Dhyana (ध्यानम्)

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Dhyana (Samskrit: ध्यानम्) refers to contemplation[1] or meditation[2], the 7th step in the path of Ashtanga Yoga expounded by Maharshi Patanjali. In fact, this path systematically developed and described by Maharshi Patanjali to enable union of the empirical self with the universal transcendental self in the Yoga Sutras is also known as 'Dhyana Yoga'.[1]

परिचयः ॥ Introduction

The word 'Dhyana' is derived from the root 'dhyai' meaning ‘to think of’. Dhyana is usually translated as meditation, implying a state of calm.[2] However, there are two ways of understanding the term meditation.

  • a technique to control the wanderings of the mind
  • a state of the mind where these wanderings are brought under control[1]

In Ashtanga Yoga, the practice of Dhyana follows the practice of the earlier steps. Namely, Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara and Dharana. In fact, Dhyana is a continuation of Dharana (Concentration). The continuous practice of Dharana eventually leads to Dhyana. For, meditation is nothing but a more mature state of concentration. [2] The Yoga Sutra says,

तत्र प्रत्ययैकतानता ध्यानं ।। ३.२ ।।[3] tatra pratyayaikatānatā dhyānaṁ ।। 3.2 ।।

Meaning: An unbroken flow of knowledge to that object is Dhyana.

Expaining this further Swami Vivekananda states,

"The mind tries to think of one object, to hold itself to one particular spot, as the top of the head, the heart, etc., and if the mind succeeds in receiving the sensations only through that part of the body, and through no other part, that would be Dharana, and when the mind succeeds in keeping itself in that state for some time it is called Dhyana (meditation)."[4]

Concentration or Dharana produces in us a state in which the natural wandering of our thoughts, the fluctuations of the psyche, are brought under control. In a state of concentration, the psyche attends to one thing so that there is intensification of activity of the mind in one particular direction. In a state of concentration the focus of attention is narrowed. This focus is expanded when one goes from concentration to contemplation or Dhyana. Contemplation helps to concentrate longer and to fix one’s attention on any object for a length of time with ease and in an effortless manner.

Psychological research on meditation also suggests that attention is a key component of meditation and that it is crucial for attaining a meditative state. Conversely, there are also several empirical studies that suggest that meditation enhances one’s attentive focus. The Embedded Figures Test is a commonly used psychological test which requires the subject to pay attention to a task and to ignore the distracting stimuli. Studies with children as well as adults who practiced meditation have shown improved performance on this test, suggesting enhanced attentional control on their part.[1]

ध्यानस्य लक्षणानि ॥ Features of Dhyana

The features of Dhyana include,

  • Slowness of breath
  • One focus point awareness
  • Effortlessness
  • Wakefulness[2]

ध्यानस्य प्रयोजनम् ॥ Purpose of Dhyana

The purpose of meditation, as emphasizd by Maharshi Patanjali, is controlling the wanderings of the mind (chitta vrttis) and empty the mind of its thought content. In fact, “silencing” one’s thoughts is an important sign of progress in meditation.

Also, there are several hindrances to practicing meditation such as fatigue, doubt, delusion and instability of the mind.[1]

व्याधिस्त्यानसंशयप्रमादालस्याविरतिभ्रान्तिदर्शनालब्धभूमिकत्वानवस्थितत्वानि चित्तविक्षेपास्तेऽन्तरायाः ॥ १.३० ॥[5] vyādhistyānasaṁśayapramādālasyāviratibhrāntidarśanālabdhabhūmikatvānavasthitatvāni cittavikṣepāste'ntarāyāḥ ॥ 1.30 ॥

Successful practice of meditation implies that these hindrances are overcome at least to some degree. Therefore, emotional well-being, reduced anxiety and overcoming ego-involvement may be expected to correlate with progress in successful meditation.[1]

ध्यानस्य फलानि ॥ Benefits of Dhyana

Dhyana is a means of achieving transcendence, i.e. overcoming the limitations surrounding the human condition. It is believed to lead to enlightenment and self-transforming peak experiences.[1] The benefits of practising Dhyana are manifold.

  • It helps one to get rid of negative emotions like fear and anger
  • It helps one to develop positive emotions like love, compassion, friendliness and cheerfulness.
  • It keeps the mind calm and quiet.
  • It increases concentration, memory, clarity of thought and will power.
  • It rejuvenates body and mind.[2]

In fact, the practice of meditation is paramount in bringing about a transformation in one’s cognitive style, dispositions and emotional feeling.[1]

Means to Increase the Fire of Intelligence

Yoga conceives human existence in the form of five sheaths or Koshas viz. annamaya kosha, pranamaya kosha, manomaya kosha, vijnanamaya kosha and Anandamaya kosha.[6] Each of the five koshas or encasements of the atman has a different form of agni responsible for its development.

The agni of intelligence is the fire of discrimination; the fire of the Vijnanamaya kosha, through which one discerns truth and falsehood, good and bad, right and wrong. The fire of the outer mind, manomaya kosha, is morally neutral. It simply digests impressions. The fire of intelligence digests these further, extracting their meaning, quality or content – their underlying idea. One's basic values and beliefs are constructed from it. The agni of intelligence builds up the body of dharma, one's field of insight and understanding.

And meditation is the means of increasing one's fire of intelligence. For, the thoughts are the fuel and the witness consciousness is the fire. By remaining in the state of the seer, all things become fuel for awareness.[7]

Neurophysiological Perspective

The meditative state itself may not fit into a unique neurophysiological description, either because there is not a single meditative state but different meditative states with different neurological correlates, or because meditative states are simply beyond any kind of neurophysiological description. A meditative state may be simply a functional state that bestows on the meditator certain abilities that seem to exceed normal capabilities. Therefore, if meditation research shows that the meditative state is not associated with a neurophysiological signature, it may well be beyond neurophysiological description.[1]

Meditative Attention

There is emerging evidence from neuroimaging studies that the prefrontal and frontal areas of the brain are relatively more activated during meditation. Since these areas are associated with attention, it seems likely that meditation practices do indeed involve “increased attentional demand.”

Meditation is a process initiated by focusing attention on an object or mental state or body state for a prolonged period resulting in a special state of mind characterized by stability and tranquility, equipoise and quiescence. This process appears to have two important effects.

  • First, sustained one-pointed attention leading to a state of containment/absorption in which one experiences expanded awareness that transcends the limitations imposed by the normal psychobiological processes; an awareness that leads to cognitive excellence and unbiased knowledge. It results in a nonhabitual and unconditioned state of mind, free from distortions and predispositions, which is open to see things the way they truly are.
  • The second effect, which is not always appreciated, is that meditative attention seems to lead to a state of the mind where, in addition to cognitive excellence, there is personal transformation made possible by the intrinsic binding of knowing and being in that state. Achieving a state of contentless consciousness, i.e. emptying the mind of sensory and cognitive content and making it silent, has the effect of bridging the existential gap between cognition and conduct. Personal transformation is a consequence of this state. In such a state there would be no conflict between beliefs and behavior in the mind.

Thus, meditation is a practice involving exercises focusing attention on a chosen object, mental or bodily state that results in a special state that has the twin effects of excellence in knowing and being. Such excellence includes

  • unbiased cognitive awareness
  • transcognitive or meta-awareness
  • pure consciousness or awareness as-such.

Furthermore, there is personal transformation which involves closing the gap between knowing and being, and overcoming the dissociation between belief and behavior.[1]

ध्यानस्य परिणामाः ॥ Effects of Meditation

Contemporary research suggests that practice of meditation may indeed produce some cognitive, emotive and conative effects that are not only interesting in themselves but also have positive applications for one’s health and well-being.[1]

Spiritual Development

Yoga’s ultimate goal of kaivalya is linked with spiritual liberation and transformation of the person. In a research on Meditative traditions and contemporary pyschology, the authors Kristeller and Rikhye (2008) refer to two separate aspects relating to the effects of meditation on spiritual development.

  • experiences that are accessible within a normal range of consciousness
  • altered states encompassing mystical, psychic or paranormal effects

In fact, it is stated that the link of meditation to health is obvious when meditation is connected with spiritual development. However, the main problem is defining spirituality and its identifying criteria.[1]

Cognitive Effects

Much of information processing cognitive activity goes on at the nonconscious subliminal level and involves various parts of the brain. Meditation involves focused attention. Further it also disengages the normal, habitual attentional processes such as scanning and analyzing so that the person can cultivate different kinds of engagement. This kind of disengagement from the usual and cultivation of new forms of engagement may be responsible for improved cognitive functions following meditation.

There is evidence for improved memory, learning ability and cognitive flexibility with practice of meditation. A meta-analysis of 34 studies related to cognition and meditation support the notion that meditation may enhance cognitive skills involved in tasks of concentration and memory. Again, in the same analysis, six studies with intelligence test measures also show a positive effect with meditation.[1]

Conative Effects

In the Indian tradition, consciousness has two fundamental aspects, knowing (chit) and being (sat). Consciousness at the core is seen as undifferentiated unity of knowing and being. This is the rationale behind the Upanishadic statement, “to know Brahman is to be Brahman.” Yoga and meditation are believed to lead a person to the pure and primordial state of consciousness where there is no differentiation between knowing and being. A highly developed meditative state is one in which knowing has a reflexive relationship with being with the result that there would be no gap between one’s cognition and conduct, belief and behavior. If this indeed is the case, meditation would have important therapeutic implications made possible by its expected behavioral effects. Consonance between cognition and conduct would have the consequence of a conflict-free mind, a state of positive mental health. In such states, knowing becomes a transformational experience for the person.

Several of health problems arise from one's failure to put into practice what one knows. Most of the weakening addictions such as alcoholism, smoking and drug abuse are due to such a failure. A study in 2001 reported results that showed significantly greater recovery rate of individuals with alcohol dependence syndrome following yoga treatment compared to physical exercise.[1]

Emotional Effects

The practice of yoga, is believed to lead to an equipoise and emotionally balanced state of mind. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that meditation may lead to reduction in anxiety and stress, and help those suffering from stress-related ailments like hypertension.

There are a number of studies that seem to suggest that meditation has the effect of reducing stress. In one study the subjects were outpatients at the K.E.M. Hospital in Bombay aged between 15 and 50 years, who were diagnosed as suffering from stress and anxiety. They were randomly assigned to two groups. The clinical assessments, as well as psychological testing, were done by those who did not know to which group the subjects belonged. The results showed statistically significant differences between the experimental and control groups. The experimental group improved significantly in comparison to the control group. There was a significant reduction in the anxiety scores of patients in the experimental group and not in the control group.

There are also a number of published reports suggesting that practice of meditation helps to reduce stress, anxiety, tension and depression in different job settings.[1]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 K. Ramakrishna Rao & Anand C. Paranjpe (2016), Psychology in the Indian Tradition, India: Springer.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Yoga - Level B (Chapter 4), Open Basic Education Programme (Bharatiya Jnana Parampara), Noida: National Institute of Open Schooling.
  3. Yoga Sutras, Pada 3 (Vibhuti Pada)
  4. Swami Vivekananda, Patanjali Yoga Sutras.
  5. Yoga Sutras, Pada 1 (Samadhi Pada)
  6. Pandey A. (2022), Human Self, Work and of Human Being: Indian Worldview and Implications for Management Practices and Scholarship, Indigenous Indian Management, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
  7. David Frawley (1999), Yoga & Ayurveda, Wisconsin: Lotus Press.