What is Science? Part 6: The Methods of Yoga


Methods Summary: In Part 6 of What is Science? we discuss the methods of yoga.  In any science it is crucial to be able to evaluate the methods.  The methods produce the result.  The result cannot be understood without understanding the methods.  Thus, it behooves us to consider, at least in broad outline, the methods of yoga.

As stated previously, yoga is defined by the phrase: “yoga chitta vritti nirodhah”.  This translates to “yoga is the silencing of the modifications of the mind”.  However, just because we can translate Aphorism 1.2 of the Yoga Sutras does not mean we understand it.  Behind this simple phrase is a whole theory of the mind and human constitution.  Perhaps an analogy is suitable.  At my work, I might say this: “The polysome isolation must be very clean to ensure our proteomics is as accurate as possible”.  Yes, this statement too is in English, but it has a bunch of technical words.  It takes people about 20 years of schooling and at least a year of lab experience to fully understand this sentence.

Therefore, what I will attempt here is to both outline the methods and the underlying theory of yoga so as to make the methodology of yoga as transparent as can be done in the form of an intellectual exercise.  One cannot fully understand laboratory science until one goes in the lab and does it, even though I can explain clearly what and why I do specific things in the lab.  Similarly, even though one can explain intellectually about yoga theory and methods, these do not come to life until one actually tries to do them.  Here are links for simple exercises beginners can do for those interested to give it a try (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and of course my own methods: see chapter 2, pg. 62 in particular).  However, I emphasize that the following is a high level discussion of advanced techniques, many of which are well beyond my skill level.  However, because I have some experience with elementary techniques, I have at least an intuition of how the more advanced techniques play out.


When learning yoga, it cannot be emphasized too strongly how it must always be kept in mind that:

Yoga chitta vritti nirodhah

We already introduced the idea of vikshepa, distraction, that the mind is in a constant state of motion and activity.  The prerequisite to perform samadhi is to cause this activity to cease.  This activity is thought of as analogous to waves in the water, to whirlpools and eddies.  This is what the word “vritti” means.  “Chitta” means “mind”, and “nirodhah” means “to minimize” or “to make quiescent”.  To effectively silence the “whirlpools” of the mind, there must be operational definitions of what the mind is, how it works, and how these processes can be made quiescent.

The basic idea is that of flow. There are sources that generate flows in the mind.  If you can stop the sources of the flow, you can stop the motions in the mind.  That is the general theory of how yoga works.

The Methods of Yoga Form a Sequence

The theory described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras describes different sources of input that feed content into the mind.  Each source requires specific methods to tame or silence that source.  The sources and the accompanying method(s) to tame that aspect of the mind’s contents are:

  1. The personality and its desires are tamed by practicing yama and niyama.
  2. The skeletal-muscular system is tamed by practicing hatha yoga techniques called asanas.
  3. The autonomic nervous system is tamed by practicing pranayama techniques.
  4. The special senses (seeing, hearing, touch, taste and smell) are tamed by practicing pratyahara  (again, pg. 62 of DO_OBE; some good advice here).
  5. Memories  are tamed by practicing samyama, the culmination of which is samadhi.

When we consider this list of inputs into the mind, it pretty much covers almost everything: the personality and its desires, the sensations from the physical body, both in its skeletal muscular and autonomic components, the senses, and the memories in the mind.  When you subtract these inputs from a human mind, what is left?

In short, what is left is a disembodied consciousness.  Awareness still remains, but awareness of what?  This is the purpose of the object of meditation, technically called the pratyaya.  Before explaining this, let’s put what has been said above in perspective.

Again, we need to go to school for a long time to be a scientist.  One must know how to read and write and do basic math.  These very rudimentary skills are at the analogous level of yama and niyama.  Yama and niyama consist of a set of prescriptions for behavior.  Sometimes they are called the “do’s and the don’ts”, where niyama is the “do’s” and yama is the “don’ts”.  Kind of like the 10 Commandments in Christianity, except there is an explicit logic and rationale for each of the yamas and niyamas.  We don’t need to go into the specifics here but can just discuss in general what these are doing.

Silencing External Inputs

If the purpose of yoga is to calm movement in the mind, then it goes against this purpose to intentionally cause motion in one’s mind.  This is the essence of desire and attachment, the main elements generating flow in the personality.  Yama and niyama are designed to teach the would-be-yogi to quit intentionally causing movement and flow in his or her mind.  When one likes or hates anything, or desires or is repelled by anything, these are movements in the mind, these are vrittis.  So, the absolute prerequisite to any of the more advanced practices in yoga are to quit intentionally causing these movements.

Yama and niyama do not work by prohibition.  The 10 Commandments are supposed to work because, if you don’t follow them, you will go to Hell.  This is NOT how yama and niyama work.  Yama and niyama sublimate the desires for worldly attachments into the desire to be successful in yoga.  There is a whole complex rationale here that I am not going into.  All I can say is that as many books and pages have been written about this aspect of yoga as there are books and journals about science.  It is a very, very involved aspect of yoga.  No success is possible in yoga unless yama and niyama can be mastered, just as no success is possible in science if one cannot read, write or do arithmetic.

To move forward with the discussion, let us assume the would-be-yogi makes progress on this front and can then move on to more advanced stages.  The advanced stages can be broken into two parts: (1) silencing the movements of the mind caused by the body, and (2) silencing the movements of the mind caused by the mind itself.

Asanas (postures), pranayama, and pratyahara have one overriding goal: to silence the inputs from the body.  In this regard, yoga offers its own science of physiology (a part of the Hindu philosophy of Tantra) by which to understand the body and how to silence it.  So, we see here the purpose of hatha yoga in the overall context of yogic methods: asanas/postures are intended to eliminate from awareness the sensations of the skeletal motor system.  Hatha yoga has nothing to do with exercise at all, and its role as such is a 20th century invention.

I will say only a few words about pranayama techniques.  Pranayama gets very deep and implies a whole theory of a substance called praṇā (see here too).   But for the beginner, pranayama is designed to eliminate mainly the sensation of breathing from awareness.  The sensations associated with breathing are a constant rhythmic activity of the body and therefore are a constant vritti in the mind.  But, on one hand, even in normal everyday life, we lose consciousness of breathing until, for whatever reason, we pay attention to it.  On the other hand, in yoga, where the mind seeks to be in a quiescent state, this rhythmic activity has the potential to completely disrupt more advanced techniques.  So, when one studies and practices pranayama techniques, one finds that they lead to a form of breathing that is so slow and shallow as to make this rhythmic activity almost imperceptible.

Pratyahara is perhaps the most mysterious of the body-oriented techniques.  But, it is not that mysterious when properly understood.  The brain very naturally shuts off awareness of the sensory world every night when we sleep.  The main difference between sleep and pratyahara is that pratyahara is voluntarily induced, and that the yogi does not go to sleep, but remains lucid and aware after voluntarily shutting off the senses.  Pratyahara has many parallels with lucid dreaming.  Both are methods to shut off the senses, and both allow the mind to retain self-awareness and lucidity when the senses are shut off.  The big difference between the two is that the lucid dreamer who explores the inner world of dreams is still in a state of vikshepa, only in the next plane, or loka, over from the physical plane.  The yogi in this state is absorbed in the pratyaya and does not allow dreaming to intrude into his or her awareness.

So, to recap to this point: yama and niyama shut off the intentional movements of the mind induced by desires of an attractive or repulsive character, and asanas, pranayama and pratyahara shut off all of the inputs from the body.  Taken together, these are called “bahiranga”, or external, meaning these are all inputs into the mind that come from sources outside of the mind itself. This leaves only disturbances caused inside the mind.  The methods to quiet internal disturbances are called “antaranga” because they all occur only inside the mind of the yogi.

Silencing the Internal Inputs

There is really only one antaranga method, and it is called samyama.  Samyama involves three major practices that bleed one into another and culminate in samadhi.  The three stages are called dhyana, dharana and samadhi.  Western authors generally translate these as: dhyana = concentration, dharana = contemplation, and samadhi = meditation.  However, these translations are useless because they fail to indicate that samyama is an altered state of consciousness with no counterpart in our normal waking state.  There can be no counterpart to samyama in waking, because the waking mind is vikshepa, distracted.  Mastery of bahiranga is an absolute prerequisite for practicing and performing samyama.

As usual, I. K. Taimni has a diagram and explains samyama better than I ever could:

“The difference between the three phases of the same process, which culminates in Samadhi may be represented in the following way. If A is the object chosen for Samyama (e.g. the pratyaya) and B, C, D, E, etc. are distractions, then the content of the mind at regular intervals of successive moments in the three phases may be represented by the following series of Pratyayas present in the mind. The circle round the letters represents the mental self-awareness referred to above.

It will be seen that the frequency of distractions goes on decreasing in Dharana and frequency and degree of mental self-awareness goes on decreasing in Dhyara. In Samadhi there is complete freedom both from distractions and self-awareness and the object alone remains in the field of consciousness.”

Taimni Samyama This diagram depicts how samadhi is the holding in mind of a single thought, a single pratyaya.  In addition Taimni has indicated the observer/observed fusion when the letter A is not circled.  As seen, dharana consists mainly in maintaining A against other thoughts. In dhyana, the fusion of the observer with pratyaya A is intermittent.  In samadhi, A is held continuously in a state where the observer/observed is fused into one unified pratyaya in the mind.   This intense, continuous focus on the pratyaya is likened by Krishnananda to be like a constant bombardment of the pratyaya by the mind of the yogi.  This effort “cracks” the pratyaya and reveals, ultimately, the artha within the pratyaya.

Some Additional Comments

Yoga, real yoga — not this funny hatha yoga stuff that pretty women make instructional videos of — is not something one does casually on a Saturday afternoon.  Even my limited experiences lucid dreaming required an obsessive, unrelenting effort that eclipsed everything else in my life.  Yoga requires this much effort times the biggest number you can imagine.  It is, in fact, a life choice.  One either chooses the world, or chooses to do yoga.  This aspect of yoga has some relevance that we discuss at the close of this essay.  But for the moment, we can neglect this aspect and discuss the practices in the abstract, as methods for producing knowledge and releasing power.

The description of samyama above harkens back to my metaphor of the mind as either a big fluffy, diffuse cloud, or the mind as a hard, dense concentrated point.  Samadhi is the later, and, as already has been discussed, results in the fusion of the yogi’s consciousness with the consciousness of the pratyaya.

Another metaphor that might be more apt at illustrating the power-releasing side of samadhi is to compare regular light to a laser beam.  Regular light, such as natural sunlight here on the surface of the Earth, is unpolarized, diffuse, and contains many frequencies.  On the other hand, we can now make lasers that are concentrated beams of polarized light of a single frequency.  Both forms of light have power.  Regular sunlight can heat our bodies on a warm day.  But a laser can burn through our body, burn through dense material substances.  The concentrated light of the laser is simply stronger.  This analogy is very apt.   The mind conditioned by sensory perceptions is like diffuse sunlight, and the mind in this state is used by scientists to extract jnana from sensory perceptions.  The mind in samadhi is like a very powerful laser beam, and it extracts artha from the pratyaya.

Performing samadhi is not the end point of yoga. It is the beginning.  Yoga is done for a reason.  Yoga means “joining” and the purpose of the methods described above is to effect the joining.  Patanjali’s aphorism 1.3 describes the joining, the expected end result of yoga:  “The Seer abides in its own nature”.  This need not concern us in the discussion of the methods.  But, for the sake of completeness at this point, it has to be explicitly stated that samadhi is not an end in itself.

Once the ability to perform samadhi is achieved, samadhi is used as a tool to effect the joining.  The importance of knowing this in the context of this essay is that it explains to what end the power released in samadhi is used.  The power released is not used to cause changes in the physical world.  By the time one learns to do samadhi, the physical world is inconsequential to one’s concerns.  No, instead, the power is used in a long series of further stages to effect the joining where consciousness returns to itself, free from any disturbance whatsoever.

To wrap up: having outlined the methods of yoga in a most cursory, but I hope reasonably complete fashion, we are now in a position to understand how the pratyaya, which, after all, is just a thought in the mind of the yogi, can itself be conscious, and how the laser-like consciousness of the yogi can release the artha of the pratyaya and thereby gain siddhis.

Jump to the other parts of What is Science?

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10

4 thoughts on “What is Science? Part 6: The Methods of Yoga

  1. Wow! That was the most concise and clear summation of the totality of yoga (up to samadhi) that I have ever seen. Your focus here is laser like and very clear. Having familiarized myself with many aspects of yoga over the last 30 years I appreciate this clarity on an often misunderstood and mischaracterized subject. I am looking forward to number 7. Thanks again for the great hyperlinks! Namaste

  2. First off I want to say awesome blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your head before writing. I have had a difficult time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out there.

    • I think about stuff for days, and I write many drafts that find themselves in the trash. Eventually something comes out that I am happy enough with to post. You have to just keep beating on the process until something comes through. Thank you also for the kind comments.

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