Yogic Meditation and Power: Dhāraṇā, Dhyāna and Samādhi, Limbs 6, 7 and 8 of Yoga

Yogis, meditation and superpowers oh my.... These are what the Vibhooti Pada is about. The Vibhooti Pada is the third chapter of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and is known as The Chapter of Powers. This chapter outlines the last three limbs of Yoga, which are Dhāraṇā, Dhyāna and Samādhi. 

The Yoga (as exercise) that most people practice today was developed to prepare oneself for Raja Yoga (the path that follows the Eight Limbs of Yoga), as it is seen as a prerequisite to this path. Yogic Meditation is the goal of Raja Yoga. Raja meaning "Royal' or 'King,' thus it is the King of Yoga, an expression of its lofty status. Just like Bhakti Yoga can be considered the path of devotion, Karma Yoga the path of action and Jnana Yoga the path of wisdom (pre-classical Yoga), Raja Yoga can be seen as the path of meditation.

Limbs 6, 7 and 8 (of the Eight Limbs of Yoga) are Dhāraṇā, Dhyāna and Samādhi. These last three limbs are seen as the highest level of Yoga within this path and are only to be practiced once one has mastered the first 5 limbs of Yoga.

In our previous blogs in this series, we have looked at Raja Yoga and The Eight Limbs of Yoga, followed by an in depth look at the first five limbs of Yoga. The Eight Limbs are grouped intro three groups, each group is to be practiced together. First the Yamas and Niyama are cultivated, then Asana, Pranayama and Pratyahara are practiced. Next, one practices Dhāraṇā, Dhyāna and Samādhi, which are collectively known as Samyama.

In this blog, we will go over what each of these limbs are, what powers they are said to give the practitioner, why these powers come with a warning and what the practice of these three limbs may result in. 

Samyama- The practice of Dhāraṇā, Dhyāna and Samādhi

The word Samyama is made of two parts, -sam meaning holding, binding or integration and -yama meaning discipline; so Samyama can be seen as the discipline of integration (with your true/higher self). Samyama is the process of absorption, meditation and union through practicing the inner Limbs of Yoga.

  • Dhāraṇā: Dhāraṇā is known as concentration and is described in the Yoga Sutras as "holding the mind on to a particular object (the object of focus can be inside or outside of the body) and keeping it in that state." So, in Dhāraṇā, the mind is not fluctuating or jumping from object to object ceaselessly, often referred to as Monkey Mind

  • Dhyāna: Dhyāna is typically defined as meditation and is described in the Yoga Sutras as an "unbroken flow of knowledge to (of) that object." So, Dhāraṇā is holding the mind on an object and when one succeeds in holding the mind to said object, Dhyāna has been achieved. Once that is attained, one would be considered to be meditating in the Yogic sense. (Click here for more on general meditation and mindfulness, how to practice them, barriers of practice and the science of meditation and mindfulness.)

  • Samādhi: Samādhi is seen as absorption or union and is described in the Yoga Sutras as "giving up all forms and reflecting only meaning." This is referring to becoming one with the object of focus. If the object of focus for Dhāraṇā was a candle, and you managed to hold this focus without any other objects entering your meditation, you achieved Dhyāna. Then, in Samādhi you would become one with the candle. There would be no separation between you and the candle and complete understanding of the candle would exist. There can also be Samādhi without an object of focus.

  • So what does all of that actually mean?  The Yoga Sutras explain that "when these three (Dhāraṇā, Dhyāna and Samādhi) are practiced in regard to one object, this is Samyama. With the conquest of that, comes the light of knowledge." This is why the object of focus does not matter, for all is one. The light of wisdom is realizing the oneness of all things. Next, the chapter goes into the different states of Samādhi and recommends that one should use this new light to first dissolve gross things like physical objects, before dissolving subtle things like the self, time and space or attempting objectless Samādhi.

***One note- Although the Yoga Sutras do technically fall under Samkhya, which is seen as dualistic- the universe being made up of Purusa (witnessing consciousness) and Prakriti (original substance), essentially consciousness and matter; many scholars (and us) believe that the Yoga Sutras are stating that higher truth or wisdom is realizing that even these two are not separate. 

Yogic Powers

After describing the different states of Samādhi, the rest of this chapter (most of it actually) describes the so called powers a Yogi can attain by practicing these methods. They describe everything from being able to see past lives,  to disappearing, to attaining the strength of an elephant and so much more. However, these powers come with a warning. 

The first warning is that the process should not be rushed, it should be done in stages- understanding cannot go from zero to everything. Many Yogic practices are seen as harmful, if they are practiced before they are truly understood. This is because misunderstanding them and practicing them incorrectly takes you further from the path and is more harmful than not being on the path in the first place. It is similar to how it easier to teach someone how to play a game who knows nothing about the game, rather than teaching someone who learned how to play the game incorrectly, because they then have to unlearn the incorrect way of playing the game, before they can learn the correct way of playing the game. The incorrect method often being deeply ingrained. 

The next warning is that if the Yogi tries to further gain powers through the practice of Yoga, they will be denied the fruit of yogic practice, but if they reject these powers, they will achieve Samadhi and its fruits. 

Why is this? Well it depends on how you read a text. Many people, especially those raised in western cultures, have come to read spiritual texts in a literal fashion. Many people believe that spiritual texts are not meant to be interpreted literally, rather they are meant to be metaphoric and symbolic. They are intended to transmit wisdom and understanding. The teaching itself is not important, the wisdom gained from the teaching is what is important. Remember just above when Samādhi was described as "giving up all forms and reflecting only meaning?" Well, this way of looking at things is especially true of transformative mystical practices. Yoga takes you beyond the normal everyday understanding of the world, to the place of the indescribable.

In the Tao Teh Ching, Lao Tzu says that "Those who know, do not say, and those who say, do not know."  Although this is from a Taoist text, the sentiment rings true here as well, for he is also describing the ineffable reality behind all things.

It is a state of pure experience, as such, words cannot describe it. It cannot be held or understood in a conventional sense, it can only be experienced. Once experienced, people often feel giddy and euphoric. Yet, they can't quite describe what they experienced, being left in a state of awe and non-intellectual understanding; yet they know that they experienced something profound and can "feel it in their bones" so to speak. 

In Buddhism, Hinduism and Yoga, meditation is often described as polishing a mirror. The mind being the mirror itself, meditation being the act of polishing. For a polished mirror is clean of all distortions and impurities. It reflects whatever is in front of it, exactly as it is. Through meditation, we purify our mind of our biases or lenses. We learn to see things clearly, without judgement. When they talk about being able to gain the strength of an elephant by focusing the mind on an elephant during Samyama, this is during a transcendental state, this is not normal everyday reality. They are not saying you will be able to become invisible, gain superhuman strength, etc. in your everyday reality. These things are only available to us in this non-ordinary state of being, within the mind, where anything and everything are possible (This state is while seated and in deep, deep meditation remember?). This is also why they warn that a Yogi who tries to further these powers will not achieve the fruit of Yoga. Similar to the first warning, imperfect understanding will stop them short of their goal. 

Final Thoughts, Why Practice Yogic Meditation?

Once Samādhi has been achieved, glimpsed and understood, a new understanding of yourself and the world is felt.  This results in a new state of being. This state of being is known as Kaivalya. 

Kaivalya is the fruit of Yoga and it is what the last chapter of the Yoga Sutras consists of. It is the entire point of living the Yamas and Niyama and practicing Asana, Pranayama and Meditation. It results in a complete and total transformation of the self, which leads to a new way of being and living. It has been said that once one steps on the path, they can never step off of the path. They might take detours here and there, but once it has been glimpsed and felt, they will always come back to the path.

Kaivalya is believed to have seven steps or stages of development and this is what the next blog in this series will shine some light on. Once again, thanks for reading and we hope we have done this immense and powerful topic justice, we can only speak from our current level of understanding (and ignorance).