The purpose of these eight steps is to develop the faculty of Pragnya, discriminatory wisdom that in turn lead to the deep transformation of the mind that is the goal of Yoga.
Patanjali outlines seven stages of Pragnya that are developed through insight meditation, beginning with meditation on the natural breath.
- Yama: abstentions
The five principles of Yama are non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, non-sexual misconduct, non-intoxication/ addiction.
- Niyama: observances
The five principles of Niyama are cleanliness of thought, mind and body; positive attitude; meditation; introspection; devotion to an enlightened teacher.
The reference to asana, meaning ‘posture’ emphasizes the importance of maintaining a stable posture for meditation. This should be an upright relaxed posture without any tension, back, waist and neck in straight line (like a stream of water from a tap or a shirt on a hanger). The idea is to be able to sit comfortably and not change too often, choose one posture that is comfortable and stick to it. It is recommended that the body should be in a pyramid shape with the legs crossed, in this posture practice becomes intense. The blood circulation to the brain is flowing and neuron transmission channels (nadis) are open. It is also fine to sit in a chair as long as the back is not slumped.
Pranayama how Patanjali refers to the meditation technique based on observation of the natural breath, also called Prana Samyama. Buddha calls it Anapana Sati.
This is the withdrawal of the awareness from external sense objects. The mental focus is inward instead of with the sense doors.
The first stage, dharana, refers to the intital application of the mind in meditation, concentration is not continuous but comes and goes as the mind wanders and repeatedly comes back to the meditation object. Beginners in meditation will usually experience this stage to start with. This is called momentary concentration because the mind is fluctuating and changing from moment to moment. Sustained practice of dharana leads to dhyana.
At this stage the mind is tranquil and does not wander but stays with the meditation object. The concentration flows in a continuous stream from moment to moment. The meditator might experience some gentle bliss and quietness as the mind is turned inwards, undistracted and unaware of external sense inputs. This is access concentration.
Samadhi is often translated as concentration, transcendence or calm, although none of these terms are adequate descriptions to explain something that is purely experiential, a powerful but subtle series of experiences in meditation. This is the absorbed, super-conscious or transcended state of mind, beyond the sense doors. There are a different levels of samadhi, expanded states of consciousness characterized by rapture, bliss, happiness and equanimity.
Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi are collectively called Samyama. These three stages can be developed through any meditation object, however, in order to use them to develop the faculty of Pragnya, which brings about deep transformation of the mind, Patanjali exclusively advocates meditation on the natural breath which he refers to as Pranayama. Samadhi works at the level of the conscious mind and Pragnya reaches the deeper levels of the unconscious mind.