Yoga Sadhana - How to Practice Yoga
Yoga sadhana means yoga practice. To understand what that means we need to look at the meaning of both words.
What is yoga? Yoga is a special condition of the mind. There are four conditions or states of mind according to yoga - the wide-awake state, the dreaming state, the deep sleep state and yoga, also known as samadhi. Samadhi is a natural state, as natural as the other three.
What is samadhi? Samadhi is a condition of the mind when it is completely channeled in one direction and all other thoughts or impressions that are not related to the object of interest are eliminated. For most of us this is very difficult to achieve intentionally, but there are many circumstances in life where this naturally happens, though these moments are usually fleeting.
The Natural State
According to yoga and ayurveda, a healthy human being should experience samadhi regularly. It is part of the daily cycle of the mind and body. After sleeping and dreaming, before being wide awake, there is an intermediate condition. Since we typically jump out of bed and immediately start to get busy with the day ahead we do not pay attention to this tranquil state of mind and it is soon obliterated by our extraverted attention.
The human being is a part of nature. We have done our best to deny this, we have done our utmost to transcend nature to our great cost. The cycle of sleep, dream, samadhi and wide awake consciousness is connected to natural rhythms.
According to ayurveda, if one has healthy sleep, diet and exercise (yoga), then most medical problems can be eliminated. These three are essential for a healthy life, which includes the experience of samadhi.
What does it mean to have healthy sleep diet and exercise? Not only the quality but also the quantity, time and location are important. Night time is governed by tamas (darkness, heaviness, inertia) while daytime is governed by rajas (action, movement, passion) - in between there is a time of balance between light and dark - this period is governed by the quality of sattva (tranquility, purity). This is the auspicious time for experiencing samadhi - the hours before dawn and the period around sunset.
From 3am to 6am is the quietest time of day, the most peaceful. The mind and body are attuned to this naturally occurring phenomenon. We can take advantage of this. Why try to meditate in the middle of the day when assailed from all sides by distraction, when there is a naturally supportive mood in nature we can use?
Sitting in the early morning with a quiet mind does not take so much effort. Samadhi is a natural state that occurs when conditions are right. No amount of concentration will get us anywhere unless we put the body and mind into the right condition. Then it is easy.
If you can access peace on a daily basis it gives a huge support for the rest of the day. After all, this is the natural state of the mind, before the outside worries and concerns start to disturb it. The more one can experience this peaceful state, the more one can sustain it throughout the day.
Samadhi is not achieved through huge effort, it is not something you can manufacture through practice, it is not something you can understand through study, rather, it is uncovered and experienced as the natural state, the primal state of mind.
Samadhi and Sadhana
The word yoga has two meanings - on the one hand it is synonymous with the state of samadhi, on the other it is used in the sense of a practice (sadhana) which leads to the experiencing of that state.
Today, the experience of samadhi is seldom found or recognized. This is due to our unhealthy lifestyles, our disconnection from the rhythms and wisdom of nature. We also don’t know where to find it though we subconsciously crave for it and instead we try to find peace through sensual indulgence.
Yoga practice is designed to get us back on track, to bring us back to health and with the experience of samadhi, greater peace, confidence and clarity. Samadhi not only brings peace, it brings knowledge. It brings knowledge about the objects meditated upon but more importantly it brings knowledge both of the means of gaining knowledge (the mind) and the nature of the one to whom the knowledge is presented - the inner, true Self.
A story about the search for inner truth:
A friend sees a man searching at night under a street light. He asks:
“What are you looking for?”
“I lost my keys!”
“Where did you lose them?”
“Somewhere over there in the dark.”
“Then why are you looking here?”
“The light is better here!”
We are looking in the wrong place! And we are not understanding the nature of what we are looking for. We imagine samadhi as an ecstatic state - our culture has made us believe that this is the way to escape misery - but the yogic experience is the opposite of ecstasy - a better term is enstasy.
While ecstasy is losing oneself in blissful sensual experience, enstasy is an introversion of awareness - losing sense of the body and environment, the mind is introverted and becomes still. Samadhi is intimate, subtle, you can’t speak about it.
Yoga practice is designed to bring us back to health, to bring us back to natural and wholesome living. When the body is healthy and pain free and the mind is at peace, then samadhi can occur.
The Yoga Sutra contain the most important teachings on Ashtanga Yoga. They are attributed to the great sage Patanjali.
According to Patanjali there are three essential components to sadhana (practice): purifying discipline (tapas), Self enquiry (sva-dhyaya) and surrender (ishvara pranidhana). These three reduce the afflictions (klesha) caused by fear, anger, desire, ego and ignorance about the true nature of the Self and help to cultivate states of samadhi.
One of the most important factors in yoga is diet. Tapas is often interpreted as food discipline. What we eat forms all the tissues and structures of the body including the brain and influences the chemical balance, toxicity, hormonal balance etc.. According to yoga, food not only nourishes (or poisons) the body, it also feeds the mind. What we eat enters the blood stream and causes hormonal secretion - (think caffein and adrenaline as an extreme case) - hormonal secretions in turn determine our mode of thinking. The brain is a material structure that is affected by the chemical composition of the blood which circulates throughout the body.
What we eat, when we eat and how we eat determines our sense of wellness and has a significant impact on our health and flexibility. Asana practice often stimulates an interest in healthy eating if it is not already established. I will talk much more about food later.
The word tapas also means to purify through heat. We are all familiar with this element of asana practice.
The purpose of yoga practice is re-establish the state of samadhi. If practice is a journey, then the challenges and experiences encountered in asana practice pale to insignificance when compared with the challenge of the inner journey.
Sva-dhyaya - literally “meditation on the Self” - is a process of unraveling all the notions we have about our body, about our life that establishes a sense of ownership or identification. The Self is not the mind. It is deeper, beneath the mental cloud. Traces of mind have to be eliminated (during samadhi) in order to experience true identity.
The ego is stubborn. We have many habits, both physical and mental, that stand in our way. Ego is only a provisional identity. When we do not have a feeling of true identity, ego is the next best bet. This false sense of self has to be overcome in order to access the truth of our real nature and identity, what the false sense believes has to be brought into question. Thoughts and feelings of fear, excessive desire, anger, jealousy etc. are related to false identification.
Yoga requires surrender of disbelief, it requires faith, confidence and clarity - through surrender metamorphosis can take place. But ego initially stands in the way of change and evolution, it is the false self. It has to be loosened, relaxed and released as new insight arises.
According to Patanjali, the inner being, the soul or spirit (Purusha), is untouched by suffering, ignorance and the mistakes we have made. Disentangling the mind, emotion, perception, sensation etc from the inner sense of true identity is the goal of practice. Pranidhana means to approach, to draw near to and Ishvara is the pure inner being. Ishvara Pranidhana is the surrender of the ego to the higher principles, the pure nature of the true inner Self.
Asana practice is a small laboratory. In one’s mental and emotional responses to the ups and downs of practice one can see, reflected, the way one operates in life in general. It is an environment where one can experiment with reactivity to discomfort and gradually transmute one’s reactions, gradually find equanimity in the face of what had previously caused fear or anxiety.
If you know your Self to be immortal - it is not affected by the body and mind - it uses the body and mind as a vehicle. When the vehicle gets old, it needs to be replaced - the owner does not die, the vehicle gets recycled. If you know your Self to not be the body or the mind - what is there to be afraid of?
There are many recommendations and techniques at the disposal of the yoga practitioner. These will be elaborated in the next few articles.