Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga (not related to a hatha yoga practice with the same name), or eightfold path, is the cornerstone of the science of yoga, and gives us a roadmap for the journey back home to God. I’ve found it clarifying to view the eight stages in reverse order--samadhi, dhyana, dharana, pratyahara, pranayama, asana, niyama, and yama—so as to see how each one rests logically upon the stage preceding it.
Samadhi is the ultimate state of expanded awareness, in which the ego is dissolved, and we realize that we are not the body but a soul, one with all Creation and with God beyond Creation.
Our minds must first, however, be prepared for the enormous power of this state. When Yogananda, then new on the path, asked a saint to give him samadhi, the saint replied, “Your body is not tuned just yet. As a small lamp cannot withstand excessive electrical voltage, so your nerves are unready for the cosmic current. If I gave you the infinite ecstasy right now, you would burn as if every cell were on fire.” The indispensable preparation is dhyana, complete absorption in God or one of His aspects.
But before the mind can become absorbed, it must first be able to hold its concentration without wavering. If we are flitting from one thought to the next, how can we become absorbed? Deep, continual concentration is called dharana.
The problem is that sensory input disturbs our concentration, so somehow we have to disconnect from the senses. We approach this state of pratyahara each night, when we partially shut down the senses in sleep. Now we must learn to do so fully, while awake in deep meditation. How do we do it?
To turn off the ringer on your telephone, you turn off its power. The power source in our body is prana, which keeps breath, senses, and mind active. So the great yogis have given us pranayama techniques to help us control and interiorize the prana. In fact, most meditation techniques are designed for this purpose.
Pranayama practices aren’t effective, however, if our bodies are nervous and fidgeting. We first must learn to sit motionless and relax while still remaining highly alert. This state is called asana (hatha yoga).
The relaxation and stillness of asana are difficult to achieve until we develop non-attachment and self-control. Otherwise, desires and attachments keep the mind—and the body which is tied to it—forever restless. Spiritually, self-control is the ability to do what is beneficial (niyama), and to avoid all behaviors that increase our sense of separation (yama).
These, then, are the necessary stepping-stones of our journey. Fortunately, we have not only a roadmap, but also guru-guides ever willing to walk with us and show us the way home.
With joy in the journey,