By Kate Duncan.
Dharana is the sixth limb in the eight limbs of yoga. This article, as part of our you don’t need a mat to practice yoga series, will explore this important, and sometimes difficult, limb.
In our first four blogs, we looked at the external limbs, which include the yamas and niyamas, asana and pranayama. Then, in our last post, we looked at pratyahara, which is the bridge from external to internal.
Dharana means ‘focused concentration.’ In Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language of yoga, Dha means ‘holding or maintaining,' and Ana means ‘other’ or ‘something else’. Before we dive in further, let’s review the eight limbs.
The eight limbs are
Dharana, or concentration, is the first of the inward facing limbs. There are 3 inward facing or internal limbs: the seventh is dhyana, meditative absorption, and the eighth and final limb is samadhi, enlightenment. These last three are often studied together and are called antaratma sadhana, or the innermost quest.
With the first four external limbs, we actively purified our body. We cultivated a wholesome ethical and moral code. Then, through asana, we created a body that is able to sit in meditation for long periods of time, undistracted. With breath control, we learned to control our energy or life force and to increase our capacity to concentrate.
With pratyahara, we withdrew from sense pleasures, and in doing so withdrew the distraction of desire. Without distraction, we became ready to sit and develop formal concentration. If we have not practised the other limbs well, then we will find the practice of Dharana to be very difficult.
Like the five limbs that precede it, Dharana is an active process. It is the intentional act of concentrating the mind on one object. I like to think of it as “trying” to meditate, while Dyhana, the seventh limb, is considered the meditation itself. Most of the time, when we sit to “meditate” what we are really doing in “trying to meditate”, bringing our attention back to the object of choice, over and over again.
If you have attempted to meditate, you might notice that your mind is a little bit crazy. In yoga, this is referred to as the “monkey mind”. This term is helpful, as it paints a clear vision of a playful monkey swinging from tree to tree, unlikely to remain still, and difficult to train. This is the nature of an untrained mind. It is wild, always moving and swinging.
The act of getting the monkey to listen to you, and to sit still, is Dharana. It takes a great deal of discipline and patience to learn how to focus our attention on a single thing. We have to be willing to keep bringing our monkey mind back to the object of concentration, again and again.
There are many objects that we can focus on when we are practising Dharana. In a formal setting, we may sit in easy pose, or louts, and concentrate our attention on the breath, a sound, a visual image (candle flame or mandala), or on a mantra that we say internally or out loud. Chanting or walking can also be objects of attention, as we keep our mind firmly on what we are doing.
As we gain skill in our formal practice, and our monkey mind settles, we can begin to apply Dharana, or concentration, to our moving life. We can be aware of our experience as we wash dishes, speak or listen in conversation, shower, drive, or any other activity. We can also learn to apply Dharana to asana itself. This is a very important practice.
During asana, often we are listening to the train of our thoughts, swept away by the inner commentary… “am I doing this right? I look so amazing right now! I’m terrible at this. People are looking at my tight hamstrings. I have to try harder. I wonder what John is cooking for dinner. He’s probably not cooking anyway. I should leave John and find a better man”.
This is the monkey mind doing its thing. We can learn to train our thoughts to be still, and our attention to stay. Great joy, stillness and peace result from a concentrated mind. Though it is a difficult practice, the rewards are great.
Once our mind has learned to remain concentrated on a single object, the natural result is for us to move into the next limb, Dhyana (meditative absorption), which we will explore in the next blog. If we remain Dhyana for long enough, we might eventually discover the bliss of Samadhi, or enlightenment.
In this way, the eight limbs are an ancient yet practical step by step map toward freedom.