The sixth limb of yoga, dharana, is affectionately referred to as “concentration.” It’s a limb that can get overlooked as either unimportant or too difficult to bother with, especially since its fuller, less tangible translation is “the binding of the mind to one place, object or idea.” This conjures up images of master yogis staring at objects until they’re “one” with them. And while there can be some truth to this scenario, it’s not entirely accurate. Dharana, in reality, is one of the most important parts of yoga there is, and learning how to practice it (because it is definitely a practice) may be one of the most worthwhile things we can do for our brains.
This is party because dharana and the next limb of yoga – dhyana, or meditation – are two sides of the same coin. Conceptually they can be separated, but in practice, that makes less sense. Dharana, at its very heart, can be thought of as the work it takes – the practice – to get your mind to the point where it’s ready for meditation. So dharana isn’t so much the state of concentration, but it’s more the act of brining your “monkey mind” back to whatever it is you’re focusing on. Again, and again, and again.
Many yogis say that for beginners, choosing a thing to focus on, rather than an idea, is the way to go. The object can be a physical object, the breath, or an oral mantra. The idea is just to have something outside yourself that serves as a point to draw the attention toward. “I usually recommend practicing in the morning, before you get into the machinations and manipulations of your daily life,” says Thomas Amelio, managing director of the Open Center in New York City. “I recommend setting a timer – just to 10 or 15 minutes if you’re beginning – so you don’t have to think about it. Pick something to concentrate on, and try it for a few weeks or months.”
Most people, including Amelio, know that this is easier said than done. The problem is that the mind goes where it wants. So while the idea of intently focusing on, say, a flower is all well and good, the mind is naturally going to wander away from it, especially at first. Swami Satchidananda writes about a funny scenario that we’ve all experienced in some iteration, where a person is trying to practice dharana with a rose. “As you look at the rose,” he writes, “the mind will try to go somewhere. The minute you begin, the mind will say, ‘Ah, yes, I remember she sent me a rose like that for my last birthday.’… And then, ‘After that we had dinner. Ah, it was the best dinner. Then we went to the movies. What was that movie? King Kong?’ It will all happen within two minutes. Even less than two minutes. So, on what are you meditating now? Not on a rose, but on King Kong.”
Because just about everyone experiences the unwelcome King Kong meditation, Amelio says he usually recommends practicing dharana with a mantra, since “it gives you something – a vibration – to focus on. And an internalized mantra can actually be more powerful than an oral one because you’re occupying your mind. If you’re repeating a mantra aloud, you can still be thinking about what you’re going to wear to work the next day. But an internalized one takes up that space.”
If you’re not using a mantra, though, and you’re practicing concentration with an image or an object, the most important thing to remember is that the goal is in the practice. Bringing the mind back to the rose – as many times as it takes – is what dharana is all about. Satchidananda points out that the practice of dharana is not concentrating on the rose – it’s the act of redirecting the mind, again and again. He writes, “This very practice itself is called concentration: the mind running, your bringing it back; its running, your bringing it back. You are taming a monkey. Once it’s tamed, it will just listen to you. You will be able to say, ‘Okay, sit there quietly.’ And it will. At that point you are meditating. Until then you are training yourself to meditate. Training your mind to meditate is what is called dharana.”
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that dharana can help us with our focus in any walk of life, not just when we sit down to meditate. Amelio stresses the fact that there’s just something innately gratifying about focusing intensely on something – like getting lost in a book or abandoning yourself to the beauty of the ocean. “People often feel that they’re scattered in day to day life,” he says. “They get taste of dharana and they’re surprised. Concentration gets easier as you practice it. It’s joyous to concentrate on something, there’s pleasure in it. When you get familiar with dharana, the mind becomes a much less restless place to be.”
Have you practiced dharana? What do you find is the most effective way?
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.