharana, and then deepens further into samadhi, the state in which the yogi at last experiences complete absorption with the Divine.
Yoga is a very different practice in 2016 than it was in the days of Patanjali. Certainly there are still many yoga practitioners who strive for samadhi, and who practice meditation as a means of getting there. Then there are many others for whom the goal looks very different.
You might begin a meditation practice because you crave a few moments of calm in the midst of your busy life. Maybe you’re looking for a way to deal with stress or improve your ability to focus. Perhaps you’ve read that meditation increases feelings of happiness, and you want to experience that for yourself.
Regardless of your reasons for practicing, the benefits of a meditation practice are many. However, it’s not an easy path. Many of the positive effects are reaped only after years of dedicated practice. It’s a practice that requires commitment and discipline. It’s not an easy sell in a culture addicted to instant gratification and quick fixes.
But if you’re willing to muster up the discipline and take the time, the rewards are yours for the taking. Most of the research has been on two types of meditation: Transcendental Meditation (TM) and mindfulness. Here are just a few of the research-backed benefits of meditation:
It reduces stress (Mindfulness, Transcendental Meditation).
It improves concentration.
It enhances immune function.
It leads to increased feelings of happiness and wellbeing.
It induces relaxation.
It increases social connection and decreases loneliness.
It lowers your risk of depression and anxiety.
This list could go on and on, but to truly appreciate the effects of meditation, you must experience them firsthand.
If you’re interested in meditating, the most important thing is to start. Reading about meditation is a great way to spark your interest, but to reap the benefits you eventually must simply sit down and meditate. It sounds easy, but it’s often the hardest part! If you’re struggling with getting started, take a course, listen to a recorded guided meditation, or find an experienced teacher.
Once you’ve started meditating, the next challenge is to stick with it. Choose a time of day to practice, then practice every day. The uninterrupted flow of dhyana is not something that happens in a day, a week, a month, or maybe even a year. The benefits of meditation emerge with time, practice, and consistency. It’s truly a lifelong practice. If you haven’t already started, why not start today?
Christine Malossi, RYT 200 is based in New York City, where she offers a mindful, alignment-focused Vinyasa practice that cultivates balance, awareness and equanimity. In addition to teaching private clients and group classes at studios throughout Manhattan, she also teaches at the Spencer Cox Center for Health at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Institute for Advanced Medicine where she designs a practice specifically tailored to patients diagnosed with HIV and other chronic illnesses. Christine is honored to be teaching yoga and to have the opportunity to pass on to others the joy and freedom that she has found in her own practice. Find her at www.christinemalossi.com