Meditation as a practice has gained wide popularity due to its numerous benefits. Research studies have shown that consistent meditation practice improves relaxation, helps with depression, reduces autoimmune response and also counters the adverse effects of stress and anxiety. It sounds like a perfect antidote to the modern-day lifestyle and yet it remains a primarily misunderstood practice.
Many mindfulness techniques and exercises are often erroneously called meditation giving this concept multiple meanings. But in yoga, Meditation is a particular practice. A comprehensive definition can be found in one of the early texts written on the subject – the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Yoga Sutras are an ancient yogic text dated around 200 to 400 CE, and they have 196 profound but straightforward one-liners called aphorisms. Though don’t judge them by their brevity as they contain highly detailed information on yogic practices. They are like theorems which unfold to give us detailed insights. These 196 sutras have been explained in detail in a very popular commentary called Yoga Bhashya of Vyasa likely written a couple of centuries after the sutras themselves. I will share with you the key highlights from both the texts in a simplified manner to share their definition of meditation.
What is meditation?
The ultimate goal of all yoga practices is Samadhi which can be called the highest state a human being can achieve. Patanjali gave us eight steps to get to this stage and meditation forms a part of this journey. These eight steps of Patanjali are called Ashtanga yoga and help us progress to the highest stage of yoga. You can read more about these eight steps in my blog here. In this blog, I will cover the last three steps which are more specific to meditation practices. These are Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (Enlightenment).
Dharana roughly translates as concentration and it is fixing the mind on the chosen object of meditation, e.g., a symbol, mantra, deity, chakra, etc. Simply said, it is holding the mind fixed at any point in space. However, at this stage mind has a tendency to get interrupted by other thoughts.
Dhyana is meditation and at this stage, the mind becomes continuously focused on the chosen object of meditation. There is no interruption, and no other thought comes to mind. This is a very advanced stage and an excellent way to understand the difference between Dharana and Dhyana is the analogy of water and honey. Dharana is like dripping water drop by drop and Dhyana is like honey pouring consistently in a smooth stream without interruptions. There is only one thought in our mind, and the focus is so strong that nothing can disturb it. This is meditation.
Samadhi or enlightenment is when we become so absorbed in our meditation that we even forget ourselves, that is Samadhi. The difference between Dhyana and Samadhi is that in Dhyana we ‘know’ that we are meditating, but in Samadhi we are so absorbed that we don’t even know that we are meditating. This means ego or the sense of ‘I’ disappears. There’s just the object that exists. To take an example, if we were meditating on God, then at this stage we would forget our identity and become one with the thought of God. Samadhi itself has multiple stages but I am not covering them here.
Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi are directly related to the practice of meditation and together are called ‘samyama.’ Patanjali then goes on to describe various objects of meditation that a seeker can choose to begin his or her meditative practices. In later sutras, he even goes into great detail about the various supernatural powers or siddhis that can be attained by performing samyama (i.e., Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi) on many different objects of the world. For instance, samyama on the navel center can give us all the knowledge about the human body or on the moon can give us all understanding of the entire solar system. It sounds very fantastic, highly creative and rather tempting – but the wise sage also warns us that all these siddhis are distractions on the path of yoga. For a sincere seeker, these are just obstacles in the way of Samadhi.
Samyama, therefore, is a very critical concept in Yoga as all through the sutras. As we cannot jump directly to Samadhi, the three combined can be called the practice of ‘meditation.’
How do you meditate for the first time?
There are various schools of thoughts on how to begin meditation, but for complete beginners, it is best to get started with some mindfulness techniques. These exercises help us increase our awareness and complete relax our body. Some ways to do this are joint movements, mindful breathing, trataka, body scanning, etc.
Before sitting in meditation, it is vital for the body to be relaxed and stress-free. Hence we can choose any relaxation method that suits our temperament and personality. Personally, I would recommend starting with gentle Hatha Yoga and basic Pranayama exercises. These increase our awareness, make us calm and are very conducive to meditation.
How to sit in meditation?
No matter which school of thought we belong to, the one common essential ingredient of meditation that runs across all is the ability to sit still. In the beginning, it takes practice. But once we reach higher stages, it naturally happens. So, to start with, it’s good to practice sitting in silence, without moving our body. Here are two ways to practice that:
Sitting on the floor: Sit in any cross-legged meditative position and make sure the knees are below the hips. If the hips are tight, they will cause the knees to tower above the ground which can be harmful to the lower back. In this case, we can elevate our seat by placing a cushion or bolster under the hips. Posture should be firm and spine upright. Make sure you’re comfortable. Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day, slowly and gradually develop the capacity to sit still while taking good care of your spine and joints. Again, Hatha yoga practices are highly beneficial for this.
Sitting on a chair: If sitting on the floor is not comfortable, we can use a chair. Make sure both feet are firmly on the ground and back is well rested. Do not crisscross the feet or rest on the toes. Again, ensure that the spine is upright and avoid fidgeting.
Generally, meditation is not done while standing up or lying down, unless there’s a physical infirmity. Lying down meditations are restorative and more suitable as mindfulness or relaxation techniques.
What to meditate on?
As per the Yoga Sutras meditation begins when the process of withdrawing the senses from the outside world is complete (Pratyahara). The next step is Dharana which means focusing our attention. But focusing on what? Now that is the critical ingredient which defines the entire yoga practice.
Sage Patanjali recommends various ‘objects of meditation’ which can be chosen by seekers as per their affinity and temperament. These are highly subjective, and I will leave it for all of us to decide our own objects. But out of the many options Patanjali gave us in the yoga Sutras; he said the best object of meditation is Ishvara or God.
What is the best time to meditate?
The best time to meditate is during Brahma Muhurta or a couple of hours before sunrise. In India this is from 3:30 to 6:00 am. However, to start with, meditation is good to do anytime during the day. Trying to wake up at uncomfortable hours or going against our standard body clock rarely creates a consistent meditation practice.
Meditation is a commitment of a lifetime, so we must begin wherever, whenever and at whatever time. The first goal is to get started with the habit of sitting. Once we’ve been consistent with that for a few months, we can start pushing the clock a bit and begin to wake up earlier. With regular practice, this becomes a natural progression, and we will not have to be forced.
How long does it take to meditate?
Typically, various schools recommend one-tenth of the time should be spent in meditation. Thus, in a 24-hour cycle, we should meditate about two and a half hours. But honestly, any amount of time is good enough. As per the Yogoda Society of Shri Paramhamsa Yogananda – 30 mins in the morning and 30 mins in the evening is a good practice. I started with first trying to sit for 10 minutes, and even that was hard.
What are the benefits of meditation?
For spiritual seekers, meditation has only one benefit – it takes us closer to achieving our highest potential. But it does come with a hoard of other benefits. The most immediate and noticeable benefit is physical and emotional relaxation, clarity of thinking and reduced stress response in the body. A Harvard Study even said that it improves memory, lowers blood pressure and heart rate and can help with depression.
Whatever our reasons to practice, meditation creates harmony within all of us. It is like a mini vacation for our physiological and mental processes which are otherwise overstressed continuously and overworked. In the highly competitive environment that we live in today, meditation is perhaps the only thing that creates complete stillness. Today, it is not even an option, it is a necessity. And even though, it merely requires us to sit still and do nothing, it is hard work. 🙂