The Yoga Sutras: Demystifying Samadhi

man meditating
Photo by Nikolay Titov

What is Samadhi? You may have heard it defined in class as enlightenment, ecstasy, or complete absorption … or likened to Nirvana, Paradise, or Heaven. But thinking of Samadhi in mystical terms can make it seem mystifying—beyond the reach of an everyday yogi like you or me. In the Yoga Sutras (1.17-18), Patanjali defines Samadhi as a state of attention or concentration. Sounds attainable, right? If you’re still not sure, turn to the first chapter of the sutras—known as the Samadhi Pada—and you’ll find that Patanjali has given us step-by-step guidelines.

In the classical yoga of Patanjali, also called Raja Yoga, Samadhi is the culmination of the eight limbed-path. Scholars interpret the word Samadhi in a number of ways. Sama (the source of the English “same” and “symmetric”) is translated as equal or even. Adhi (the root of the English “adhere”) can mean to hold, and “dhi” relates to understanding or inner vision. Thus, Samadhi can mean maintaining a concentrated state of awareness.

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Building on previous sutras about practice and non-attachment, in Sutra 1.17 Patanjali describes Samadhi as an inward journey that begins with four stages. The first (savitarka or sense perception) is the ability to focus on something, perhaps an object (such as a yantra or a visualization), a sound (as in mantra), or the breath itself. In the second stage (savichara or insight), awareness shifts to the object’s subtler, unseen aspects. In the third stage, as our connections to the seen and unseen begin to dissolve, feelings of inspiration or bliss (ananda) may arise. In the fourth stage (asmita or I-sense), we enter a witnessing state, an awareness of true self. We’ve traveled, as the Shanti mantra describes, from the unreal to the real.

Samadhi isn’t limited to meditation practices; we can journey through these four stages in asana. In stage one, we focus on the physical expression of a pose, concentrating on alignment or perhaps visualizing the asana’s symbolism, e.g. a tree for Vrksasana. If we can hold this level of concentration steady long enough, we may dive into the second stage, becoming aware of the movement of prana as the asana opens subtle energy channels. Going deeper, we enter the third stage, experiencing contentment or joy beyond word or thought. This is when we stop “doing” the asana, and the asana begins to “undo” us.

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At last, in the fourth stage, we discover a deeper sense of I-am-ness. We remain aware of of the body, mind, and senses—“Here I am on the mat practicing”—but go beyond them to a peaceful state of non-attachment. In the words of the Bhagavad Gita (6:19), the mind becomes as steady as a candle flame sheltered from the wind.

As we progress through these stages, we hone and advance our abilities, like a child learning how to ride a bicycle. Sutra 1.18 describes the “Look, Ma, no hands!” moment when we can reach Samadhi without concentrating on an object. Familiar with moving through ever-deeper levels of attention, we proceed to that candle-flame state of awareness simply by letting go.

The experience of Samadhi may last only an instant, but it’s like the ultimate vacation to the most amazing destination. But don’t take my word for it. Make this journey yourself, with the Yoga Sutras as a map, the body/mind as your vehicle, and your yoga practices the fuel.

Have you experienced moments of Samadhi? How would you describe it?

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