The penultimate and seventh limb of yoga is dhyana, meaning ‘meditation’, though there is a bit more to dhyana that the types of meditation we might think about in the West (which we’ll get into later).
B.K.S. Iyengar describes it as an ‘uninterrupted flow’ of dharana (concentration).
We’re going to look at:
- What Dhyana is
- Differences Between Awareness and Dhyana
- How to Practice Dhyana
What is dhyana?
Wait… what are the 8 Limbs?
The 8 Limbs were written by Patanjali to give practitioners guidelines on how to achieve enlightenment, believing that the means of practicing yoga were just as important as liberation itself.
If you need a brief recap, here’s what they all mean:
- Yama: ethical restraints & what not to do
- Niyamas: internal observances & what to do
- Asana: physical postures
- Pranayama: breathwork that cultivates and regulates the flow of life force energy throughout our body-mind (prana)
- Pratyahara: withdrawal of the senses
- Dharana: one-pointed focus/concentration
Okay, so what is Dhyana?
Dhyana is the 7th stage before the final stage of Samadhi, complete, absorptive integration.
This practice, which is necessary on the way to complete integration, takes you above the limitations of the body-mind, such as the senses.
Hence, you can see how this limb is first cultivated through the withdrawal of the senses and one-pointed concentration.
It’s the second limb of samyama, which is the simultaneous practice of Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. These are the three disciplines that Patanjali placed great importance on to internalize the mind and spiritually evolve.In order for dhyana to be practiced, the mind must continually be with that object, such as the breath or a mantra. This is why dharana should first be practiced to train the mind. Then, with practice, the dharana leads to dhyana.
This limb is about holding your concentration for a prolonged period of time.
The prolonged focus on the breath, for example, will allow you to feel a state of oneness with this focus.
Within this practice, the mind will be free from kleshas, meaning impurities. These are the internal afflictions that lead us to suffer and prevent us from seeing the truth.
Dhyana takes us above these attachments to the material world.
If you haven’t experienced dhyana, which many of us won’t have with our busy monkey minds, it might be a bit difficult to grasp the concept. So let’s try and make it a bit clearer. First, we need to look at dharana:
- Dharana is the practice of one-pointed concentration. If we use the example of trataka practice (candle-gazing), then when we are practicing Dharana whilst we are staring at the flame.
- Then, you might start to get pins and needles in your leg, or your lower back might start to hurt from sitting on the floor for too long. Our mind moves away from the flame and onto the body.
- Using dharana, we reel our mind back onto the flame once we noticed it has wandered.
- Again, you hear your neighbors having a conversation outside or an ambulance with loud sirens drives past your house. Your mind, again, moves away from the flame and towards your neighbors or the ambulance passing by.
- You bring your mind back to the trataka practice by using the flame as a way to control your thoughts.
- The cycle of disruption and re-concentration continues like so
So then dhyana is:
- The uninterrupted, extended period of concentration between the points of disruption. It’s the point at which your sore body or external environment no longer distracts the mind away from the point of focus
- Dhyana is the extended practice of dharana – a stream of concentration
- It’s a practice of becoming one with the object or point of focus, knowing that the mantra, flame, breathe, or any other focus, is no different from you. You are one and the same.
Why do we need the first 6 limbs?
You can’t just jump straight into practicing dhyana without first working your way through the other limbs. Well, you can, but it will likely be difficult for you to maintain concentration, meaning you aren’t really practicing dhyana.
The order of the limbs are very intentional – they are designed to take us from doing (yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama), and into being (pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi).
Each step helps us to develop new skills that we need on our way to meditation. They gradually purify, discipline, and calm the body-mind.
For example, if we did not practice asana our bodies would be too tight to sit still for extended periods of time, and practicing pratyahara or dharana would probably feel uncomfortable to some degree.
Similarly, if we did not practice pranayama the mind would be unfocused and our prana scattered. With a distracted mind, we wouldn’t be able to hold the concentration necessary for meditation.
That being said, yoga is a practice! Your personal sadhana is unlikely to be perfect, so try not to be hard on yourself if you’re struggling to pick these techniques up.
I have had many teachers, who I would certainly consider advanced practitioners, share how difficult they find these practices sometimes. That is just the nature of the human mind.
Until I had a teacher share their struggles with me, I used to think I was the only person that struggled with these practices, assuming other more ‘advanced’ yogis were executing them perfectly!
Some days feel easy, some days feel really hard. But that doesn’t mean one day is ‘better’ than the other.
That’s why we all keep showing up – it’s called a practice for a reason.
Differences between dhyana and awareness/mindfulness
Many forms of modern-day meditation that we see being taught are about developing awareness or mindfulness.
In this practice of dhyana, different from mindfulness practices, the mind rests at the center of the being. The mind finds its resting place in the non-dual nature of the Atman.
Whilst both practices are about meeting the present moment, dhyana is about doing so without judgment – meeting the moment with complete vairagya (total detachment).
In dhyana, the separation between the perceiver (meditator) and the perceived (object) dissolves. There is a loss of the small self and a merging with the universal self, the yogi abides in the Atman in a state of full awareness.
Ultimately, dhyana as meditation does not become something we are ‘doing‘, like dharana is (e.g. constantly pulling your awareness back onto a singular point), it becomes a state of being. It is beyond experience.
As an extension of this, the seventh limb involves a deep reverence and unconditional love for a higher, eternal consciousness, something that mindfulness practices may not, or are unlikely to, have.
Krishna expands on this state of love and oneness during dhyana in the Bhagavad Gita.
He explains, following on from sharing the practice of Karma Yoga (the path of action), that Dhyana Yoga is about fixing oneself to the divine and contemplating the Supreme.
One who has his mind Self-absorbed through Yoga, and who has the vision of sameness every-where, see this Self existing in everything, and every-thing in his Self.Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 6: Verse 29.
How to practice dhyana
1. Take it back
If you haven’t ventured into the other limbs yet, it’s a good idea to take it all the way back to asana and pranayama.
If you have a consistent practice of these two, try pratyahara and dharana. Spending time practicing dharana is especially important to progress onto dhyana, as we’ve already discussed.
You can read all about the fifth and sixth limbs and how to practice them here:
2. Practice detachment
This is the practice of vairagya.
Dhyana requires us to be completely detached from thoughts and feelings. This is the practice of fully being with everything that is, but not judging it.
This may start with simply observing your emotions or thoughts, allowing them to come and go, whilst remaining steady in the center of your being. This is certainly a skill that takes time to develop, alongside regular and dedicated application.
Try adding a mudra to your practice and see if that helps you to develop a focus for a longer period of time. This may help hone your concentration!
4. Connect to the breath
The breath is often the best tool we have to find our way into deeper meditation. For starters, we always have it with us to practice whenever we like.
Secondly, it’s a great way to exemplify the non-dual nature of our being and hence assist us with dropping into the state of love and reverence that is required for oneness.
What’s more ‘one’ than our ecosystem exchanging our waste gas and using it for food, all whilst releasing the very oxygen that we need to survive on this planet?!
In Yoga Sutra 2.46, ‘sthira sukham asanam‘ is translated to ‘the posture for meditation should be steady, stable, and comfortable’.
Similarly, the Bhagavad Gita states dhyana should be practiced ‘holding the body, head and neck erect and still, being steady, looking at the tip of his own nose-and not looking around’.
This stillness is important if we want to drop into dhyana.
more on meditation:
Want more meditation practices? Look no further!