The final three limbs of classical yoga outline the three main stages of yogic meditation. These stages assume that you’ve primed yourself through the practices described in the first five limbs. To achieve higher/deeper states of consciousness, lifestyle wellness (yamas & niyamas), physical wellness (asana), energetic wellness/balance (pranayama), and a basic control of the movements of the mind (pratyahara) must be practiced and honed. As you journey through these states, you get closer contact with the true unchanging Self.
Stage 1 - Dharana (Concentration)
The first stage of yogic meditation is to concentrate on a single object. Some say what you focus on (the object of meditation) is more important than the practice itself because what you focus on is what you become. Common focal points of meditation in yoga include the breath, light (sun, flame, visible energy), and mantra (sound).
The focal point of your practice can be woven through the experience of your yoga practice, priming you toward greater concentration during your seated practice.
Stage 2 - Dhyana (Meditation)
The second stage of meditation is Dhyana and is what we classically consider the practice of meditation - a deep inner focus where we connect with that which we are concentrating on. Unlike the proceeding limbs of yoga, you cannot actually practice Dhyana directly. Instead, it’s a state of consciousness that spontaneously arises after the prolonged practice of Dharana (concentration). In other words, we must create the internal conditions for this state to arise.
Once in this state, you’re no longer just focusing on the object of meditation, rather you begin to receive transmission back from the object. The connection is now moving in both directions. For example, if you focus on light for long enough, all of a sudden you feel lighter, more illuminated, and radiant. You might have an epiphany or greater clarity of mind. Scholars say that it takes at least twelve breaths of unbroken concentration to reach this state.
Stage 3 - Samadhi (Absorption)
We arrive at our final limb of classical yoga. Like Dhyana, this stage cannot be directly practiced but must arise spontaneously. If you can maintain Dhyana for about twelve breaths, this stage may arise. Few casual aspirants ever touch this state and when they do, it’s usually brief. This is why Samadhi is not the goal of yoga, rather an opportunity, should it be achieved.
In this state, you merge with the object of meditation. Separation from Other dissolves and oneness is experienced in full. There’s no longer an independent you. This experience is true liberation. The dissolution of all suffering and illusion happens and lasting joy is experienced.
Again we find ourselves setting our practice up for a glimpse of deeper awareness. There are more nuances to Samadhi, which I won’t cover here, but we can understand the flavor of it through our yoga practice. Connecting to intuition and letting it guide you (and thus deepening your trust in it) allows you a glimpse of this state.