The Bhagavad Gita and The Yoga Sutras are two of the most valuable resources in learning about the various methods and goals of the Yoga path.
Introduction to the 8 Limbed Path of The Yoga Sutras
The Yoga Sutras are considered a foundation of classic Yoga philosophy. The 196 sutras, or aphorisms, are attributed to the sage Patanjali, who is said to have lived around 400 CE. They have been translated into dozens of languages and many books have expounded their meaning. In the Sutras, Patanjali describes the bliss one finds when united in a Yogic lifestyle, and outlines the methods to practice Yoga. He describes the 8 limbs, or Ashtanga, of the Yoga path.
The first four limbs prepare the yogi for deeper meditation practices by first promoting a healthy, ethical, aware lifestyle. Once the yogi has a foundation in a life of morality, a body that is healthy and supple, and her energy regulated through Pranayama, the practice of mindfulness and meditation are much more accessible. Imagine trying to sit still and meditate with a belly full of junk food, and a mind full of junk? The Yamas, Niyamas, Asana, and Pranayama are an essential primer to bring a person into a yogic lifestyle so that deeper states of connection and bliss are achievable. The Yamas (regulation of your energy and behavior) are Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (honesty), Asteya (non-Stealing), Brahmacharya (Non-lust/control of sexual energy), and Aparigraha (non-possessiveness). The Niyamas (spiritual observances) are Sauca (cleanliness of body and home), Santosha (sense of contentment), Tapas (discipline and attention), Svadyaya (self-study and study of sacred texts), and Ishvara Pranidhana (honor the divine in all). Asana means posture; asana practice is to find steadiness and ease in your body. Pranayama is regulation and balance of your energy through awareness of the breath.
The last four limbs of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras concern the practice of training the mind to move from a typical state of activity, thoughts, and worries, to a one pointed state of awareness. These final four limbs of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras are Pratyahara; drawing the senses inward, Dharana; concentration on a single object, Dhyana; state in which the mind is completely focused and absorbed with the object of meditation, and Samadhi; absolute stillness of the mind that brings one to union with the divine. The first two, Pratyahara and Dharana, are part of the discipline of yoga and are practiced via various techniques and effort. The last two, Dhyana and Samadhi, are not practices but rather are states of being the dedicated yogi gradually arrives at by diligently practicing the previous 6 limbs. In fact, what most of us call Meditation, is really the practice of Pratyahara and Dharana, turning the senses inward and concentrating the mind on a single focus. True meditation, Dhyana, is when the mind is so stilled by practicing mindfulness that it is unaware of anything but the object of meditation.
To further explain the last four limbs of Raja Yoga, imagine a yogi seated in meditation. Pratyahara is the practice of turning one's attention away from external stimuli like noises, movement, and climate outside of the practitioner's own body and focusing on her own sensations, feelings and thoughts, such as felt emotions, the breath and physical sensations like the feeling of the legs and sit bones against the cushion or floor. Now imagine the yogi is focused on a candle. Dharana is the practice of concentrating on the candle as the object of meditation. Here the mind is still aware of qualities of the candle: the light and color of the flame, the warmth it emits, the size of the candle, etc. After much practice, a practitioner may become so completely absorbed in this concentration that particular qualities of the candle are no longer noticed by the mind, and the practitioner naturally arrives in a state of Dhyana, being as if one with the candle. From there, if even the candle is no longer noticed, and the practitioner is in a state free of all thoughts and aware of himself as beyond the individual body and ego, a part of the entire cosmos, she has reached a state of Samadhi- Self-realization, absolute union with the divine, a state of pure bliss. The candle, or object of meditation, is an example that can be replaced with the sun, a waterfall, the ocean, the breath, a mantra, an image of a Guru or deity, etc. As Krishna describes in the Bhagavad Gita: “When meditation becomes very deep, breathing becomes slow, steady, and even, and the windows of the senses close to all outward sensations. Next the faculties of the mind quiet down, resting from their usually frantic activity; even the primal emotions of desire, fear, and anger subside. When all these sensory and emotional tides have ceased to flow, then the spirit is free, Mukta – at least for the time being. It has entered the state called Samadhi.”