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the 6th yogic limb: Dharana, focusing the mind

The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are essentially a roadmap to the Enlightened state of Samadhi - being in oneness with all of creation. It is taught that every human is capable of achieving this state and that the path is not for the weak of heart. It requires a complete commitment to a lifestyle structured around the quest for Enlightenment.
The focus of exploration of this post is the sixth limb, Dharana, which deals with the mind and controlling its movement.
The first five limbs are widely understood as preliminary practices that prepare one, especially beginners, to explore the deeper dimensions of yoga which exist in the mind and the practice of meditation.Yama and Niyama offer a moral and ethical code; Asana covers physical practices for the body; Pranayama practices for the breath and Pratyahara deals with the sense organs.
The last three limbs, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi are referred to collectively as Samyama and when practiced in progression they open the door to absolute knowledge and super physical accomplishments known as Siddhis. Essentially, the final limbs of Ashtanga Yoga are different phases of the same mental process. They represent the attainment of varying depths of concentration and more complete isolation of an object of focus from distractions.
It Starts With Focusing Attention 

Dharana stems from the verbal root dhri which means to hold, carry or maintain. Sutra 3.1 reads Desabandhas cittasya dharana which translates as, Dharana is the binding of the mind to one place, object or idea. Yoga teacher trainers and philosophy teachers will often explain Dharana as single pointedness. This practice teaches mastery of the mind by stopping the incessant wandering of the mental body by channeling all thought power in one direction.

Object and Subject 

In order to practice single pointed attention, it is necessary for there to be a subject and an object. The person focusing is the subject and whatever is being concentrated on is the object. As one progresses through the stages of Samyama the relationship between the subject and object shifts. We will explore exactly how this relationship shifts in future posts. For now, it is helpful to understand that in the practice of Dharana the subject is conscious of the fact that he/she is focusing on an object.

Suggested Practice

If you are curious to explore the practice of single pointed attention there is a wide variety of objects you could use as a focal point. A mantra or prayer, chakra center, the breath, a plant, the tip of the nose, a candle, the third eye point, or an image of the Divine would all work. It can be helpful to choose an object that resonates with you, that you feel some kind of connection with.

Once you have chosen your object of focus, find a comfortable seat so your attention is not distracted by any discomfort of the body. Use any and all props that help you achieve an optimal position. Set a timer for five minutes and then begin focusing solely on the object of concentration. If it is external, such as an image or candle light, then practice with eyes open. If you choose to work with a sound, mantra, breath or internal point, then practice with eyes closed. Continue to choose your focal point. When the mind does its thing and begins to whirl and twirl attracting your attention elsewhere, notice that. Then, lovingly and kindly direct your attention back to your focal point. You may have to do this 500 times through the five minutes and that is OK. Remember, the quest for Enlightenment is not for the faint of heart. It requires discipline and practice makes progress. 

Reflections on Dharana 

  1. Those of you new to the practice of Dharana are encouraged to explore the suggested practice and then reflect on what came up for you. Where did your mind want to go when it did its whirling and twirling? Was it thinking of the past or the future or perhaps bouncing between the two? Was it easy to lovingly, kindly call your attention back to the focal point or did you respond with another emotion? 
  2. Those of you who have explored Dharana before might consider journaling on the impact the practice of single pointed attention has had on your life. It is a powerful skill to develop that often ripples into our daily life and relationships. Think back to yourself before you began exploring concentration practice. Are there any behaviors, relationships or personality traits that have shifted because of your practice? In what ways have you noticed a shift? 

(photo: stained glass window, Solar Return)

about chattra blogger Jillian Bobowicz

Jillian is a yogini based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She leads weekly public yoga classes for adults and specializes in yoga for kids and families. Her studies have led her to complete trainings at YogaWorks, Karma Kids and Yoga Playgrounds. Jillian feels blessed to practice and teach yoga and is particularly passionate about empowering her students with tools to navigate the modern world with ease.

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