The different ‘angas’ or limbs of yoga are like the limbs of an animal in that they are connected and subservient to an overall drive and direction. They are no more distinctly separate than the colours of a rainbow. Their individual development feeds into the development of one another and of the whole like the limbs of a tree.
Meditation grows out of the nutrition supplied from yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara and dharana, and at the same time they are an integral part of its weft and warp. This can be implicit; practicing these principles in spirit without knowing the terms of designation, or explicit; as with the person who is consciously aware and cultivating these limbs.
In other words someone who practices meditation does not need to know this list of eight limbs, but needs to be ‘tuned into’ the spirit of them. For instance, if one is leading a life that is somehow ‘ayamic’ (in opposition to the yamas); perhaps one is being aggressive and insensitive with one’s work colleagues, or adopting an uptight, greedy and hoarding mode in relationships, maybe one generally lacks subtlety in life. Or if one gets involved in the sort of entanglement born of indirect, evasive and misrepresentative communication, then when one comes to practice meditation, there will be a disturbance in the body-mind energy flow that may be so overwhelming that one cannot bear to sit still for long, or even face the idea of meditating in the first place. Afflictive emotions; rage, guilt, jealousy, fear, anger and so on, are acceptable sensations to experience in meditation, and can even be used as ways to gain insights (vipasana), such as a ‘direct seeing’ of impermanence and non self (anatta) that can lead to profound releases within the body-mind. But if these afflictive emotions are too strong, practice will not be possible. Meaning that a basically ethical, psycho-physically healthy lifestyle is an essential pre-requisite for practice.
Just as the 5 yamas can curb our mind-flow from spilling outwards into more complex, divergent and unsettling areas, so too with the niyamas. The niyamas can, like the yamas, be used to point our ‘psycho-physical’ stream in the right direction. Contentment, for instance, immediately undermines any tendencies to ‘grasp’ in meditation. Grasping is a product of relating to our experience through thinking, instead of experiencing our relationships in more integrated ways (such as feeling, giving surrendering, opening, receiving, connecting, devotion and joy). Similarly cleanliness (shaucha), refers to a body-mind state that is not clouded by the affects of a toxic or confusing environment. This involves ‘guarding the doors of the senses’ i.e. recognising that the mind is like a sponge, it soaks up that which it pays attention to, and thus being discerning in what we give our attention to. This is the element of choice and is an essential part of practice (and would make any existentialist proud to be a yogi!).
Asana can be translated as ‘seat’, and so is fundamental to meditation. If you are going to sit for practice, posture is the ‘house in which you practice’.
The body and mind are part of the same energy system, disturbance in one causes disturbance in the other. A fractious obsessive mind fraught with the ‘afflictive emotions’ is due to a disturbance in the energy flow within your system. This could be caused by sitting in a way that is causing compression or tension, or in a way that makes it difficult to breathe freely. This can also work the other way; painful sensations, numbness, physical restlessness may not be an expression of a purely ‘physical problem’ like lack of circulation, or a real physical need to move, but may be driven by an emotional disturbance. Again the blockage is one of the total being, a disturbance in the balanced flow of the ‘five winds’ that some yoga traditions describe as flowing through the body. Collectively known as prana-vayus; they are prana-vayu, flowing in the thoracic region; apana-vayu flowing in the lower abdominal region; samana-vayu flowing through the gastric region; udana-vayu flowing through the the pharynx and larynx, or throat region; and vyana-vayu which is distributed through the whole system via the arteries veins and nerves.
This awareness of the importance of energy flow as a major influence on our meditation practice brings us into the realm covered by the term pranayama, which is, in the formal sense, practices and techniques that focus on the movement, distribution and balance of these energies and winds. Meditation techniques like anapanasati directly plug the practitioner into the relationship between body, breathe and mind, and consequently on the balance of psycho/physical energies described above.
This kind of level of attention naturally draws the mind in (pratyahara), as if many different tributaries got drawn into one flow, this is by virtue of the inclusive nature of the attention applied.
This ‘gathering’ is what yogis call concentration (dharana). This term is not to be understood as forcing the mind onto one thing by holding back or pushing down other parts of the mind stream, this is concentration in the sense of condensing, gathering all parts of the mind stream. It results in concentration in the same way that a juice concentrate is ‘more in less’. Meditation (dhyana) is just a continuation of the same, but taken to a deeper level where all of the body-mind streams start to flow in one direction, and samadhi (total absorption) is the culmination, whereby the object of meditation (which could be anything from a flow of unconditional love ‘metta bhavana’, to the contemplation that space is infinite), and the practitioner are inseparable. This then allows a ‘knowing’ which is only possible through this kind of communing.
Forms of Meditations
Meditation has existed in many forms within multifarious cultures and traditions: Sufism; Buddhism; Taoism; Judaism; Jainism; Hinduism; and some forms of Christianity; have all, at some time, included meditation as one of their principles supports.
Meditation is commonly intended to be used as a tool to get the core, or the hub of a tradition’s external forms; a direct experience of what words often articulate in ways that are misleading without this core experience. As the Buddha says ‘‘people get stuck in words like an elephant gets stuck in the mud.’’ One could argue that without people experiencing this core, traditions lose their depth and integrity, dissolving into wrangling, arguing, quarrelling and fighting over ever ambiguous and obscuring, words, concepts and dogmas. In the yoga tradition this is known as ‘verbal knowledge, devoid of any real understanding’ (vikalpa).
Basics of Meditation
According to Eastern tradition, meditation can be divided into two sets of two. The first set is samatha and vipassana, or calming and insight practices; the second pair involves forms of meditation that focus on what is known in the East as meditation objects.
Although samatha and vipassana are sometimes considered independently, the reality is that no strict separation exists. Though one may chose to emphasize one or the other at different times, as we will see, many practices, like anapanasati contain strong elements of both. To use a meditation object is the usual starting points for most meditation practices and this is known as meditation with seed (Sanskrit - sabija). Through this meditation with seed the practitioner comes to meditation without seed (nirbija) or objectless mediation, it’s as if the object was simply a way of defining the space that surrounds and permeates that object, the so called emptiness (sunyata). Emptiness is a phrase that does not point to the universe’s lack but rather it’s ungraspable, causal continuums, its flux and flow, and the space from which all this energy/consciousness expresses itself as forms and matter.
Better indeed is knowledge than mechanical practice. Better than knowledge is meditation. But better still is surrender of attachment to results, because there follows immediate peace.