Getting focused is a concept for which I have great respect, in part, because of how challenging it can be. Though holding a specific focus during my yoga practice does not come easily to me, the yogic concept known as samyama can be profoundly transformational, taking my asana or meditation session to new heights. This practice combines concentration, meditation, and surrender to achieve an expanded and deeper state of awareness. As one’s samyama practice progresses, one can achieve a state of profound stillness in the mind, which is the goal of all yogic practice.
What does Samyama mean?
The word “samyama” is comprised of two parts: sam, meaning “together, binding, or integration” and yama, meaning “discipline.” It is the combination and integration of the three most advanced yogic practices of concentration, meditation, and absorption or loss of self-awareness. This practice cultivates the discrimination and introspection to uncover our true or higher Self. Swami Sivananda defines samyama as “perfect control of the mind.”
The spiritual effects of samyama
The Sutras describe various siddhis, or “spiritual powers” a yogi can attain through the practice of samyama. While most of these, like levitation and teleportation, sound implausible, Patanjali’s intent is to warn that any spiritual effects of this practice can be a dangerous distraction. The main benefits of samyama is giving the awareness and insight to remove the five kleshas—the negative mental patterns that obscure our true nature. It also purifies the mind to develop prajna—understanding, listening and contemplation. Mastery of samyama and attainment of its benefits is developed gradually, through years and years of dedicated yoga practice.
In the Yoga Sutras, samyama doesn’t appear until the third chapter, where Patanjali explains samyama as occurring when the last three of yoga’s eight limbs are practiced simultaneously. These limbs are dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (allowing one’s concept of “self” to be dissolved).
Yoga Sutra 3.4: trayam ekatra samyama
Translation: The three (dharana, dhyan and samadhi) used together on the same object or point is called samyama.
I admit that until recently, book three of the Sutras felt forbidden to me, after a teacher of mine encouraged me to wait and read this section of the Sutras after I had dutifully practiced the first two books of the four-book text. However, the more I integrate samyama into my own meditation practices, the more I’m convinced that the wait may not be necessary. According to Sutra 3.5, “by the mastery of samyama comes the light of knowledge,” so why not begin practice this now?
How to practice Samyama
To get started practicing samyama, one can choose an internal or external point of focus. Though the Sutras suggest consulting a trusted meditation teacher when selecting a focal point, if you feel ready to begin exploring the power of intentional focus, there are some simple, accessible techniques you can try on your own.
If you choose to focus internally, simply observing your breath is a great place to begin. The next time you find yourself on your mat, take notice of your breath as it moves in and out of your body. Can you keep your awareness on your breath during the entire practice? If not, take note of how often your mind drifts away, and see if you can guide your awareness back to your breath when the mind wanders. Can you become completely entranced by the rhythm of your inhales and exhales?
To focus externally, consider integrating a gaze-point or drishti point during your asana practice. Drishti brings awareness to the pace at which our thoughts move—and hence, helps to quiet the mind. For example, in Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog Pose), the drishti is at the nose tip, and when in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose), the gaze-point is the navel. The next time you enter an asana practice, set an intention to utilize drishti points during the practice, and see how long you can focus before the mind wants to move. If/when the mind wanders from your gaze-point, use it as an opportunity to refocus your awareness.
Another option for focusing externally is to meditate while holding a soft gaze fixated on an object, such as the flame of a candle. Observe the practice of sustaining your focus on your chosen object for an extended period of time, and see if you can reach a point where your sense of self seems to dissolve inside the object. This dissolving of self is a way to begin feeling the sensation of samadhi, or oneness through meditation—a key step in mastering samyama.
What are the first steps towards Samyama?
It is important to remember that the journey to samyama is simply that a journey. It begins with small moments of integrated focus and leads to a place of profundity over many years of practice. It can be a lonely, challenging, disheartening, and demanding task. It can also be an amazing journey of transformation and self-discovery. Support, inspiration, and encouragement from a community or meditation teacher will be helpful. A dedicated sadhana or daily yoga practice is recommended to achieve the best effects.