India's great sage Patanjali outlined the yoga system of Hindu philosophy as an eightfold path.
1. yama - the 'don'ts'
2. niyama - the 'do's'
3. asana - right posture - the spinal column must be held straight, and the body in a firm yet comfortable position for meditation
4. pranayama - control of prana, subtle life currents
5. pratyahara - withdrawal of the senses from external objects
6. dharana - concentration - holding the mind to one thought
7. dhyana - meditation
8. samadhi - superconscious perception
First Step : Yama
Yama means rules that are prohibitive, and refers to thoughts and actions from which the devotee should abstain. The yama proscriptions are avoidance of :
injury to others;
incontinence (inability to contain oneself);
gift-receiving (which brings obligations)
Second Step : Niyama
Niyama means that which the devotee should do. The niyama prescriptions are :
purity of body and mind;
devotion to God and guru.
All religions agree to these two phases or foundations of religious practice. To meditate a great deal without at the same time practicing yama-niyama is to build a large superstructure on a loose foundation.
Yama-niyama--the "do's and dont's"--are the foundation principles of all religions.
Third Step : Asana
Patanjali says that in addition to yama-niyama the devotee must practice asana, or posture--correct posture. The purpose of posture is to enable the devotee to rise above or stop the motions of the body that cause restlessness in the ego-identified soul. The soul is a part of the calm Infinite, and the body is a part of restless nature. But the soul identifies itself with the restless body and forgets its nature of infinite calmness. To help to re-associate with calmness, a posture is required where the body is still and free from restlessness and the spine is straight. An straight spine allows the life energy and consciousness to flow freely from the lower centers of the senses, through the spine, to the higher centers of spiritual realization in the brain.
Patanjali always points to the purpose of spiritual actions and tells the devotee not to become identified with any process of salvation but only to use that process until salvation is attained. Patanjali warns the devotee not to be so engrossed with the process that he forgets the purpose for which that process or technique was prescribed. Many devotees remain within the confinement of asana. They concentrate upon the physical gymnastics of Hatha Yoga, enjoying the suppleness and mastery of the body that asana brings, forgetting that the purpose of asana is to attain freedom of the mind and soul. Therefore, Patanjali does not prescribe lengthy concentration on the practice of various postures; but he says that any comfortable posture in which the spine is erect, the body is steady and fairly restful, and the mind is peaceful, is the correct posture, or asana.
Fourth Step : Pranayama
Stillness is the altar of Spirit and Patanjali says that right posture is necessary for stillness. When motion ceases, Spirit begins to manifest. After having attained a steady posture and a steady mind, the devotee is advised by Patanjali to practice pranayama with the object of attaining pratyahara. Pranayama means conscious control of the life force, to be able ultimately to switch off at will the life force from the five sense "telephones."
Various schools of breath control, meditation, chanting, devotional singing, concentration on the prayer wheel, holy rolling, concentration by discrimination, concentration by diversion, and so forth, are variants of the real science of pranayama or switching off the life force.
There are various indirect methods of diverting the mind from the senses to God; for example, chanting, negative silence, prayer, emotional singing, intellectual discriminative meditation, social and religious work. But the pranayama life-control technique of yoga teaches the scientific way of disconnecting the mind from the sensations of touch, sound, sight, smell, and taste by switching off the life current, so that the freed consciousness may be united with God. All scientific techniques that bring about union of soul and Spirit may be classified as yoga, and pranayama is the greatest yogic method for attaining this divine union.
The state of sleep is unconscious pranayama, or the unconscious process of switching off the life force from the five sense telephones. In sleep one practices the mortal posture or savasana. In this posture the body is still, the muscles have stopped working, venous blood is reduced, the heart slows down, the energy in the heart becomes quiet; therefore, the energy from the five senses is switched off. Then the mind attains un-conscious pratyahara, or unconsciously returns within and becomes absorbed in an unconscious state of peace. Patanjali's statement of the direct use of pranayama is very significant, since he does not beat about the bush but tells one to adopt that scientific measure by which sensations can be consciously disconnected from the mind. What is attained during sleep, the unconscious switching off of the life current, can be attained consciously by adopting the scientific methods of pranayama.
Fifth Step : Pratyahara
Pratyahara signifies the state of the mind when it is disconnected from the five sense "telephones." Those who practice pranayama, or any other method of breath and life-energy control, without bearing in mind the purpose for which they are practicing do not attain pratyahara. Patanjali states that the purpose of pranayama must be pratyahara, or making the mind return within. All devotees who seek Self-realization must be able to practice pranayama so successfully that they can use it to attain pratyahara, or interiorization of the mind, immediately. Thousands of students are satisfied with yama-niyama (rules of morality) ,many are satisfied with asana (posture) ; and some are satisfied with practicing pranayama alone. Best results come from the practice of all three--yama-niyama, asana, and pranayama.
There can be many steps to a comprehensive theological understanding of the laws of God described in various philosophies and religions; there are but seven steps on the ladder of Self-realization that lead to the actual perception of the Infinite. To master each step, one must obtain not only new ideas about God, but also a distinct change of consciousness and increase in Self-realization until, in the seventh step, he will be directly contacting God as ever new Bliss.
Followers of the paths of devotion, meditation, chanting, and praying should so deeply follow their respective methods that the mind becomes engrossed within (pratyahara) and is undisturbed by sensations and restless thoughts. Those who practice some form of meditation, or a pranayama technique, have not arrived at the fifth step of the ladder of Self-realization until they are able quickly to interiorize the mind (pratyahara).
Each step should yield definite signs of Self-realization :
STEP 1 & 2. Yama-niyama yields self-control and mental calmness.
STEP 3. Asana brings mental and physical calmness, so that the yogi-devotee can sit in a meditation position without fatigue or mental restlessness.
STEP 4. Pranayama should yield heartbeat control, pulse control , awareness of the cool and warm life currents in the spine, life-force control, and mind control.
STEP 5. Pratyahara yields freedom of mind from physical sensations; it is the power of mental interiorization, or withdrawal of the mind from the senses.
STEP 6. Dharana is the power to use the interiorized mind one-pointedly to concentrate upon God.
STEP 7. Dhyana gives the conception, by feeling or intuition, of the vastness of God. The ultimate realization is samadhi or complete union with God.
The Self Realization Fellowship (SRF) teaches that the ancient technique of Kriya Yoga, which was reintroduced in modern times by Lahiri Mahasaya, is the greatest form of pranayama, the control of subtle life currents that leads to the state of pratyahara.
In terms of Chi Kung, Chinese energy work, the microcosmic and macrocosmic orbit practices are thought to have similar origins, purpose and effects as pranayama. In the Chi Kung set of movements called the eight silk brocade, the microcosmic or macrocosmic orbit can be done as "Gathering the moon" or , as sometimes it is called, "Cirlces of Light". When performing the orbit and moving energy around the spine , up through the govenor and down through the functional meridian channels, remember to place the tongue on the soft palate on the roof of the mouth as this connects the 2 channels together.
Sixth Step : Dharana
Only after mastering pratyahara are dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) possible. Many people think it is easy to meditate, but true meditation is actually impossible without first climbing the steps of yama-niyama, asana, pranayama, and pratyahara. Only those who have practiced these five steps can control the body and moods and habits; and exercise the ability to switch off the current from the five senses so that the attention, which is ordinarily tied to sensory experiences, is freed through pratyahara to go within and meditate on God.
Such a devotee has scientifically attained an expanded state of consciousness and understands what meditation means. Only by pratyahara, when the mind goes within, is it possible to concentrate completely upon God. Otherwise the mind will be experiencing sensations and the thoughts arising from them.
Patanjali says that in superconscious chanting the devotee keeps his attention riveted to the cosmic sound of Aum and tries to understand and feel this vibration of Aum as the representative of God in every atom of the universe. The Word (Cosmic Vibration) was made flesh (i.e., matter, the physical body of God). Many people do not understand the significance of Patanjali's instruction to meditate on Aum, and go on chanting loudly without trying at the same time to feel the cosmic presence of the real Aum sound. This Aum sound is the cosmic "trumpet" heard by St. John and described in the book of Revelation; it is the "Amen", the "faithful witness" of the beginning of God's creation.
Seventh Step : Dhyana
After dharana, or concentration, comes dhyana, which means attainment of the conception of the magnitude of Aum. Dharana means meditation on Aum with an interiorized mind. Thinking of the meaning of Aum and conception of the Aum sound as present in the body and in the cosmos are the same thing, conceiving of the perception of Aum not only in the body but also in the universe.
By doing this, the devotee attains sabikalpa samadhi; that is, he deliberately forgets the wave of the body in order to concentrate upon the ocean of Spirit. In sabikalpa samadhi the devotee concentrates so that his consciousness of material things is completely obliterated, but he is supersensitively conscious of the Spirit within.
Sabikalpa samadhi has many forms.
When the devotee becomes one with the cosmic sound of Aum, that state is called Aum samadhi.
When the devotee is one with the cosmic life in this vibration of Aum, that state is called mahaprana, or oneness with the cosmic life force. In this samadhi the devotee is conscious of the cosmic vital forces.
When the devotee perceives cosmic light, that state is astral samadhi. In astral samadhi the devotee is one with the cosmic light.
Then comes ananda samadhi, or oneness with the cosmic joy in everything.
After this comes jnana (sometimes called gyana) samadhi, wherein the devotee is one with the cosmic wisdom or intelligence in everything.
Then comes devotional samadhi, in which the seeker attains divine devotion.
Then comes prema samadhi, which is to be one with the cosmic love in all creatures and in everything, and in God.
Then comes sundara samadhi, wherein one becomes one with all glory and beauty in Spirit.
In sabikalpa samadhi, the devotee is conscious of these various manifestations of God as sound, light, devotion, bliss, beauty, and so on, to the exclusion of the consciousness of the body and the world.
After the devotee attains sabikalpa samadhi, which means bodily immobility combined with inner divine realizations, by further meditation he passes to the higher state of nirbikalpa samadhi.
In nirbikalpa samadhi the soul becomes simultaneously conscious of the ocean of Spirit with its manifesting waves -- the body, the mind, and the soul. Perfection in these various steps on the ladder of realization ultimately produces nirbikalpa samadhi. The devotee therefore must not remain confined to one step, but should climb all the seven steps of salvation until he reaches the pinnacle of spiritual Self-realization --nirbikalpa samadhi.