The seven stages of yoga refer to seven levels of spiritual enlightenment that the dedicated yogi is meant to achieve through regular yoga practice and deep meditation. These seven stages of development are holistic, emphasizing physical, mental, and psychological well-being through transcendence of everyday desires and biases. This journey is also known as jnana yoga; "jnana" is a Sanskrit word for knowledge. The names of the seven stages come from ancient philosophical writings called yoga sutras, which are meant to provide a spiritual road map to living a meaningful and positive life.
Every beginner yogi starts with mental preparation for the first stage, known as yama. Many spend a good amount of time at this stage because it involves gaining greater control over each individual thought, statement, and action. A yogi strives to banish all thoughts and actions that are harmful to any other living thing, to be completely honest with others as well as with him- or herself, and to let go of attachments to material things as well as physical pleasures. Yama is the most important phase of this spiritual path because it lays the foundation for the remaining seven stages of yoga.
Niyama is the second stage; it involves a deeper level of self-examination. A yogi in the niyama stage focuses on the inner discipline to accept the present and make productive improvements to his or her future. An additional goal of niyama is to rid the mind and body of negative, impure, and self-destructive energies. The final component of this stage is embracing a higher power, which yogis often call "Divine Love."
While the first two stages take the yogi through altering his or her mindset, the third stage blends this new way of thinking with practicing yoga postures. This phase is called asana, and its goal is complete control over every phase of movement in order to further the capacity for deep meditation. A yogi who is able to balance in a difficult pose for a long period of time has mastered much of the common hurdle of physical pain or discomfort, leading to the potential for deeper wisdom in the more advanced stages.
The fourth and fifth of yoga's seven stages are called pranayama and pratyahara. Pranayama specifically builds on the newly disciplined thought processes that began in the first stage; it entails the yogi’s strengthening his or her powers of intense concentration through connecting deep breathing exercises to mental focus on only the inner self. Pratyahara emphasizes mental detachment from any external distractions during yoga meditation.
Mastery of the fifth stage is crucial to moving into the sixth, known as dharana. Now that the yogi feels he or she can transcend outside distractions, he or she strives in the dharana stage to quiet the mind of any nonessential thoughts. This part of yoga practice involves intense focus on one object, which is different for each yogi. In the seventh and final stage of yoga called dhyana, the mind is completely unaware of anything other than the one object, which yoga masters believe is essential to inner peace and heightened awareness.