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The Sixth Limb of Yoga: Dharana
Have you ever been so fully focused on what you were doing that the rest of the world seemed to fall away? It might have happened when you were engrossed in a page-turner, playing your favorite instrument, sprinting across the finish line of a 10K, or working on an art project. These fleeting moments of intense absorption are glimpses of dharana, the sixth step on Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of yoga from his seminal work of yoga philosophy, the Yoga Sutras.
Dharana is usually translated as “concentration.” In Sutra 3.1 of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines dharana as “the binding of the mind to a single point of focus.” Yogis often use the breath as a point of focus, but it could be a sensation in the body, a mantra, an image … basically anything to which you can fasten your attention.
For context, let’s look at the steps that precede dharana. The first three steps on the eight-limbed path are the outer practices, or bahiranga sadhana: the yamas (universal ethical practices), niyamas (personal lifestyle observances), and asana (posture). These steps allow you to control your emotions and keep your body healthy.
The fourth and fifth steps, pranayama (breath control) and pratyahara (sensory withdrawal) are the inner practices, or antaranga sadhana. They teach you to regulate your breath, tame your mind, and free your senses from the objects of desire.
After the preparation of the outer and inner practices, you’re ready to delve into the innermost practices, or antaratma sadhana. In Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar describes these innermost practices of dharana, dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (enlightenment) as the “quest of the soul.”
Dharana, the first of the innermost practices, enables you to move beyond the body and the mind to dig into the depths of your soul. While moments of concentration sometimes happen spontaneously (as in the examples mentioned above), the dharana that Patanjali refers to is an intentional state of absorption and focus. It can be actively practiced and honed, like any other skill. This practice of concentration leads to a deeper understanding of the self.
When you first attempt to sit down and practice dharana, the mind is like a puppy dog that you’re training to stay. First, you set the puppy down on the ground and say, “Stay!” He sits still for a few moments. Then he sees a squirrel and tears off after it. So you run after him, pick him up, set him down again, and say, “Stay!” He sits still for another few seconds, then trots over and licks your leg. So you pick him up, put him down yet again, and say, “Stay!” If you have a LOT of patience, you do this over, and over, and over again, and the puppy learns to stay still for longer and longer.
This is exactly how you train your mind to concentrate. First you choose an object to focus on, such as the breath. You sit down, find your breath, and begin to pay attention to it. You notice how it sounds and feels. Pretty soon, your mind wanders. When you realize it has, you bring your attention back to your breath. A few seconds later, you’re lost in thought again, so you come back to the breath. You keep doing this, over, and over, and over again.
It’s not easy! If you’ve ever attempted to focus your mind on the sound of your breath throughout an entire yoga class, you understand how elusive dharana truly is. But you’ve probably also experienced brief moments where you were intensely focused on your breath and felt the exhilaration of being completely absorbed by the present moment, with no thoughts of the past or future, no worries, no stress, no nagging inner-critic, no iPhone, no Facebook, no concept of time. These brief moments are themselves dharana, and through practice, we can experience them for longer and longer.
By honing your concentration skills, you’re also preparing for the seventh step: dhyana, or meditation. It is then that the separate and brief moments of concentration that are dharana merge into one uninterrupted flow of meditative absorption.
Another article in this series from YogaUOnline and Christine Malossi - The Third Limb Of Yoga: Asana.
Christine Malossi, RYT 200 is based in New York City, where she offers a mindful, alignment-focused Vinyasa practice that cultivates balance, awareness and equanimity. In addition to teaching private clients and group classes at studios throughout Manhattan, she also teaches at the Spencer Cox Center for Health at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Institute for Advanced Medicine where she designs a practice specifically tailored to patients diagnosed with HIV and other chronic illnesses. Christine is honored to be teaching yoga and to have the opportunity to pass on to others the joy and freedom that she has found in her own practice. Find her at www.christinemalossi.com