The Sixth Limb of Patanjali’s Eight Fold Path: Dharana (concentration)

GraceGrace's Blog

Last month, we covered the fifth limb of Ashtanga yoga – pratyahara (controlling the senses).  All previous posts can be found on the YWG GRACE-MAIL archives.  Now we are going to explore the sixth limb:  Dharana (concentration).

Just a reminder that the eight limbs of Patanjali’s Eight Fold Path are:

  1. Yama (restraint)
  2. Niyama (observances)
  3. Asana (posture)
  4. Pranayama (breath control)
  5. Pratyahara (controlling the senses)
  6. Dharana (concentration)
  7. Dhyana (meditation)
  8. Samadhi (absolute consciousness)

 This month’s focus: DHARANA

Dharana derives from the Sanskrit word ‘dhri’ which means ‘to hold, carry or maintain’.  Dharana is often simply referred to as concentration.  It is the concentration on a particular physical or spiritual centre.  For the Christian, this focal point would be Christ; the Muslim, Allah; the Jew, Yahweh and for those with no religious preference, it may simply be concentration on the divine, a source greater than we are.  Dharana is viewed as the entry to meditation.

Concentration, although may sound quite abstract; it is not simply a stagnant state, it is one of great spiritual awakening which demands action.  Dharana can be seen as the practice (the work it takes) to get your mind to a place ready for meditation (which is the next limb referred to as dhyana).  It involves bringing the mind to a focal point, over and over in order to maintain concentration and prepare for meditation.

In concentration, the yogi focuses all his/her attention on a single object, whether the object is an external object like the flame of a candle or an internal object like a mantra (a short phrase usually in Sanskrit that is repeated constantly in the yogi’s mind).  Having something to focus on assists the mind to find a place of stillness; calming the fluctuations of the mind.  The mind easily wanders and moves from one idea to the next.  Concentration on an object or word/mantra helps the yogi calm the thoughts.  You will never be able to get rid of the thoughts of course, but the idea is that you learn to have mastery or control over the thoughts.  Dharana is about redirecting the mind again and again to the object or word/phrase.

The awareness of dharana draws us deeper and deeper within and the fluctuations of the mind begin to fall away naturally.  This limb is about adopting the mental focus and internal gaze necessary to meditate.  Dharana helps us to still and quiet the mind so you can effortlessly flow into meditation. This internal practice leads naturally into a meditative state, dhyana, which is the seventh limb of Ashtanga yoga which we will look at next month.

 Have you practiced dharana?
What ways have you practiced dharana?
Do you find it easier to focus on an external object like a symbol or candle or is it easier for you to focus on a word/phrase?

Try this – Select any object that the mind likes such as a rose, apple, candle, a religious icon and concentrate on it.  Sit comfortably with your object in line with your eyes (you may need to place your object on a chair or table) and set a timer for 5, 10 or 15 minutes. Naturally as you stare at your object, your mind will wander to a series of thoughts.  A good way to stay focused is to incorporate an internal mantra to help the mind stay focused.  Repeat your mantra internally over and over slowly and with a sense of rhythm.  As your mind naturally runs away, bring it back to your mantra. 

A word on Mantras – sometimes it’s a great idea to choose a mantra that is not in English as we have natural associations with the English language.  If you choose the mantra/word ‘love or peace’ your mind will naturally start directing to one thought after the other about what those words mean to you.  If you choose a word that really has no meaning to your conscious mind, then the mantra becomes simply a sound or vibration and frees your mind from the associations of language.  A Sanskrit phrase that I use at the end of class which you have heard is ‘lokah samasta sukhino bhavantu’ which translates as ‘may all beings everywhere be happy and free and may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.’  I love this mantra.  Another short mantra which I love is the Aramaic word ‘maranatha’ which I say with four syllable vibrations ‘ma-ra-na-tha’ which comes from the Christian tradition and is often translated as ‘Come Lord, Jesus’.  Whatever your mantra is, keep it short and simple, something you can remember and has a nice internal rhythm to it. 

Closing the eyes – if you prefer not to use an object to concentrate on, you can simply sit still in a comfortable position with the eyes closed and practice dharana by repeating your mantra over and over.

“People often feel that they’re scattered in day to day life.  They get a 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.”  – Thomas Amelio