Yoga as a spiritual science incorporates a wide range of practices from yoga postures to chanting, dietary and ethical guidelines and more. All of these provide a foundation and support for the core practice of yoga meditation itself. In fact, the eight “limbs” of astaunga yoga practice which we follow begin with two sets of ethical principles, Yama and Niyama, by which to live one’s daily life. Often, in ancient times, these were the focus of years of practice in order to perfect one’s character and lifestyle in preparation for the other “limbs”. The next two limbs include the preparation of the body and mind through asana and pranayama or yoga postures and breathing techniques. In the astaunga yoga system, asanas are given in a specific manner to support the balance of mind and development of spiritual consciousness as opposed to the use of yoga postures for physical health alone. While, in many current yoga classes, pranayama is routinely given, we reserve this practice for more advanced meditators as the method is, again, particularly developed to accelerate the movement toward Self-Realization. All of these supporting practices then facilitate the silent meditation practice which the final four limbs indicate.
The first of these is withdrawal or pratyahara. In order to ‘go beyond’, yoga meditation teaches us to go beyond the distractions of our day to day life by pulling back the field of awareness from the body, the realm of the senses , and also from the realm of the day to day mind comprised of memories and mundane thoughts. Ananda Marga teaches a specific process to achieve this state of withdrawal.
Achieving this enables the next stage, dharana, concentration or the ability to focus the mind at will on our object of concentration. Yogis use mantra for this purpose. Not only is a yoga mantra an ancient Sanskrit word or phrase on which to focus the mind, but it also has a meaning and subtle vibration that uplifts consciousness by bringing it into harmony with the mantra and its meaning. So we use mantras with expansive, spiritual meaning. The universal mantra “Baba Nam Kevalam” is used as an introductory mantra for meditation as well as for chanting or kirtan. However, it is recommended that one receive an individual mantra from a qualified “acarya” or meditation teacher if one wishes to maximize the benefits of mantra practice.
The next limb is meditation itself, dhyana. Through the process of concentration on a suitable mantra, we arrive at that unbroken flow of awareness of the ultimate Goal. We are very near in our experience of Ultimate Reality or Supreme Self. Most of what we call meditation is really preparation and practice to attain dhyana or the yogic meditational state.
And finally, we merge with that upon which we meditate. This final limb, Samadhi, goes beyond practice. It is the final attainment of yoga which means “union”, union with the Self as that which we have always been and which is the heart and soul of the entire creation. Thus yoga meditation is a journey home to our true self, to our Source which is the same in all beings. Once we know that oneness from our own experience, service to the Supreme is service to the whole world and we continue meditation as a service while we reach out with love and compassion to all others. Tantra yoga, in particular, does not encourage us to withdraw from daily life in order to attain or preserve spiritual awareness and growth but rather to attain realization in the midst of life. For all of life is Divine and not to be shunned, but to be seen and served as a manifestation of that divine Reality itself.