Yoga Break: Dharana

We’ve spent the past five weeks discussing Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, with last week’s topic being Pratyahara (sensory withdrawal). As I mentioned then, the last four of the eight limbs are a bit less concrete (at least to the Western mind) and may take a little exploration before anything begins to click. The sixth limb, Dharana, is often translated as “focused concentration” or even just “concentration”. Okay, concentration. Cool. Got it. But…what does that mean?

When I was first diving into my yoga journey and came across the term Dharana, I remember thinking to myself, “Okay, I’ve got decent concentration skills. I should be covered there, right?” Well, that’s not exactly the kind of concentration Patanjali was talking about. It’s certainly beneficial to be able to concentrate on a single task, and focusing on one aspect of your life (say, deepening your understanding of and implementing yogic traditions) at a time can lead to amazing results. These life skills and the concept of Dharana do go hand in hand. However, the concentration of which Patanjali spoke in his sutras involves zeroing the mind in on one thing in one present moment, and this is not something that most of us are used to practicing.

Let’s try something. Choose a comfortable, quiet spot to sit where you won’t be interrupted for five minutes or so. It can be on a chair, on your bed, on the floor, on your yoga mat, in a parked car — wherever you want. Now, look around you and choose one object. Make sure it’s something tangible and in plain sight, something you can just gaze at easily. Take a couple deep breaths to connect your thoughts to your body, and then sit in stillness, with your eyes resting on your chosen object. Concentrate on only that. Don’t fight off the thoughts that arise, but do take note of them and then let them go. It’s like fencing off your thoughts and keeping them tied to this particular space. See how fully you can keep your attention bound to that one single object.

It’s hard, right? As is the case with most things, it’s something that gets easier the more you practice, but in the beginning, I’ll be the first to admit it can be quite frustrating! Dharana is unique in that it’s usually taught in conjunction with the last two limbs of yoga (which we’ll talk about in the coming weeks). This is because, unlike some of the first limbs that don’t necessarily have to be learned in their specific order, the skill of Dharana is the foundation for the deeper meditative states that come later. I’ll come right out and say that I’m still exploring this limb, and I don’t plan to move on to any fancier types of meditation anytime soon. Concentrating my mind on one thing for even ten minutes with no monkey-mind symptoms is challenging. It doesn’t matter if the object of focus is a tangible item, an emotion, a person, or an idea; Dharana is some difficult stuff, but it is so worth it!

You’ll find that after a while of practicing this kind of focus, you’ll be more easily able to control your thoughts in hard situations. This isn’t to say that you won’t still feel unpleasant emotions or get into a bad mood sometimes, but you’ll most likely start to notice a difference with how well you’re able to ward off the spiral of negative thinking. Once, when I was in the middle of a very hard, heartbreaking situation, I shut the door to my room, unrolled my yoga mat, and went up into a headstand. While I feel fairly comfortable with headstanding, it still requires all my concentration; if I let my thoughts drift too far, I’ll lose my balance and come toppling down. So, I’ve learned that by giving my mind this one very physical thing to focus on when I’m tempted to let it go gallivanting around Anxietyville really helps to keep my thoughts reigned in and my emotions equanimous.

Dharana is one of those things that we’re all bound to get at least a little frustrated with from time to time, but let those feelings of frustration go. Each second you concentrate is a success, and each second you add to your collection of time spent focusing strengthens the muscle of your mind. Keep at it!

I’ll see you back here next week to continue our discussion of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga. Until then, happy practicing and I’m sending you good concentration vibes!

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