Yama can be described as social behavior; the way we interact with society. It includes qualities like nonviolence, truthfulness, magnitude, celibacy (according to Vedic definition, this includes intercourse with one’s life partner), and nonstealing. Such behavior will ensure that strenuous conflicts with society and other individuals are minimized. As a therapist, I experience social conflicts every day that are often the underlying causes for emotional problems and consequently, for many chronic ailments.
Niyama, or personal behavior, such as cleanliness, contentment, austerity, critical self-analysis, and faith in God, will make an individual happy. When a person is happy and content, autoimmunity will be at its peak and thus protect from mental as well as infectious disease. For example, if in an office twenty-five people are at work, all of them are exposed at a particular time to the same flu viruses. How then, will only a few contract the disease while the other remain unaffected? Because the autoimmune status of those remaining healthy is intact.
Bodily posture, or asana, exert influence via the sensorial, motor, and central nervous systems. Besides, they are a great way even for the ailing or elderly to exercise muscles, ligaments, tendons, other body tissues and to tone and stimulate circulation. They can be subdivided into meditative and curative asana. While the meditative asana, as their name implies, serve for meditation, the curative asana will tone or correct certain bodily functions or organs. The curative asana are still further subdivided into exercise for the spinal cord, exercises for the extremities, exercise for abdominal compression, exercises for reversing the blood circulation, and exercises for relaxation. Most importantly among them are the asana for the spinal column.
Prana is the “breath of life.” Literally we could say that by controlling it, we can control our life. We have all observed that when we are angry, our breath is fast and violent; while we are afraid, our breath will be feeble and irregular. If these emotions influence our breathing, then, on the other hand, we should also be able to control the same emotions by conscious breathing. This is exactly how pranayama works. Another benefit of pranayama is that the oxygen exchange of our body improves, which in turn helps concentration and body metabolism.
To turn one’s attention inward and observe quietly the passing feelings and thoughts, without getting agitated or attached to them, can be termed as introspection or pratyahara. As it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to stop all thoughts, introspection offers a solution by which everybody gradually gains control over their thoughts and desires. The analogy is that thoughts are compared to the water of river. In the summer, there may be less in the riverbed while in the rainy season there will be more. There is no point in negating the existence of this water or for that reason our passing thoughts. The art of pratyahara is to observe these waters flowing by without getting disturbed or attached to them. In this way, one will gradually attain mastery over one’s senses and imaginations.
After mastering pratyahara, it will be possible to fix all thoughts on one chosen object. This type of concentration is called dharana. It may be that in the background there may still be some other thoughts. If these thoughts fade away, the next stage, Dhyana is reached. As we climb the steps of the yoga system, the procedures seem increasingly subtle and difficult. But for those whose hearts are filled with sincere desire and devotion, it is not all that difficult. The technicalities are important for those who reach or use yoga for therapy. Throughout the history of all cultures, there have been great and simple personalities who have attained the highest state of consciousness simply by their unadulterated devotion. They were not scholars, not even scientists or philosophers. In Europe, we have the famous example of Hildergard von Bingen, a simple nun who gained unmatched introspection into the subtlets working of nature by her devotion.
Dhyana is undisturbed meditation for any amount of time. Even from the view of modern psychology, the description of the different mental stages of the yoga system is very accurate. Meditation will certainly help patients suffering from chronic (chronic being a milder term for incurable) ailments to cope with their difficult situation and as such subjectively better their quality of life. Dhyana can also help healthy people cope with stressful situations of modern life. It will positively prevent losing the vision of the aim of life despite all odds of material existence.
“Firmly rooted mind” would be the literal translation of samadhi. At this point, neither the mind nor the sense will dwell on material activities. In this state of trance, one experience immeasurable bliss and feels the world through transcendental senses. There is no doubt, no insecurity, nor any return to material consciousness. This stage is rarely attained and even more rarely seen, because a person having attained samadhi will not make a show of his or her achievement.
(Ayurvedic – Mother of Medicine, 498)