Yoga is evolutionary. For Patanjali, however, it’s also involutionary. Though he draws many maps throughout his Yoga Sutras, they all plot out the same journey, one of consistent turning inward.
Various forms of ekagrata, one-pointed concentration, form a motif throughout Patanjali’s yogic guidebook. The eight-limbed, or ashtānga, yoga he outlines in the second chapter of his treatise is one such involutionary path, offering the practitioner a series of more-and-more subtle tools for cultivating one-pointed focus.
The first limb, the yamas, is the most external, instructing us to bring focus to our relationships with society by guiding us into more conscious ways of interacting with the world. Next, we turn our focus slightly more inward, examining our day-to-day habits and seeking to choose more productive ones with the guidance of the niyamas. Asana narrows the point of focus slightly further, while also giving us a still-tangible object (the body) on which to fix our attention. Pranayama, control of the breath, requires an even subtler concentration. Like the previous exercises, however, it remains external, guiding us towards concentration through familiar access points.
Gradual Journey Inwards
By keeping things (fairly) simple throughout these first four limbs, Patanjali slowly and gently guides the practitioner towards less easily defined practices. He doesn’t throw the aspiring yogi into the deep end of concentration, but rather allows us to wade gradually out of the kiddie pool, strengthening our swimming skills until we’re ready to try out the ocean. By the time we reach the internal limbs of the ashtānga path, we’re already well grounded in the concept of concentration. While introducing these more abstract methods might have been overwhelming early on, a sound foundation in more tangible focal points makes grasping these next concepts possible.
The Internal Limbs of The Ashtanga Path
The internal limbs begin with pratyāhāra, or sense-withdrawal. While with asana and pranayama the practitioner uses physical sensation as a focal point, pratyāhāra seeks to draw away from sensory input. Now that the practitioner has established a practice of concentration, they can attempt to turn it inward, moving away from tangible focal points. Drawing the senses away from external objects and inward, towards the Self, begins this slow narrowing of focus. The next limb, dharana, furthers this process of concentration. In fact, it is concentration. In dharana, Patanjali stops holding our hand and offers us the task without training wheels, offering without extras the process of binding consciousness to a single point. At this stage, the aspiring yogi has acquired enough general stability to work solely on the steadiness of the mind. As Iyengar explains it, through yama and niyama, the practitioner learns to develop emotional stability. Through asana, he or she stabilizes the body, and through pranayama the flow of energy throughout body and mind. In pratyāhāra, willpower and clarity of thought are developed. From this foundation, we work in dharana to stabilize the mind, either keeping it steady on its own or by having it hold on to an unmoving object.
From here, things simply continue to evolve (and in-volve). Dhyāna builds on the one-pointed concentration of dharana, establishing a steady, continuous flow of attention. It is the next stage of absorption, after which comes samādhi. In this last stage, the line between subject and object blurs and then disappears and the meditator and object of meditation become one. These final three limbs are intertwined, flowing into each other as the practitioner’s concentration grows in strength. Riding on the skills established in the first four limbs and honed through the fifth, the aspiring yogi simply allows the last three limbs to grow. Step by step, involution continues, evolution results. And vice-versa.
Read about the first limbs: Yoga Sutras: Finding Fertile Ground in the First Two Limbs of Ashtanga Yog
And the following: Yoga Sutras: Asana and Pranayama – Using The Gift of The Body