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What Is Dhyana?
Dhyana, a Sanskrit word meaning "contemplation and meditation," is the seventh limb of yoga in the Ashtanga yoga system, also known as the eight-limbed path. The term dhyana derives from the two Sanskrit root words—dhi, which means "mind," and yana, which means "moving." Dhyana may also originate from the Sanskrit word dhyai, which means "to think of." The ancient Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita lists dhyana yoga as one of the four yoga disciplines along with bhakti yoga, jnana yoga, and karma yoga. In the Gita, the deity Krishna describes dhyana as the "yoga of meditation."
How to Practice Dhyana in 4 Steps
The goal in dhyana yoga is for your mind to perceive yourself and the external world as one connected being. Follow these steps to progress toward this state of being:
- Begin your meditation practice with dharana. There are three elements of awareness that you may experience during dharana meditation: your origin of consciousness, your thoughts and feelings, and your meditating object—such as a mantra, the breath, or an external object, like a candle.
- Eliminate your thoughts and feelings. As you ease into dhyana, gently set aside thoughts and feelings to better concentrate on the meditation. Without thoughts and feelings, you will be focused on your consciousness and your meditating object.
- Add a mudra. Practicing meditation with a mudra or hand pose can help to focus your attention. With palms facing up, place your right hand over your left hand in your lap. Bring your thumbs together to form a triangle representing the three jewels of Buddhism, also known as the Triratna: Buddha, sangha (community), and dharma (divine law).
- Practice. It takes time to learn how to silence your thoughts and feelings. In the beginning, you may only experience dhyana for a few uninterrupted moments, but with practice, you can prolong this time period. Spend more time practicing dharana to best prepare for dhyana.
Dhyana vs. Dharana: What’s the Difference?
Every limb in the Ashtanga yoga system builds on techniques of the previous limbs, which means that dhyana, the seventh limb of yoga, requires dharana, the sixth, as its foundation. These two limbs of yoga have a few key differences:
- Dharana is narrower in scope than dhyana. The sixth limb, dharana, requires focused attention on one specific internal or external object, whereas dhyana, the seventh limb, requires a broader meditative state.
- Dhyana involves full immersion. Dharana may involve fragmented moments of concentration, while dhyana is a continuous flow. Dhyana is a state of being that taps into the practitioner’s self-awareness or soul.
- Dharana and dhyana lead to samyama. When yoga practitioners simultaneously carry out the sixth, seventh, and eighth limbs—dharana, dhyana, and samadhi—they experience samyama, a state of bliss with complete control over the mind.
Where Does Dhyana Fit Within the Eight Limbs of Yoga?
The eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga outline ways to live a purposeful life. The earlier limbs focus primarily on basic ethical teachings, and the later limbs—including dhyana, the seventh limb of yoga—focus on internal concepts like meditation. The eight limbs of yoga are:
- Yamas: Social restraints and moral codes of yoga. The Yoga Sutra describes five different yamas, including ashimsa (non-violence), asteya (non-stealing), satya (truthfulness), aparigraha (non-possessiveness), and brahmacharya (celibacy or fidelity).
- Niyamas: Observances, rules, and guidelines. The Yoga Sutra describes five different niyamas, including saucha (cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (self-discipline), svadhyaya (self-reflection), and ishvarapranidhana (surrender to a higher power).
- Asana: Yoga postures or poses. This limb emphasizes the importance of caring for the body and developing the discipline to advance spiritual growth.
- Pranayama: Use of breath. Pranayama consists of breathing techniques that can reduce stress and improve physical and mental health. In pranayama, you focus deeply on breath control through inhalation, breath retention, and exhalation patterns.
- Pratyahara: Withdrawal. Pratyahara is disengaging your mind from external disturbances and controlling your reaction to them. During pratyahara, your five sense organs still detect external stimulation, but you don't allow them to disrupt your state of mi