Sri Chinmoy: There are eight steps in the spiritual sadhana or discipline: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. Yama is self-control and moral abstinence; Niyama is strict observance of conduct and character; Asana is body posture meant to help calm the body and make it a receptive instrument; Pranayama is systematic breathing to calm and help control the mind; Pratyahara is withdrawal from the sense-life; Dharana is fixation of the consciousness on God; Dhyana is meditation; and Samadhi is trance, the absolute union of the individual consciousness with the universal Consciousness.
We do not have to go through all the preliminary stages once we begin to aspire consciously. We do not have to go through the Hatha Yoga asanas and Pranayama in order to enter into meditation. Self-control, withdrawal from the sense life and fixation of the consciousness on God are necessary to some extent before true aspiration can begin. But once aspiration enters into our unillumined human life, our journey has begun. If we have aspiration, we can start with concentration, meditation and contemplation.
If you want to practise Pratyahara, withdrawing your outgoing energy and focusing on one particular aspect of your own true being and consciousness, then aspiration is of paramount importance. You do not have to go deliberately through Yama, Niyama, Asana and Pranayama. If you really enter into the field of aspiration, immediately you will try to give up wrong things. You will automatically lead a moral and controlled life. You will stop doing things that are detrimental to your spiritual life. Your inner cry, your aspiration, will compel you to practise the first two steps. And you will find that the third and fourth stages are not necessary. As they say, slow and steady wins the race, and you can go step by step, slowly and steadily. But, at the same time, there is also a path called the sunlit path. All roads lead to the same Goal, but there is one particular road which will lead you there sooner than the other roads. That road is the path of concentration, deep meditation and one-pointed contemplation. One can certainly practise Pratyahara without first practising the other disciplines. And if one also wants to skip Pratyhara and start with Dharana or Dhyana, one can also do that. Many spiritual seekers have done it, and they have been successful in their spiritual journey. But it is up to the individual whether or not he feels the need for any of the particular steps. I have told my disciples that it is not at all necessary to begin before Dhyana. They meditate with me, and they have high, sublime experiences without all the preceding disciplines. But there are other spiritual Masters who ask their students to go through other stages. I have nothing to say against that. Each one has his own way of realising the Truth and offering the Truth to others. If you are sincere enough to follow a spiritual path to the end, and if you have a spiritual Master or if you have friends who are far advanced in the spiritual life, then you can take their help and suggestions on how to make the fastest progress.