VITARKA VICĀRĀNANDĀSMITĀNUGAMĀT SAMPRAJNĀTAH.
Due to the nature of the object of focus the first stage of spiritual absorption, known as saṃprajnāta samadhi, is four fold: vitarka anugata, vicāra anugata, ānanda anugata, and asmitā anugata.
(Translation by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait)
I’ve poured over several translations of this sutra, and decided this one is the most practical for myself and probably for many aspiring yogis. In this sutra, Patanjali briefly describes the process of deepening absorption in meditation. First we train the awareness on a simple, tangible focal point, and then there is a natural progression that comes with practice.
If you are just beginning your meditation practice, it may be helpful to start with a physical object that you gaze at in order to train your mind. You can use a candle, a picture, a statue, a flower — anything you can sit and gaze at for a while. Or you can train the awareness on the breath which, despite being subtle, is still a tangible thing. When we practice asana as a moving meditation, we are essentially working on that first stage of absorption and total focus in our physical being. In the next stages, you focus on a thought such as a mantra, then on the feeling of pure joy you find within yourself, and finally, your awareness rests in a pure sense of being-ness.
This four-fold stage of absorption is called samprajnata samadhi or distinguished contemplation (this is Satchidananda’s phrasing). It is distinguished because we are still aware of ourselves, aware of the fact that we are practicing, aware of the ego. It’s at this stage that we may feel like we’re doing a great job at meditating and then get distracted by mentally patting ourselves on the back. There is a further stage in which we are not distracted by the ego. As with everything in yoga, that stage only comes after a great deal of practice.
For a more detailed description of the stages of distinguished contemplation, I highly recommend that you read the Yoga Sutra essays at YogaInternational.com.