Over the next few months we’ll #GoDeep into Patanjali’s Eight Limb Path. If you’re just checking in, be sure to read our intro post on the path itself and its first limb, the yamas. So far we’ve also covered the niyamas, asana, pranayama and pratyahara.
Focus on your breath. Focus on your alignment. Focus on a point in front of you. Sound familiar? If you’ve ever taken a yoga class chances are you’ve been asked to focus, be it on a specific muscle that needs attention or on something esoteric, like the quality of your breath. The act of focusing, of drawing your attention away from one thing and landing it pointedly on another, is at the heart of Patanjali’s system of yoga.
Dharana, the sixth limb, is dedicated to the cultivation of concentration and is supported by all the limbs that came before it: A strong asana practice frees the body of distracting kinks and aches; a powerful pranayama practice removes toxins and unlocks stuck energy; a pratyahara practice draws attention away from external diversions and back into the internal landscape. With all of those preliminaries out of the way we are able, finally, to practice concentration.
So how to do it?
First, it’s important to note that harnessing concentration is not meant to clear the mind of all thoughts, leaving a blank slate at which to fixedly stare. Rather, its intention is to allow us to choose where we place our awareness and attention. If you’ve ever tried to meditate you’ve likely noticed how the mind loves to jump from idea to idea, pulling your attention with it. This is not a modern-day phenomenon: When introducing meditation to the United States at the end of the nineteenth century, Swami Vivekananda called the mind “a drunken monkey.”
To tame the monkey, think of concentration as a muscle like any other; it gains strength and flexibility through regular use. It also comes naturally. Consider the last time you were truly absorbed in something — an excellent book, a vexing problem, a heated conversation, a tender moment — to the exclusion of all else. This is the muscle of concentration at work, and we flex it to be more focused on and engaged in the present moment.
Dharana leads very naturally into dhyana, meditation, and the seventh of the eighth limbs (stay tuned!). Yet its impact can be felt far beyond a seated meditation practice. Use it in a yoga class to fully inhabit a pose and use it off the mat to fully inhabit whatever you have chosen, at that moment, to explore.