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January Satsang: Yoga and Meditation

Dan Asked me a question after everyone had departed after our first Saturday Satsang: "What am I supposed to be experiencing in meditation?"

At the time I gave him a somewhat inadequate answer - but his question entered my meditation the following morning and helped me to clarify what I have been reflecting upon and experiencing as I have been shifting my practice away from asana and towards meditation over the last few years.

Questions are often so valuable in guiding us to deeper understanding - students are my main teachers as they challenge me to articulate my understanding and experience. Thank you all - dear students, past and present! And especially Dan for this most essential question.

There are several main pathways to introvert the mind in yoga practice but every person has a unique constitution and history and the choice of path for each one is different. However, the starting point for all is the physical body.

All yogic states are based on the condition of the physical body and physical discomfort, pain or sensation is one of the meditator's main obstacles to success.

Meditation works on the basis of a temporary suppression of sensory input from the body while at the same time eliminating all thoughts and memories and sense impressions from outside not related to the object of meditation.

Physical sensations are often related to or stimulate mental states - so the suppression of one leads to the suppression of the other.

Meditation is generally regarded as "advanced" yoga but there is every reason to start developing a practice right from the beginning - it is, after all, the purpose of asana practice. The definition of a perfect asana is one that is suitable for meditation.

There are many obstacles to meditation and they start in the physical body. Discomfort sitting is the first obstacle. A second obstacle provided by the body is ill health - when organs are stressed they become painful - this causes distraction for the mind. These two obstacles are eliminated by asana practice and healthy eating habits.

Even after practicing asanas for many years, there may still be residual physical stresses caused by deep seated memories, traumas, disappointments, depressions - every negative feeling evokes a physical stress on the body - these experiences have distorted the physical posture we carry in life. Asana practice helps us to unwind some of these deep seated tensions but cannot fully release suppressed memories and habits that maintain subtle structural distortions in the physical body. 

A first stage in meditation is to eliminate as many of the unwanted and distracting thoughts from the mind as possible - just the decision to sit starts this process. Even though one may apply the techniques of meditation assiduously, if there are pressing problems causing stress - they will prevent one from entering a deep state of meditation.

The samskaras (memories) from yesterday have the most pressing impact on todays meditation. If you had a fight or went to sleep stressing over some issue - this will certainly affect your meditation the next day.

However - whatever has been causing stress, now becomes the central focus of meditation. Even though one attempts to eliminate thoughts from meditation, certain thoughts still persist. But since one is "meditating" and one has managed to eliminate everything else but the thing which most needs to be addressed, one can more easily focus on the problem and resolve it.

So if one has stress, the object of the stress becomes the object of meditation. When one ponders deeply on a problem, one comes to greater understanding and clarity, one finds ways to resolve obstacles and move forward in a positive way.

There are two types of samadhi - the first one is called Cognitive Samadhi (samprajnata) - the second one is called Absolute Samadhi (asamprajnata).

Cognitive samadhi results in complete or deep knowledge about the object meditated upon. It also leads to knowledge about the One who meditates as well as the Means or Tool of meditation - the mind.

So meditation is also a practice of sva-dhyaya - a getting to know oneself. Learning to distinguish between mental constructs of self and the essential experience of identity.

Pattabhi Jois discouraged students from taking an interest in meditation. Meditation was presented as a very advanced practice, inaccessible until one had mastered pranayama. He also placed the bar on pranayama so high that less than 1% of his students had the "honor" of learning from him.

And Samadhi, as a result looks even further away as a result. But I believe this is a mistaken idea. As Richard Freeman said in his interview with me: "Samadhi is very close" - it is an intimate accessible and widely experienced state.

Another cause for confusion about the nature of samadhi is the mistaken idea that samadhi is a form of ecstasy - an extreme form of pleasure. It is indeed deeply pleasurable, but it is a subtle form of bliss not an ecstatic high. Samadhi is an extension of calmness and peace, tranquility and introversion.

Cognitive samadhi - sam-prajnata samadhi means that this samadhi gives prajna - or knowledge/wisdom. The object meditated upon yields its secrets - we understand the object in full. This is a process which is familiar to all: when you have a problem, you stop and think about it deeply. You try to eliminate all distracting thought and concentrate deeply on the problem. 

Often this type of absorption in a problem produces insight and clarity and this results in a feeling of lightness, pleasure, even a kind of happiness. This is nothing but one example of the many types of samadhi that can happen naturally.

Another type of samadhi happens when the mind merges with certain examples of great art, literature or music. It can also merge with the sound of a waterfall, the crashing of ocean waves, rainfall, the wind in the trees or a beautiful sunrise.

The mind merging in this way elicits deep feelings of peace which persist for a time afterwards. Such experiences often affect the whole system - flooding the body with blissful sensations which eliminate tensions and feelings of dis-ease.

These are examples of unintentional or accidental samadhi states. The intentional cultivation of samadhi is much more difficult. Spontaneous samadhi is one thing but an intentional development of this state requires effort and persistence as well as the acceptance of certain natural laws and the application of certain disciplines or principles.

There are four external limbs and four internal limbs of yoga. The development of any one limb necessarily simultaneously develops aspects of the other seven limbs, since they are all interconnected.

Integrated into the practice of asana from the outset are dharana (concentration), pranayama (breath control) and pratyahara (sense introversion). Practice can readily become dhyana (meditation) and lead to blissful shavasana (samadhi).

These secondary aspects which result from asana practice are experienced to a lesser degree but each one can be developed further individually.

If the body is really healthy and the mind is truly at peace, then a comfortable steady posture leads directly to samadhi.

The problem is that many of us carry a great deal of baggage that needs to be jettisoned before states of samadhi can be intentionally accessed and sustained.
The journey towards samadhi is a healing path. In the inner analysis we recognize our faults and weaknesses and get insight into how to remedy these obstacles.

Asana practice goes a long way to healing the body physically and reduces mental stress - however, we also need to go through certain lifestyle changes, resolve inner conflicts and heal and release past suffering and trauma consciously in order to enter deep meditation.

The obstacles to samadhi come from both the mind and the body - the body needs to be healthy and the mind needs to be free of distress. Success will be limited by ill health and mental stresses.

Pranayama extends the healing aspect of asana to the energetic (prana) body and more subtle levels of mind. During meditation practice the breath naturally becomes subtle and internal and may also stop all together.

Mastery in pranayama leads to a subtle change in the way one breathes. Being aware that the breath and mind are linked, once a certain mastery of breath is achieved, it naturally becomes a tool for refining the mind and keeping it under control. 

What are the stages of meditation and samadhi?

To enter meditation and samadhi, first one has to make the body comfortable - a steady upright posture is required. Padmasana is ideal but only if it is comfortable.

Second step is to eliminate the distractions from the external world and the third step is to eliminate the distractions from the internal world.

Eliminating the distractions is called pratyahara - when the mind becomes internally focussed the sense organs follow suit. The practice for inducing pratyahara is engaging mula bandha and nasagri or broomadhya drishti.

These practices are challenging to follow in asana but bear fruit as they take a more central role in meditation. 

Engaging mula bandha has several effects. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika enjoins the practitioner to engage mula bandha again and again. Maintaining MB is challenging - one can hold it for a while and then can easily lose it.

It will be noticed that while concentrated on MB, the mind is inhibited from extraverted activity. Sustaining concentration with intermittent success is known as dharana - the 6th step of ashtanga yoga while the introversion of the mind is pratyahara (the 5th step).

Mula bandha performs an inhibitory action on the movement of prana through the body. The idea of hatha yoga is to keep energy centralized in the spinal cord and brain and prevent it, with the mind from spreading throughout the body and beyond.

It is found that the action of MB, especially when combined with UB has the effect of cultivating sattva - a feeling of lightness, awake-ness, clarity, ease in the upper body and head. Sattva facilitates concentration and as one becomes distracted and sleepy, re-engaging the bandhas brings renewed freshness.

It has to be said that this path through the physical and pranic body requires good digestive health and is facilitated by a moderate (quantity) and high quality of organic vegetarian food. Any digestive discomfort is an obstacle to this approach and can even cause mental distress.

Using MB as a focus of meditation can be enhanced through pranayama - ie kumbhaka - both after inhaling and after exhaling.

By adding Jalandhara bandha it is possible to feel abdominal hollowing initiated by MB and UB extend through the chest cavity. The action of MB and pranayamas is to centralize the prana in the spinal cord and brain and to restrict blood circulation to the central organs and diminish the activity of the peripheral nervous system.

By folding the legs, ideally in padmasana, the blood circulation is already diminished (moving less through the legs), reducing the breath rate and reducing mental activity (the brain uses 25% of the body's energy) and deeply sucking in the abdominal viscera and organs suppresses blood flow further. 

If one is practicing in the early morning, having emptied the bladder and intestines, there is also less blood circulating in the digestive system.

So the energy can be internalized. There is a simultaneous concentration and internalization of awareness along with the application of the bandha. It immediately starts to internalize the mind.

The mind and the prana or breath are one. When the prana is restricted from spreading through the body during kumbhaka, the mind is simultaneous restricted in its activities.

If there is discomfort, pain or sickness in the body, then the prana will pulsate there, it will not be possible to totally restrict the prana or the mind. However, the concentration of prana in the diseased organ or painful muscle instead of leading to meditation leads to healing and release of pain.

These are essential steps before meditation can become something deeper.

Suppression of the extraverted monkey mind (manas) can be achieved through hollowing the lower abdomen and lifting up through MB and UB. Manas is the "brain in the gut" - it is centered in the navel at the manipura chakra. Mani-pura means "city of jewels" - the organs of the abdomen - the stomach, spleen, liver, kidneys, intestines, gonads etc. form a circle around it. 

Many pleasures, sensations and emotions are experienced through the functionings of these organs. Manas is the central processor, the central hub through which these pass and the bandhas are ways through which these sensations can be restricted during meditation.

There are five bodies according to yoga:
the physical body
body of prana
body of manas or the animal, lower mind
body of Intellect, intelligence or buddhi 
and the causal body or body of bliss

Yogic experiences happen in the last two bodies when there is a restriction in the activities in the lower three bodies. The physical body is centered at muladhara (junction of the anus and perineum), the prana body is centered at svadisthana - located in the spine next to the sex organs, the center of manas is in the navel. So the engaging of MB and UB is the moving inward and upwards of prana (energy/mind) from the lower abdomen and into the thorax, into the region of the heart and lungs.

One can immediately feel the result of these actions in the body: drawing in and up of MB and UB produces blissful sensations in the head and chest areas while restricting the afflictive outgoing tendency of the mind. 

One type of samadhi described by Patanjali is called ananda samadhi. Ananda means bliss. Ananda arises from the quiescence of the sense organs and organs of action (pratyahara), as manas dissolves into Buddhi. When blissful sensations are experienced in the body, one can merge the mind with them and this results in ananda samadhi.

Bliss can be cultivated by pranayama or just by sitting and is one of the four levels of samprajnata or cognitive samadhi. Any one of the four types can be the entry point into samadhi. It is possible one will pass through all four or jump a level.

The four types or stages of cognitive samadhi are:
vitarka, vichara, ananda and asmita.

Ananda (bliss) has already been mentioned - it is the 3rd of the four levels. Vitarka means "with thoughts/concepts" and vichara means "with feeling or question". Vitarka relates to meditation on gross (concrete) phenomena - thoughts and concepts are required to fix the mind on the structure and nature of the concrete aspects of the object meditated upon.

Vichara is meditation on a subtle object. The breath is a common subtle object for meditation, the nature of mind is another. Subtle knowledge is not concrete but relative - the associated support for meditation on subtle objects is of the nature of questioning or to a kind of openness or inquiry. 

Meditation on a physical object can lead to an absorption in its subtle aspects. In general, gross objects chosen for yogic meditation have subtle qualities that lead the mind deeper. Any type of samadhi generates pleasure - it is subtle but tangible. In fact all yogic practices give some pleasure. The next stage of samadhi, as mentioned above is ananda samadhi - that is meditation on bliss.

A gross physical object we often use is the physical body. We focus on mula bandha as the first stage in concentration, this is dharana. We remain absorbed in dharana as long as we can sustain MB. After a while, as the mind becomes introverted and the focus on MB becomes more intense and naturally draws up into UB, the effort streams consistently, without interruption and more effortlessly, this is dhyana (usually translated as meditation).

Moving awareness and sensation to (the second) svadhistana chakra, loosens the feelings and sensations of the physical body. If successful, one can draw one's awareness and sensation out of the physical and into the subtle, into the pranic body.

A third internal step is drawing the prana and inner sensation up from svadhistana to manipura center in the navel area - now the sensations of three lower bodies - the physical, energetic/pranic and lower mental bodies have been restricted and conscious awareness predominates in the chest and head area.

The successful raising or internalizing of prana and the suppression of the sensations of the physical body and the sensory-motor mind result in blissful feelings in the heart and chest. As mentioned before, this can then be used as the object of meditation. One can merge the mind with the sensation - expand the sensation - this leads to ananda (bliss) samadhi.

The consistent development (samapatthi) of a meditation practice leads the mind to greater and greater capacity: the mind gradually becomes more and more capable of achieving and sustaining samadhi. 

One of the main benefits of Samadhi is that it has a tendency to extinguish negative samskaras (memories/tendencies). The more one practices, the more these negative samskaras are replaced by positive ones which lead again to the experience of samadhi.

Samadhi does not uproot these samskaras but progressively renders them ineffective. Samadhi has a corrective impact on mind and body such that these changes render previous reactions or attachments irrelevant. Samskaras can be neutralized by a general change in perspective.

Samapatthi - the establishment of practice of samadhi leads to a purification of the mind such that anything can be perfectly reflected in it. There are three objects that can be perceived or intuited through the perfect absorption of the mind - the object meditated upon, the cognitive activity of the mind and the Self who observes - all three are reflected in the mirror of the mind.

The ego is known as asmita - or "I"ness. The fourth level of samprajnata samadhi is asmita samadhi - the mind merging with the reflected image of the Self.

As with the other types of samadhi, asmita can be approached directly by meditating on the nature of the "I" or by apprehending the reflection of the "I" which arises from lower levels of samadhi. There are various avenues for this path. One I have found helpful is to imagine myself sitting behind myself. I imagine pure awareness devoid of thought or content and then "look" at the mind and body in front of me.

These are the four levels of cognitive samadhi - one may lead to the next, or one may lapse into distraction - there is also a fifth type of samadhi known as seedless samadhi or samadhi beyond cognition.

The higher samadhi is not dependent on any technique. Lower levels of samadhi can put the mind in the right condition to experience the higher state. It can also be produced spontaneously under the right conditions.

Patanjali says that yoga is the restriction or elimination of mental content (chitta-vritti-nirodhah) - when this happens the "Seer" is experienced in its own true condition. At other times, while there is a current of mental content, the "Seer" is experienced as merged with that experience.

The question is: what does Patanjali mean by restriction of the mental content (chitta vritti nirodhah)?

Does he mean all mental content? Vyasa argues that Patanjali does not say "all" and therefore the definition of yoga includes either restricted mental content or a condition where there is no mental content at all (the two types of samadhi).

The next question is: if samadhi is the restriction of mind to one vritti - does that mean the restriction of mind to one single thought? No. Patanjali explains there are four levels of samprajnata samadhi - the first one is "samadhi with thought" savitarka samadhi.

This explains why samadhi is much more commonplace than one would imagine. 

The first level of samadhi includes thought, but thought restricted to the object. That means that deep thought on a subject can also lead to samadhi and should be included in the definition.


Yoga puts forward the paradigm: Our true identity is non-material, it is consciousness only, it is a universal principle, which is untainted and cannot be modified or changed. The mind and body are separate from consciousness - the mind and body are tools belonging to consciousness - they relay information and experience to consciousness but have no consciousness themselves. Consciousness is the Seer - the body and mind are the "Seen". 

Yogic meditation can follow a path through the body, through the energetic centers or through the breath or prana. Meditation can also be the result of an idea or memory. A concept such as "I am consciousness only" or a decision to observe the body and mind from the point of view of pure awareness are meditations that can produce the effect more directly. 

Once a yogic state has been experienced, it can also be recalled and re-experienced without necessarily going through all the stages previously traveled. Memory becomes a valuable tool for the meditator as it allows her to jump straight to where she left off.

The results of meditation are greater peace. There are significant changes in the body and mind over time. The experience that I am not the body or mind but a transcendent pure being is daily re-enforced and made real. Being able to identify with an element beyond mind or body allows us to feel the possibility of transcending death and hence the background fear gnawing on everyone's unconscious can be released.

So to go back to the original question: what should one be experiencing in meditation?

The answer is: it is a bit of a journey. If the mind and body go through large changes from day to day due to irregularity of diet and lifestyle, then the starting point will always be different. If healthy regularity is brought into life then meditation can progress a bit further every day. Through memorization of previous experiences one can even jump stages in practice.

The first things one will experience are the current stresses. Awareness can be introverted through the application of mula bandha. Stresses may produce tensions and pains in the body which first need to be addressed through bandha and pranayama and/or analysis.

Through asana, bandha and pranayama one can eliminate most if not all of the tensions in the body. Subtle tensions can give rise to an awareness of deep unresolved issues (samskaras) - these form a second layer of stresses which are uncovered once the present day stresses have been released.

Meditation will not work if there is too much stress, if the body is in pain, if the diet is not controlled. But once these issues have been resolved, then consistent practice leads naturally deeper. It is a journey of self understanding - one's impurities and unresolved issues all stand in the way. They arise like demons to prevent you going deeper into meditation and they need to be resolved and eliminated. 

Meditation is initially a process of psycho-analysis. Certain aspects of the mind stand in the way of meditation, in general, these are the same things that restrict us in external life. It is said that for every step on the internal path, we have to make three steps in our external moral behavior. There is no avoiding our demons if we want to go deep into yoga.

The rules are - one must develop gentleness, reverence and respect. You cannot force your way. You have to keep the body and mind as pure as possible. Meditation develops through daily repetition. If one wants to experience reality as it is one has to completely overcome prejudice and reactivity. 

I leave you with the comments of H Aranya on the highest level of samprajnata, asmita samadhi from his commentary on the Yoga Sutra:

"Purusa or pure Consciousness is not the object of any concentration. Asmita-matra or pure I-sense is the object of this concentration. This I-sense is called Grahita - or the cognizer. It is manifested with the help of Purusa. The object of concentrated on in sasmita-samadhi is not the real Purusa but its imitation - the mutative ego or Mahat. In the Sankhya philosophy it is called Mahat-tattva. It is Buddhi shaped after Purusa, a feeling of "I know myself," a sort of feeling of identity between pure consciousness and Buddhi."

And from Vyasa on asamprajnata samadhi - the ultimate state:

"When all fluctuations cease, the arrested state of mind with only the latencies (samskara) in them is known as Asamprajnata Samadhi. Supreme detachment is the means for attaining it, because it cannot be attained when an object is the basis of concentration. Complete cessation of fluctuations emanates from Para-vairagya or supreme detachment which is free from any material thought. It is totally devoid of objects and its practice makes the mind independent of any object, and non-existent as it were."

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