Many times, western practitioners separate yoga practice from meditation practice. The truth is, however, that meditation does not exist in isolation from other yoga practices. Meditation is yoga, and yoga practices of all kinds are the foundation for it. The eight limbs of classical yoga, described by the sage Patanjali some two thousand years ago, illustrates this. They form the system of practice of eight-limbed yoga, that leads to the experience of fully knowing one's self. Each limb has a distinct role in the unfolding process, and together they contribute to progressively deeper levels of meditative experience.
The 8 Limbs:
1. yama = restraints
2. niyama = observances
3. asana = posture
4. pranayama = mastery of prana (breath)
5. pratyahara = resting the senses
6. dharana = concentration
7. dhyana = meditation
8. samadhi = self-realization
The first two limbs, the restraints and observances (yamas and niyamas) include, for example, the broad prescription to refrain from harming one's self or others and the wise suggestion that contentment is the shortest route to happiness. As essential as the yamas and niyamas are to yoga, many students seem to know little about them. There are only ten yamas and niyamas in all, and they can be learned in a short time.
Living with the yamas and the niyamas reveals their secrets, their contributions to the overall picture of self-development, and the reasons why they are such an integral part of yoga. You can learn more about the yamas and niyamas here.
The next three limbs of ashtanga yoga address the needs of the body, nervous system, and sensory mind -
Asana means posture, and it refers both to the postures practiced regularly in yoga classes as well as to the seated postures used in meditation.
Pranayama practices lead to mastery of the subtle energies that pervade body and mind. They begin with simple exercises to restore nature breathing.
Pratyahara exercises play an important role in preparing for meditation. The aim of these practices is to quiet the senses, gradually withdrawing them so the mind can rest.
The final three limbs of Patanjali's system are all phases in the meditative process itself.
In dharana, or concentration, a pure focus is momentarily established, but it is intermittent, like successive drops of water dripping from a faucet. During this phaes, the effort to focus is made again...and again....and again.
In dhyana, meditation proper, the process of focusing is stronger and therefore can be more relaxed. The drops of water are transformed into a continuous stream that flows without pause. In this phase of practice, the object of concentration is sustained effortlessly in the mind.
Samadhi, the last of the eight limbs, is a state of mind unlike any preceding it. It is said that in samadhi the mind is transparently clear. In that state, subject and object are fully integrated and the apparent duality of knower and known disappears. Then, concentration is fully established and the feeling that "I am meditating" is fully transcended.
To learn more about the eight limbs of yoga, we encourage you to delve into the reading suggestions in our Reading Corner.