What is yogic meditation and how does it help us acquire a clear, calm, and joyful mind? The first few sutras of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra—the original handbook on meditation—give us a framework.
Sutra 1:1 tells us, “Now begins the instruction on the practice of yoga.” We begin from wherever we are, and each time we begin our practice, it is fresh. But what exactly is yoga? Patanjali answers this question in sutra 1:2: “Complete mastery over the roaming tendencies of the mind is yoga.” The mind is our greatest tool and most prized possession, but our mind is frequently clouded—distracted, filled with worry or negativity, or endlessly chasing after what it thinks will bring us happiness. These are the roaming tendencies, or vrittis, that keep our mind constantly spinning in a whirlpool of our own thoughts. The mind can only be truly peaceful when it is at rest.
So how do we achieve mastery over the mind’s roaming tendencies? We reach that state, called samadhi, through turning the mind inward in meditation. Meditation allows us to come in touch with our core being, pure consciousness, which is ever free, luminous, and filled with limitless joy. This is the goal of yoga.
When we achieve this goal through meditation, we are no longer limited by a “small” and distracted mind tinged with our limited knowledge, likes and dislikes, fears, doubts, and anxieties. Instead, we have cultivated a perfectly controlled mind, which reflects the pristine light of pure consciousness and allows us to see pure consciousness as our essential nature. In other words, we have become the seer. This is why sutra 1:3 says, “Then the seer becomes established in its essential nature.” At this point, we are free from all limitations and are able to achieve the highest goal of life: complete freedom (apavarga) and everlasting fulfillment (bhoga).
On a practical level, meditation combines two broad dimensions of yoga practice. The first is relaxed concentration, which Patanjali defines as the effort to rest the mind in one thing. That “thing” is an alambana (support), which may be the breath, or the sound of a mantra. The second is cultivating the inner observer—learning to quiet the mind and observe the process of concentration as it unfolds—which helps us distance ourselves from distracting sensations, thoughts, and emotions. Once concentration is sustained over a prolonged period of time, it ripens into meditation.
According to the Himalayan Tradition, we are able to meditate—and ultimately reach samadhi—when we cultivate these two dimensions of yoga in a systematic, methodical way. As the ancient sages discovered, this process leads us to a peaceful, inwardly flowing mind. When we practice meditation regularly (daily), over a long period of time, and with sincerity and full faith, we make huge strides quickly, and our practice becomes unshakeable (sutra 1:14). This is what forms the backbone of a sustainable—and rewarding—meditation practice. It allows us to reach our goal with joy and ease. Here are the steps that lead us to meditation. Put them into practice, and notice the effects!
Steps Toward Meditation
Find a comfortable and steady meditation posture in which the head, neck, and torso are in alignment. Allow a sense of physical stillness to settle in. Hatha yoga postures that facilitate strength and flexibility in the pelvis, hip joints, and back will help increase the comfort and steadiness of your posture. You may find it helpful to do your own set of asanas to prepare for sitting quietly in meditation. They will facilitate not only steadiness and stillness in the body, but also quietness in the mind.
2. Relaxed, Effortless Breathing
Become aware of the flow of your breath. Relaxing your abdomen and the sides of your rib cage, focus on the sensations of inhaling and exhaling. Allow the breath to become deep and diaphragmatic. Breathing becomes calm and natural, not forced. When you are aware of your breath for an extended period of time, you’ll notice the breath naturally starts to deepen and become more smooth. This relaxes your mind and nervous system in preparation for turning inward in meditation. Your mind will start to calm down, and distracting thoughts will take a back seat to the gentle flow of breath in and out.
3. Systematic Relaxation
Formal relaxation practices are done in reclining postures. Less formal relaxation practices are used in sitting postures to create a sense of inner ease. In a seated posture, scan your body from head to toe and back again, noticing any areas of tension or gripping. Consciously soften those areas of the body.
4. Breath Awareness in the Nostrils
This is the beginning of formal concentration practice. The sensation of the breath in the nostrils is a calming focus that will make your meditation stable and grounded. Breath awareness in the nostrils connects you to the core energies of your body and mind, which creates a deep sense of quietness and joy. As you inhale, feel the breath entering the opening of your nostrils.
5. Resting Awareness in the Sound of a Mantra
A mantra is a word or sound that is used for concentration. A universal mantra, such as so’ham (pronounced “so-hum“), can be used by anyone, but most mantras must be given by a qualified teacher. Let your awareness rest in the sound of the mantra. Eventually the sound will arise spontaneously in your mind. The effort to maintain it is relaxed, yet the mind continues to be filled with it. As the mind rests more and more deeply in its focus, the presence of luminous awareness itself is gradually revealed.
As you can see, this is a simple process—one that brings great rewards when you practice each day. The simple act of sitting quietly in meditation will reset your body, mind, breath, and nervous system, and will lead to increased happiness, creativity, and productivity. Your daily meditation practice does not need to be (and in fact, shouldn’t be!) hours long. When practiced correctly, even 10 or 20 minutes can make a big difference in your mood and set the tone for the rest of your day. As you continue to refine your practice beyond the basics, you may discover that meditation is the most joyful, rich part of your day, and you may want to start sitting for longer periods of time. This is when the rewards of yoga truly start to unfold, and when you will discover the lasting, transformative benefits of practice.
The Secret of the Yoga Sutra: Samadhi Pada
The Secret of the Yoga Sutra is the first practitioner-oriented commentary which is fully grounded in a living tradition. It shares the essence of Pandit Tigunait’s rigorous scholarly understanding of the Yoga Sutra, through the filter of experiential knowledge gained through decades of advanced yogic practices, and enriched by the gift of living wisdom he received from the masters of the Himalayan Tradition.