One of the reasons why the Yoga Sutras are somewhat hard to understand for a first-time reader is because of the presentation and organization of the sutras themselves.
Rather than presenting a chronological order of yoga with clear instructions, the very first chapter sets out to explain the unexplainable – the end goal of yoga, or samadhi.
In fact, it takes an entire chapter and 51 sutras to really define and deconstruct what yoga is. Keep in mind, asana isn’t mentioned once!
At the end of the first chapter you get this final promise on what it means to achieve samadhi:
“The mind reaches a state when it has no impressions of any sort. It is open, clear, simply transparent.”
Reading the Sutras and trying to figure out this thing we call yoga is like reading the last page of a book and then going back to the beginning to start. It’s complicated.
The layers of yoga philosophy
If the first chapter of the Yoga Sutras is all about samadhi (or the equivalent of the last page of a book), then it’s important to spend some time backtracking to the practical aspects of how we’re going to get there. Let the deconstruction begin.
As per usual in yoga philosophy, there are layers to this thing we call samadhi. Since the practice of yoga is a gradual practice over long periods of time (yes, this is an actual sutra – 1.14), your first experience of samadhi probably won’t be the ultimate samadhi.
According to Georg Feuerstein, in his book The Yoga Tradition:
“What is seldom understood is that, first, samadhi comprises a great variety of states and, second, those who have actually experienced this unified condition in its various forms unanimously confirm that mental lucidity is one of its hallmarks.”
This is good news! It means that it’s okay if you’ve experienced some openness, clarity, or transparency at one point or another on your path. It’s okay if it takes your whole life (or a few) to reach this point.
As long as you are aiming in the right direction, taking consistent action, committed to learning and growth, and doing the best you can based on what you know, you’re doing alright. Allow the layers to gradually unfold.
How do you know if you’re aiming in the right direction?
Why do you practice yoga?
If the first chapter is all about defining yoga as a path toward enlightenment, this begs the question, which surprisingly we don’t ask ourselves enough, why do you practice yoga?
Are you in fact practicing yoga to attain enlightenment? In my experience, very few people are.
So are you practicing yoga to be fit and healthy?
Are you practicing yoga to relax and reduce stress?
Are you practicing yoga to meet like-minded people?
What’s your end-goal? Have you ever really sat down and asked yourself this question?
Remember, yoga is about the mind
According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, yoga is all about focusing the mind. Our posture practice is a tool to help us get there, as are breath practices and meditation.
Let’s go back to the questions I posed above.
Why do you practice yoga?
Some people may practice yoga because it makes them feel good. When we feel good, we often feel more clear and open (just like Patanjali said!). When we feel clear and open, we are more confident when it comes time to make big decisions in our lives and we don’t have as much stress, anxiety, and worry. All good!
Practicing yoga to clear your mind turns out to be a great reason to practice.
In fact, the sutras have something to say about this clarity and insight we can gain from clearing the mind.
Meditation clears the mind
Since yoga is all about the mind and we’ve decided that practicing yoga to clear the mind is a great reason to practice yoga, then meditation becomes a central component to practice. Turns out meditation is a great tool for clearing the mind!
Of course, there are stages of meditation just like there are stages of samadhi and stages of asana and so on.
I’d like to offer up a visualization for you to help you better understand meditation as a tool for mind-clearing.
Imagine you’re out for a long walk in the woods and you come upon an old abandoned house. The house looks ancient but the front door is open and you can’t help yourself (I mean, I wouldn’t go in, but you know, just go with it). You walk in and right in the grand entrance is a massive, beautiful, ornate mirror leaning up against the wall. At least, you think it’s a mirror because of the big frame around it and the shape and its position in the house, but you can’t be sure because there is so much dirt caked over the glass that you are unable to see your reflection. This mirror and house must be OLD.
As you go to wipe away the dirt, you realize there are many, many layers of dirt that will require more heavy-duty cleaning then what you can do with the swipe of your hand.
These layers of dirt are like the layers of conditioning we experience from birth. The knowledge, ideas, memories, imaginations, and dreams that pile upon our True Self and hide it away from us. In Patanjali’s yoga, the only way to get rid of all the dirt and dust and grime is to meditate.
The stages of meditation
The first stage of meditation is the stage most of us spend the most time trying to master. In this stage, we work to control the vrittis or thought patterns of the mind. The thought patterns are comprised of all our knowledge, imagination, dreams, and memories. These are most of the layers of dirt on the glass. And there’s a TON of them.
As we begin to wipe away some of these dirt layers on the mirror our image becomes more clear. (By the way, that dirt you’re wiping off doesn’t disappear, it’s just on the ground now instead of on the glass and if we don’t keep up with our practices it will surely make it’s way back onto the glass again.) As some of the layers of dirt are wiped away, we may be able to see some more detail in the intricacies of the mirror. We may be able to understand more about ourselves.
But to get a truly transparent, clean piece of glass, we must keep wiping away ALL the dirt layers. We must scrub even those hardest, most caked-on pieces. The second stage of meditation asks us to go beyond the insights and new knowledge we are gaining as we wipe away the dirt. We must not get distracted by the new insights, lest we get lazy and allow the dirt to pile back on. At this point, as we move beyond our insights, we enter into one of the first layers of enlightenment.
Finally, when the pure, clean glass reveals itself in all its splendor and glory we enter the third stage of meditation and move beyond our pre-destiny. It is this stage that catapults us into and through the various stages of enlightenment. It is in this stage that we overcome samskara, or the inherent grooves and patterns that came with us when we entered into this world. In yogic thought, these samskaras are attached to our soul based on deeds in past lives. They are unconscious and deeply rooted within us. They explain our personalities and how we are the way we are. In combination with the actions we’ve taken and the decisions we’ve made in our current life, the samskaras determine how we live.
No need to get all bent out of shape about this, though. In Patanjali’s yoga, we have LOTS of free will. We are not simply destined to be who we are without any hope of things getting any better. It might be hard to overcome our struggles and challenges, but every moment is an opportunity to transcend.
Start at the beginning
Okay, so if those are the three stages of meditation…where do we start?
Let’s start simple.
Let’s start with finding some clarity in the midst of the confusion and overwhelm we might experience viscerally on a daily basis.
Are you ready to get clear on why you practice yoga? Are you ready to meditate?
The best way to begin is to start.
I have a new mini-course launching in September that will guide you through a meditation to help you find more clarity in your life.
Sign up below to get on the waitlist!
Sign up to get on the wait list for The Journey. The Journey is a 7-day mini course to help you consciously create your own inspired life.
In the meantime, here’s a free guided meditation to get you started.