This article is for yoga people—for the throngs who have re-discovered this ancient yet very sophisticated approach to exercise. Tens of millions have taken up yoga because it’s gentler and kinder to the body, yet fun and challenging, and effective in promoting overall fitness. People also appreciate yoga for its settling effect on the mind. The unhurried pace of yoga practice and the focus on the concrete details of stretching, balancing, breathing, helps a person leave behind the concerns of a busy life and enjoy the present moment.
Though practicing yoga poses (“asanas”) can be quite enjoyable, many yoga practitioners suspect that they could take their practice to a higher level by learning to further integrate body, mind and spirit through the experience of deep meditation. There’s good reason for the notion that meditation can make yoga, a good thing, even better. For one thing, almost every system or school of yoga recommends meditation, at least theoretically. But yoga students often put off starting meditation, perhaps fearing that they lack the steely discipline and laser-like concentration assumed to be essential for success.
One reason many assume meditation to be difficult is a common misunderstanding of the eight-limbed or Ashtanga system of yoga laid out in the revered Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
In the text of the Yoga Sutras, the eight limbs of yoga are presented in the following order:
1) the five yamas or personal virtues, such as ahimsa or non-violence, and satya, truthfulness
2) the five niyamas or rules of life, including shaucha, purification, and swadhyaya, study
3) pranayama, the breathing practices
4) the asanas, the poses of yoga
5, 6, 7,) the three stages of mental practice, pratyahara, dharana, and dhyana or meditation.
8 ) Samadhi, the union of the busy thinking mind with its deepest, most silent level, the unified field of consciousness, the Self. Think of an individual wave settling down and experiencing the unbounded ocean.
However, despite the fact that Ashtanga translates as eight LIMBS, and not eight STEPS or stages, many have thought Patanjali meant that his eight-fold approach should be practiced only in this step-by-step, sequential order, starting with the personal virtues and observances, and culminating in meditation for the purpose of gaining samadhi.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi created a stir in the world yoga community some 40 years ago when he traveled the world teaching the Transcendental Meditation program, a simple, easily-learned technique to bring the direct experience of samadhi. Maharishi was teaching anyone interested, even if they were completely new to yoga. In Germany, a delegation of yogis came to Maharishi and asked him about this.
Maharishi welcomed the delegation and began by establishing common ground with them—respect for the authority of Patanjali. He then, however, explained his view that Patanjali had, due to the long lapse of time, become badly misinterpreted. The order of Patanjali’s famous eightfold yoga had, he said, become the reverse of what Patanjali intended. “The practice of Yoga was understood to start with yama, niyama (the secular virtues), and so on,” Maharishi said, “whereas in reality it should begin with samadhi. Samadhi cannot be gained by the practice of yama, niyama, and so on. Proficiency in the virtues can only be gained by repeated experience of samadhi.” In other words, it is mistaken to think that improved morality and behavior is required to reach samadhi; rather, Maharishi said that better behavior and morality comes as a result of the experience of that most unified and blissful level of life.
For example, Maharishi said, one can only truly progress in ahimsa or non-violence as one grows in the consciousness that there is a common unity of all things. This unified reality of life is directly experienced in samadhi. Similarly, he said, asteya or non-covetousness can only be truly achieved when one feels fully contented, and the most stable inner happiness naturally comes through repeated experience of the eternal field of bliss-consciousness in samadhi.
Bliss consciousness: this is the higher level that yoga is meant to take us to. Yoga means union. One definition of yoga is the union of body, mind and breath. Although that alone can bring good results, there is a higher level of meaning: the union of the thinking mind, or small “s” self, with the big Self, cosmic intelligence. The result of that, according to the Yoga Sutras, is serious bliss.
Commenting on the experience of union with the Self through meditation, Maharishi says, “The intensity of happiness is beyond the superlative. The bliss of this state eliminates the possibility of any sorrow, great or small. Into the bright light of the sun no darkness can penetrate; no sorrow can enter bliss-consciousness, nor can bliss-consciousness know any gain greater than itself. This state of self-sufficiency leaves one steadfast in oneself, fulfilled in eternal contentment.” (from Maharishi’s translation and commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, 6:20)
Back to why people could think that this natural, blissful process could be difficult—unfortunately, as meditation is generally taught, this perception is all too accurate. Patanjali defines yoga as “the complete settling of the mind” (Yoga Sutras, 1.2). However, because most types of meditation available today involve some degree of concentration, effort, control, they tend to prevent the mind from completely settling down. The Transcendental Meditation program, in contrast, is a technique of no-doing—it does not involve trying of any kind, and so it allows the meditator to easily dive within.
But can an easy, effortless meditation be “real” meditation, leading to enlightenment? Yes. Some have misunderstood the simplicity of TM. The Transcendental Meditation program is actually the revival of meditation in its pure and original form. It is simple and easy because it is natural—in full accord with the fundamental nature of mind and body. That is also why it is so efficient. Nature is always extremely efficient. For example, all motion in nature follows the path of least action or effort. In the same way, one practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique effortlessly dives deep within the mind.
The cultivation of this topmost of the eight limbs of yoga nourishes the whole tree of yoga as no other can. Yoga practitioners who add the Transcendental Meditation practice to their daily routine report that it adds a deeply satisfying dimension of silence, consciousness, and appreciation to their asana practice, and to life. Samadhi is both the beginning and the essential ingredient of a truly blissful yoga practice.