In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the path of yoga is very clearly laid out. Book 1 talks about the kind of person who undertakes to stay on the path, and the pitfalls that may arise whilst there. Book 2 talks about the practical part of yoga. It is here that you will find the first mention of hatha yoga – the postural part that we are now familiar with – and the other 7 branches of Astanga Yoga (there are eight limbs in total).
We start with character-building, as Swami Radha calls it in her brilliant book “Kundalini Yoga for the West”. These are the yamas and niyamas. Once this is established, the yogi can then confidently practice asana (postures) and pranayama, (breathwork) leading to pratyahara, or retraction of the senses. I found the concept of pratyahara difficult to understand before directly experiencing its effects. Your path and my path of yoga are each distinct and unique, so I won’t elaborate too much here. But, in my case, pratyahara meant a softening of the impact of external influences – loud noises make me jump less, bright lights don’t annoy, strong smells…well strong smells still bug me. Okay, but you might get the point.
The next limb of Astanga Yoga is dharana, or concentration. This is not, note, meditation, which is dhyana. Dharana is the ability to focus the mind on a single object for increasingly long periods of time. Eventually, one become “one” with the object, and enters into samana with it. This is the beginning of Book 3 of the sutras. The object can be something external like an icon or candle, or it can be more subtle, like the breath or the heartbeat.
Still, the point I want to make here is that dharana, and eventually dhyana, are the fruits of previous practice. I was a terribly meditator. For years I fidgeted on my zafu, wondering where all the mental peace was. Well, the answer is it’s coming…be patient. Practice and all is coming, said Sri Pattabhi Jois. I use the spinal breathing method described in the book “Advanced Yoga Practices”. (http://www.aypsite.org/)
My advice is: don’t jump straight into meditation without toning the body and breath first. Some people can – hey, we’re all different – but many people can’t. And don’t give up. Propel yourself forward on wings of faith. Look up at the sky and realise that the Universe is boundless and you are a speck and rejoice in all the incredible freedom that gives you. OM.