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When I first read the Yoga Sutra 30 years ago, Vibhuti Pada (the chapter on manifestation) stirred my interest with its reference to samyama, which can be loosely translated as “integration.” Patanjali writes that samyama is the simultaneous expression of the last three limbs of Ashtanga Yoga—dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (realization)—it’s a total absorption into the object of meditation in order to experience profound shifts in awareness.
I found some aspects of this chapter almost lighthearted and amusing at first. Some of the superhuman powers achieved through samyama, such as shrinking yourself into a minute size or becoming extra heavy, seemed the stuff of Marvel Comics. But as I reread it over the years, I began to see this chapter in a new light. The samyamas are expressions of deep realizations that are part of a continuum of understanding.
The Power of Navel-Gazing
In this sutra, the power or practice Patanjali describes is “samyama on the navel.” This concentrated meditation on your midsection opens the door to a vital understanding of your body’s constituent parts and subtle-energy channels (nadis). Your manipura (navel) chakra is the originating point of 72,000 nadis, making it a particularly potent region.
This exalted practice even has a counterpart in ancient Greece, where navel-gazing, or omphaloskepsis (omphalo = navel; skepsis = inquiry), was considered an appropriate mode of philosophical pursuit. In fact, four Roman statues depicting men standing in a circle with their hands on their hips looking down at their bellies is preserved at the Louvre. The difference is that the Greek version is a symbolic, philosophical gazing, while the yogic version is a complete absorption into the subtle center itself.
While I have not yet achieved samyama by concentrating on my navel, I’ve felt the commanding energetic presence of my navel center as I’ve experimented with this practice. You can start by simply staring at your bellybutton and then closing your eyes, continuing to visualize it. As you center on the site of your former umbilical cord, you’ll begin to experience a type of listening that frees your mind from overthinking and allows the grace of samyama to begin. This may result in your point of focus shifting deeper toward your spine on its own accord and opening your awareness to a new field of energy.
If you find the concept of samyama on the navel confusing, you can get a taste of samyama in other ways. Just observe how asana and pranayama can sometimes seem to stop time. Your thoughts become more spacious and you can catch a glimpse of the almost ungraspable now (presence)—the goal of a yoga practice. You may also become acutely aware of the musculoskeletal aspect of each asana as you stretch, release, and strengthen. You may understand, for the first time, how your feet connect to and affect your spine—or how postures affect breathing, which in turn affects your mind—and vice versa. These are the types of realizations that precede samyama.
While the suggestion of “perfect knowledge of the disposition of the human body” may elude us, we can gain insight into our own bodies and minds by attending to the physical, mental, and energetic aspects of yoga. All experiences and understandings are colored by what you bring to them, and thus it is likely that you’ll have a different journey with this sutra.
Whether seated or practicing asana, pay attention to your navel without forcing an outcome. Listen. Do it again. Stay open to new experiences. Take your time. Let the beauty of Vibhuti Pada unfold.