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

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

 

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The Fifth Limb of Patanjali’s Eight Fold Path: Pratyahara (Controlling the Senses)

Last month, we covered the fourth limb of Ashtanga yoga – pranayama (breath control).  All previous posts can be found on the YWG GRACE-MAIL archives.  Now we are going to explore the fifth limb: pranayama (breath control).

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: PRATYAHARA

Pratyahara is centering the mind with control of the senses.  The yoga sutras define pratyahara as ‘the conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses’.  You can liken the state of pratyahara to a tortoise who hides in its shell or the return of sun-rays at sunset.  Pratyahara encompasses the ability to direct your five senses internally instead of externally.  The yogic paradigm suggests that there is an internal world within each one of us that can be explored, and only by withdrawing from the exterior environment can one begin to investigate the inner world.

Jean Dechanet describes the external senses as servants of the soul, not masters and the internal senses must be wise and active.  In order to have this control, one must get to know one’s mind.  A simple exercise of pratyahara would be to spend some time daily observing the mind; its drumbeats so to speak, and gradually after consistent practice, it will grow calmer.  Self-inspection is one of the most effective and penetrating criticisms which leads to mental control.    When the senses are at rest, a sense of internal stillness causes the mind to be clearer.

Saint Teresa of Avila describes the senses as inhabitants of the castle of the soul which if not ordered and controlled can plunge into inner darkness.  For the yogi, the senses should be refined and tuned into the experience of the divine….be it Allah, God, Jesus, Yahweh or simply the universe.

So what does pratyahara look like in a practical sense? It can be described as the state of non-reaction to external stimulus – like a state of being in the world, but not of the world.  Many of us can relate to pratyahara in the resting posture of savasana.  The last posture we practice in a yoga class; lying completely still on our back and the practice of falling into deep rest and relaxation.  Initially it seems difficult and we shuffle into a comfortable position but once our physical body is still and relaxed, the mind then begins to become still and relaxed and soon enough you are in a blissful state of relaxation where you withdraw from the external world but without losing contact with it.  You may still register the sounds around you, the temperature of your skin, your position on the mat; but it does not disturb your mind or body.  So your sense organs still receive the input of what is happening around you however you are unresponsive to it because you are in a state of pratyahara.  Like a tortoise who hides in its shell is still able to hear and feel the outside world, but is now unresponsive to it.  Or the sun that sets, is still present in the world although introspective.  So in pratyahara, it’s as though you are removed from your senses.  This is the beginning of being in a true meditative state!

  • Do you give yourself time during your day to practice pratyahara? ….Simply sitting or lying still while focusing on relaxing the body will naturally relax the mind and encourage you into a state of withdrawing the senses…
  • B.K.S Iyengar says that in Sanskrit, pratyahara literally means “to draw toward the opposite”.  The normal movement of the senses is to flow outward and this limb is concerned with going against that grain, a difficult reaction.
  • Pratyahara is built brick by brick through the first four limbs of Ashtanga yoga – yama, niyama, asana and pranayama, then utilised in the last three limbs – dharana, dhyana and samadhi.  It is the fifth petal of yoga, also called the “hinge” of the outer and inner quest.  It is the pivotal movement on yoga’s path.
  • Pattabhi Jois says in Yoga Mala that yoga is a path we step into and that will lead us towards unveiling the Self.

 “Pratyahara helps the mind acquire knowledge of the self”  -B.K.S Iyengar

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The Third Limb of Patanjali’s Eight Fold Path: Asana (Posture)

The last few months we have covered the first two limbs of Ashtanga yoga – yama and niyama.  Now we are going to explore the third limb: asana (posture) which is the most popular in the Western world.

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: ASANA

Asana, the third limb, is often referred to as posture and is the aspect of yoga practice that is often misunderstood and taken for the sum of all yoga practice, rather than an isolated practice of yoga.  Asana literally means “seat” and is the seated position or posture where one’s body is firm but relaxed.  The yoga sutras describe asana to be ‘stirum sukham asanam’ which means ‘steady and comfortable meditation posture’.   Asana is not about performing fancy moves with the body, but rather about certain ways of holding the body along with certain attitudes.

One must be in a meditative state when practicing asana and these certain movements promote concentration of the spirit and inner connectedness, thus assisting one to pray in a purer fashion.  The aim of asana is to achieve an effortless alertness where one’s body is focused on the infinite.  Through the practice of asana, a daily communion with God (the divine, the source, the universe…) is promoted, thus making it easier to receive graces.

One may ask the question: is it possible for one to isolate the physical aspects of yoga as simply a method of exercise without incorporating the spirituality behind it? This is an important reflection as we can see that yoga practices open one’s mind and body to grow in consciousness and awareness.  Through yoga, physical and psychological healing can aid one to experience divinity through the transformation of the whole person.

Ultimately, asana is a means to prepare the body for spiritual exercises, with less obstacles, in order to find union with God (the divine, Allah, universe…or whoever that source is for you).

I often say in class that the entry and exit of a posture is just as important as the posture itself.  Do we enter and exit with mindfulness? Are we only concerned about the posture, or is how we approach it and leave it equally as important? We could certainly translate these thoughts into ordinary life – how do we approach situations in life that may be challenging? How do we leave them? Do we rush in and out of situations or do we mindfully address them? With complete awareness?

 “Before you’ve practiced, the theory is useless.
After you’ve practice, the theory is obvious”
 -David Williams

 

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The Fifth Niyama: Isvara Pranidhana (Devotion to God)

To refresh from last month, the five niyamas (codes of conduct/regulations) of Patanjali’s Eight Fold Path are:

  1. Saucha (purity or cleanliness)
  2. Santosha (contentment)
  3. Tapas (austerity)
  4. Swadhyaya (self-study)
  5. Isvara Pranidhana (devotion to God). 

 Last month, we looked at the fourth niyama – swadhyaya (self-study).  This month, let’s explore the fifth niyama – isvara pranidhana in more detail.

 This month’s focus: Isvara Pranidhana

 Isvara pranidhana relates to the practice of devotion to God.  Patanjali’s reference to the divine in the Yoga Sutras is not restrictive to a particular conventional God but rather a universal divine force.  According to Patanjali, liberation can be achieved without devotion to God however this is seen as a subtle and dangerous path, which results in ambition and pride.  Liberation through devotion to God is the safest and happiest pathway which leads to attitudes of humility and service.  We can look at isvara pranidhana not necessarily as a specific God of a particular faith tradition, but rather a surrendering to a higher power or source.  Today, many struggle with this concept as in our modern society, the concept of God or the divine is often lost; and rather there is a greater focus on human capabilities and wisdom.  Patanjali stresses the importance of an ongoing practice of ishvara pranidhana as a means to obtaining the ultimate unified state of yoga: Samadhi.  Devotion to God or ‘surrendering’ helps us shift from the individual and obsession with ‘I’ to a more balanced focus on the sacredness of all things and ultimately reunites us with our true Self.

 I was recently in Bali and as always, I am in absolute admiration of the complete surrender the Balinese people have to God.  Each morning, all shop fronts, market stalls and homes are ritualistically offered up in surrender to God.  Offerings to God are an integral part of daily life with the use of natural materials (such as banana leaf, rice,  a flower) which are placed throughout the home and door steps.  This is a gentle reminder to all that there is a higher power at work, despite human efforts.  Similarly, when I was in India, I was in absolute awe of the beautiful and elaborate offerings made to Lakshmi (the goddess of good fortune and prosperity) that women made each morning by drawing sacred and intricate diagrams (rangoli) on the earth in front of their homes.  These offerings once again remind the individual, the families and the public, that we surrender to something higher than ourselves.  These physical offerings remind us to shift our perspective from our narrow and individual concerns, and instead invite us to surrender to that which we cannot control.  Through surrender, we are able to peel the layers of the ego, and calm the mind’s distractions; reuniting us with the source (God, divine, universe, higher power) which leads ultimately to individual freedom.

 At the beginning of each yoga class, I invite you to offer up the yoga class for something (a need such as wisdom, strength or even offer up for a person who is struggling or a relationship that needs healing).  This remind us that the yoga practice is a ultimately a selfless one.  Yes, we may roll out our mat with the intention of feeling good and getting a ‘work out’ but ultimately, an ongoing practice of yoga shifts the mind and heart from the needs of ‘I’ to the needs of others.

How do you practice ‘surrender’ in your daily life?
What do you use as a daily reminder to surrender to a higher source?

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Ishvara pranidhana is not about what your yoga can do for you, but about approaching your practice in the spirit of offering.”  -Shiva Rea