Many people think that they are not meditating properly. They may spend all their time trying to find the perfect sitting posture or the perfect guided meditation to listen to. It is important to understand that meditation is not something we can simply do. Meditation is a state of being. In Sanskrit, this is referred to as Dhyana, the seventh limb of Raja Yoga. This can only be accomplished through priming the body and mind using the first few limbs of yoga – practicing the Yamas and niyamas, then asana and pranayama to purify the body. Through this, the body releases many mental and physical tensions. Beyond the former limbs, we can begin preparing for Dhyana (meditation) through yoga’s fifth and sixth limbs – Pratyahara and Dharana.
Pratyahara refers to the withdrawal of external consciousness. This is a dimension of yoga that focuses on the inner processes of an individual. It is arguably the most important limb of yoga because it is what allows for peace and stillness to begin to manifest in a yogi’s practice. The mind can begin to experience a level of stillness that provides enough space for it to begin to truly turn inward after priming the body by releasing mental and physical tensions. To withdraw external consciousness means to withdraw the body and mind from the external reality. Then, we can begin to experience a distinction between our internal world and the external world. Included within this external world is our physical form, the vessel of the human body. Withdrawing from external consciousness can be illustrated by slowing down our reactions and impulses to respond to external stimuli, first noticing our impulses to react and perhaps ultimately failing to even sense an impulse to react. External stimuli can range from loud noises, a pet licking your hand, an itch on your leg, or even acting on a thought that requires external work – like turning up the heat or turning on the kettle. Any of these things interact with your external consciousness. When we can bring ourselves inwards enough to no longer feel an imminent need to respond to external reality, it could be said that pratyahara has been achieved.
Dharana, yoga’s sixth limb, is Sanskrit for concentration. By using a concentration on one point of focus, whether this is the breath, counting, or a mantra, the mind that has already turned inward through Pratyahara can truly quiet and become focused. When it becomes focused, all external chatter is gradually silenced. When a continuous state of consciousness without interruption from sporadic thought occurs, a state of Dhyana (meditation) has been achieved. This state can become elusive to those “trying” to achieve it.
The path to reaching Dhyana is through the limbs of yoga. By first preparing the body, we can then move inward and challenge the mind. Beyond Dhyana is yoga’s eighth and final limb – Samadhi. This state of meditative consciousness often referred to as enlightenment, is attained through the regular and ongoing practice of Dhyana.