According to the Indian sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra text, following the path of the 8 limbs of yoga, will lead to a meaningful and purposeful life. Each practice along the path is meant to unify the mind, body, and spirit. The sixth limb of this path is dharana, or concentration. This practice holds an important place and purpose within the 8 limbs. Below is an explanation of what it is and its importance in the yogic path.
What is Dharana?
Dharana can be translated as one-pointed attention or concentration. Patanjali explains it as the “binding of consciousness to a single spot.” In practicing dharana, we direct our concentration to a single point of focus through an internal marker such as a body part or chakra, or an external object such as a picture or statue. By fixing attention on a single object, the mind begins to quiet and can prepare for meditation.
The 6th Limb of Yoga
As the sixth limb of yoga, dharana holds a special place on the path to enlightenment. Each of the 8 limbs prepares for the next, and it is not surprising that the concentration harnessed in dharana helps prepare the mind for the next limb: meditation. Below is dharana’s place within Patanjali’s path:
In order to prepare for dharana, an asana practice strengthens the body, pranayama begins to center the mind, and pratyahara helps remove sensory distractions and bring the senses under control so that concentration can be achieved. By moving through the more physical domains of postures and breathwork, we relieve ourselves of outside distractions and can begin to turn attention inward to the distractions of the mind.
Dharana marks the beginning of this shift to the yogic mindset. In fact, the last three limbs are often studied together and known as antaratma sadhana, or the quest of the soul. During this quest, concentration and self-awareness are improved, while external thoughts are controlled. Through this practice, the yogi finds self-realization and feels one with the universe.
Starting with dharana, the yogi experiences progressive stages of concentration as they move through the final limbs of yoga. Dharana can be thought of as the work or practice it takes to get the mind ready for meditation. It is an active step, and requires continuously training and redirecting the mind when it wanders. Creating a single point of focus with the use of internal or external objects helps to bring the mind back as you train your concentration.
Because a single point of concentration is a challenging task in a multitasking world, many techniques exist to aid in the practice of dharana. The following practices are especially helpful when working towards dharana, and can be done after getting in a comfortable seated position with spine erect and centering yourself with a few steady breaths. When starting to work with these techniques, it is helpful to dedicate time and space to them by limiting distractions and setting a timer to keep you focused.
- Practice trataka. Trataka, or concentrated gazing, is most often performed with a burning candle placed about two feet in front of you and at eye level. The gaze is fixed on the tip of the wick without blinking. When you are no longer able to avoid blinking, close the eyes and visualize the flame in the third eye chakra (the spot of the forehead between the eyebrows). Stay focused on this inner image as long as possible. This technique can also be used on other external objects such as a flower or statue.
- Repeat a mantra. Start by repeating a mantra aloud for several minutes, then internally for several more minutes. A good choice is the well-known and sacred mantra “om.” It is said to represent the sound of the universe as it is the first, original vibration. The repetition of this mantra can help refocus the mind when it wanders. Looking for a mantra that fits your mood? Take a look at these Sanskrit mantras for meditation.
- Observe the breath. Bring your attention to the natural breath as it flows in and out of the nostrils. Train your focus on the steady rhythm of each inhale and exhale, as well as the gentle heat where the breath touches the skin below your nose.
- Visualize internally. This could be imagining the shape, color, and form of an internal object, or a single color. If visualizing a color, you may decide to choose one that has a special meaning, or see which color comes up naturally.
The principle of dharana can also be integrated seamlessly into everyday life if a dedicated session is not an option.
- Stop multitasking. As much as possible, bring your full attention to a single task in your day; this can range from washing the dishes, eating a meal, or brushing your teeth.
- Use your senses. Bring all of the senses to daily activities such as drinking your morning coffee. Rather than scrolling social media or watching the news as you enjoy your morning beverage, concentrate fully on the coffee. Notice its color, taste, and smell while feeling the warmth of the mug on your hand. Need more ideas? These everyday practices can help you bring attention to more of your daily activities.
The more we practice dharana, the better able we are to control the mind and increase our focus and concentration in all other areas of life. While not always a simple task, we should aim to experience a state of concentration each day by focusing on only one thing at a time and avoiding distractions. By doing this, we can train our minds to remain calm and increase our mental strength.