According to Patanjali, the author of the yoga sutras, thoughts come in three primary forms. The first form is sense based thought, driven by our involvement with the world around us. The second form is memory or residual impressions left over from past experience. The last variety of thought stems from projectionor anticipation of future events. To survive over the millennia, the mind has developed into a tool for processing information (actually some biologist now believe our current level of intelligence may be directly related to our need to conceptualize and utilize language on both individual and cultural levels). We sense information, make associations and distinctions…eventually drawing conclusions. The mind operates in dualities. Deconstructing, it separates dark from light, regular from irregular, me from you. The mind can become confused or deluded by a feedback loop stemming from dualistic thought. Herein lies the limitation of our thoughts. Very simply, we can get stuck in only seeing how things are separate because the mind is structured to conceptualize along these lines. We fall into a way of thinking…this is our nature. Unfortunately, when thoughts run wild and uncontrolled they can mislead or confuse us. The confusion of the mind can keep us from seeing the truth about a situation or more importantly ourselves and ultimately can leave us feeling despondent.
Patanjali tells us that the antaranga or the final three limbs of astanga yoga are ultimately a means for overcoming the dualism of the mind. Pranayama, breath control, is the first step in understanding and controlling the nature of our thoughts. During pranayama we close our eyes, listen to the sound of the breath and feel the texture of the breath in our body. We begin to turn our attention inward thereby reducing external sense impressions or thoughts. By gently turning our attention inward to something going on inside us physically, we cut back the amount of energy we are giving to outside stimuli.
The process of looking within and pulling our attention to an internal physical sensation brings us to pratyahara. The final expression of pratyahara is complete sense withdrawal. Withdrawal does not mean escape or abandonment of the world but rather a break or vacation from outer stimuli. During pratyahara the push and pull of dualistic thinking diminishes and we stop jumping from one thing to the next. As we grow more comfortable with the process a new awareness emerges and our inner voice becomes clearer.
The process of learning to maintain sense withdrawal is dharana – the first of the three final limbs. Dharana is also known as concentration. Through sustained dharana we move toward dhayna or meditation – the second of the three limbs.
The final limb of ashtanga yoga is Samadhi during which the subject and object cease to be separate. At this point we step gently into a place where we are able to let go of the I’ness we carry with us. As our individuality fades away, the light of the object alone, the edge between form and formlessness, fills the awareness. The distinctions of the mind cease to be.
I know what you’re thinking, ”What does this have to do with my asana practice?” The depth of our asana practice, the amount of prana or energy we are able to tap into, is directly related to how inwardly focused we stay during our practice. Every posture has at its root the final three limbs of Ashtanga yoga. In order to find the full expression of a posture, you must still your mind sufficiently, allow the light between effort and relaxation to wash over you and fall into equipoise.