The Essence of Yoga

Yogaḥ Samādhiḥ / Yoga is Samādhi

– Sage Vyāsa

Saṁyama is a process of meditative analysis. It aides in the development of the faculty of discrimination or Viveka-Khyāti. And the faculty of discrimination is the means to liberation from bondage and suffering.

Saṁyama is a way of directing attention on an object or a specific feature of an object in order to understand it correctly. Correctly here means to see an object for what it is, uninfluenced by one’s biases and conditioning. Correct understanding helps in renunciation of those objects that ensnare us in a cycle of attachment and suffering.

In other words, Saṁyama is the essence of Yoga.

All the tools and techniques that go by the name of Kriya Yoga are means to develop the ability to apply Saṁyama. For example, austerities (Tapas) and codes of conduct (Yama and Niyama) limit the activities of the practitioner so that habits not conducive to concentration are destroyed and the habits conducive to concentration are formed and reinforced.


A Useful Analogy

Saṁyama is a bit like cardiovascular fitness. It is a means to an end and it can be developed in a number of ways. For example, improving cardiovascular fitness is useful for a tennis player. One can simply play more tennis and improve it. Or one can train off the court through running, interval training, swimming, biking, etc. Running is not the only way to develop cardiovascular fitness. If you have bad knees, swimming is a better option.

Another useful analogy is strength training. Strength is useful at a number of levels from mundane healthy existence to elite athletic activity. Squat and deadlift are useful exercises to develop functional strength. For some strength is an end in itself. They squat and deadlift just to squat and deadlift heavier weights. A bit like people doing Āsanas so that they can do more difficult Āsanas e.g. legs behind the head or some such curious contortion.

We Have Done it Before

All of us have done Saṁyama in some form or the other. In our student lives, we have spent time studying, analysing and contemplating academic problems. Concentration at will comes easy to some of us (the natural Yogi!). For some, it is a function of the object of meditation e.g. some of us lose ourselves in doing things that we love to do i.e. we get in the “zone”. For others, it is hard work.

Interestingly, the ability to concentrate is, to my knowledge, rarely addressed as a specific skill to be developed at schools and colleges. Either you have it (and hence you are a good or gifted student) or you don’t. The tools of Yoga are frequently sold short as means to health and stress management (which they are). In my opinion, their usefulness is more in their primary objective i.e. to develop the ability to concentrate at will. This is an essential skill in all walks of life.

Yoga Sūtras on Saṁyama

Chapter 3 of the Yoga Sūtras explains how Saṁyama works. Saṁyama has three stages. The beginning stage is called Dhārana. In this stage, concentration is intermittent. The mind is focussed on thoughts about the object under meditation.

3.1. deśa bandha cittasya dhāranā / dhāranā is the mind’s fixation on a particular point in space.

Dhārana is followed by Dhyāna. In Dhyāna, concentration is unbroken for a meaningful length of time and the attention narrows to a single thought. 

3.2. tatra pratyaya ekatānatā dhyānam / In dhāranā, the continuous flow of similar mental modifications is called dhyāna.

Dhyāna finally leads to Samādhi, the final stage of the Saṁyama process. In this stage, the concentration is so intense that the object meditated upon is reflected on the mind of the meditator in its true essence, without being coloured by his or her biases and conditioning.

3.3. tad eva arthamātra nirbhāsaṁ svarūpa śunyam iva samādhiḥ / when only the object of meditation shines forth in the mind, as though devoid of the thought of even the self (who is meditating), that state is called samādhi or Yogic concentration.

The final stage Samādhi is the hardest to attain. To be able to suppress at will one’s biases and conditioning and patterns of thinking (i.e. one’s own self) requires supreme mastery over one’s mind and sense organs.

Note that, contrary to some mistaken notions, Samādhi is not a mindless blank state, where one is filled with bliss. It is a part of meditative analysis. The Yogi is in control of the process and there is an object on which the concentration is directed with the purpose of understanding it.

3.4. trayam ekatra saṁyama / the three together (applied on the same object) is called saṁyama.

And Saṁyama leads to the ultimate knowledge pertaining to the object under Saṁyama.

3.5. tajjayāt prajñā lokaḥ / by mastering that (saṁyama), the light of knowledge dawns.

By applying Saṁyama on different objects of the phenomenal world, the Yogi attains discriminative knowledge (viveka). Viveka, in turn, is the means to liberation.

2.26. viveka khyātiḥ aviplavā hānopāyaḥ / (being established in) unbroken discriminative knowledge is the means (to liberation)

What Does it Mean for us?

While Samādhi is the highest level of concentration, the ability to concentrate to lesser degrees is still quite useful in real life. For example, it helps one to grasp a situation or a problem for what it is, uninfluenced by one’s biases and conditioning. Such an understanding will result in better decision making, which in turn will avoid needless suffering. Just like cardiovascular fitness for tennis, the ability to concentrate can be trained “off-court”. For example, it can be trained on the mat while practicing Āsana, Prānāyāma, etc. Just as better cardiovascular fitness helps a tennis player to play better tennis, getting better at applying Saṁyama helps the Yogi to cultivate discrimination.

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