A Broader Definition
While yoga is generally understood in America to be a diverse array of bending and stretching exercises that originated in India, the word has a much wider connotation, and includes sitting with the eyes closed in silent, deep meditation.
In India, yoga is a state of mind, not just an exercise for the body. The primary text on the topic is called the Yoga Sūtra of Maharishi Patanjali. This text includes 195 short aphorisms, called sūtras. The second sutra defines yoga. In Sanskrit, it reads like this: yogash chitta-vritti-nirodhah. In English, “Yoga is the complete settling of the activity of the mind.” This is considered to be the classical definition.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtra defines the depth of this experience as samādhi. Samādhi is a state of mind where there are no thoughts and there is no object of meditation, where the mind is fully expanded and in a state of “pure unbounded awareness.”
Although for centuries scholars in the East and West had thought of this experience as extremely difficult to achieve, our generation has witnessed a remarkable new appreciation for the naturalness of meditation as a result of the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Vedic scholar and sage who brought to light the technique of Transcendental Meditation.
I think of attempting to meditate as something like learning how to swim. A beginning swimmer might be inclined to use too much effort, and get stuck thrashing around in the water. But with proper instruction, you learn to relax in the water, take smooth strokes, and glide without effort. With proper instruction meditation is just as effortless.
Those familiar with the Yoga Sūtra know that samādhi is something that is not achieved in isolation. It is the last of the eight limbs of yoga, called ashtānga yoga. The last three limbs (dhāranā, dhyāna, and samādhi) have to do with meditation. I believe that most systems of meditation are good at dhāranā, but very few understand dhyāna.
Dhāranā, Dhyāna, and Samādhi
Let’s go into this a bit. Dhārana is usually translated as concentration or steadiness. It is taking an object of meditation, such as a mantra, and focusing on it, usually by mentally repeating it over and over.
It’s like focusing on individual drops of water, because the object of meditation is discrete. Dhāranā is a surface state of mind, and it is unlikely that a person could slip into samādhi from the state of dhāranā.
Dhyāna is much different. It involves a lack of focus, a lack of effort, a lack of concentration. In dhyāna the object of meditation is non-discrete. While dhāranā is like individual drops of water, dhyāna is a continuous flow, like oil on glass.
This is where the Transcendental Meditation program comes in as a method of proper understanding and practice of meditation. The TM program allows a person, right from the beginning, to achieve dhyāna and then experience samādhi on a regular basis. Often on the first day of TM practice a person will say, “It was so easy and silent and simple — my mind was in a perfect state of peace without any effort on my part.”
The practice of meditation is enhanced by the practice of yoga (technically called āsana in the Patanjali system). The profound benefits of āsana practice compliment the practice of meditation, and I believe the best results come from the balanced practice of āsana, prānāyāma and meditation.
This complete, balanced program is not difficult to understand and practice, and the rewards are significant. Pretty much everything a person can think of can be achieved by the proper practice of yoga.
Settling the mind, establishing peace, desiring and acting from the deepest level of intelligence, and gaining vibrant health and happiness are all the natural result of successful practice of this ancient science of life.
The Maharishi Vedic Science program here at MUM has in-depth lectures and discussions on the role of yoga, both from the viewpoint of the ancient Vedic Literature and modern scientific research.