As discussed in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, dharana is the binding of the mind onto one place; this place could be a state, an object, a point, or an internal thought. The sixth limb is about focused concentration or one-pointed focus.
Dharana trains the mind to stay in a specific space/arena, giving the practitioner the restraint to stop the mind from wandering.
Focused concentration is not a practice that you can have instant success at and it definitely takes work.
For this reason, before we explore this concept in more detail, it might be useful to go back and read about the practice of pratyahara. This is the fifth limb of yoga which helps you practice a necessary skill for dharana and will likely make your attempts more successful.
So, without further ado, we’ll get into:
- What Dharana is
- Dharana in the Yoga Sutras
- Why Dharana is Important
- How You Can Practice Dharana
What is dharana?
Dharana is the next step on the yogic path and it’s all about a one-pointed focus – concentrated concentration!
If we tried to shut our thoughts down and immediately quieten the mind without any practice, it’s likely to be unsuccessful.
However, when we teach our mind to keep its focus on one thing (object, mantra, state), we are still having thoughts, but they are occurring in the same domain.
This in turn trains the mind to keep its focus on what is in front of us and encourages a full presence awareness. This kind of training for the mind is essential in achieving the seventh and eighth limbs of yoga.
You can think of it like this:You have a new puppy who, despite being very cute, is a bit of a nightmare when it comes to going for walks. They love going outside but you can’t trust them to play on their own because their recall is extremely bad and they aren’t trained very well yet.
To make matters worse, they are so excited by everything and everyone around them, that they don’t want to come back to you because they’re having too much fun exploring the world (or doggy park)!
What might be the best solution to this problem, then?
Buying a retractable leash! That way, your new puppy can run around whilst maintaining their sense of freedom, but can only move around within reason and under your supervision.
The puppy has controlled freedom, you might say.
If you haven’t already guessed, your mind is the puppy in this situation, you are the puppy owner, and dharana is the retractable leash. Like the puppy, our mind is constantly moving on from one thing to the next, which can be especially noticeable when we sit down to meditate.
Once we put our precious pet on a leash, they can only travel within a set parameter instead of bounding around the park, running from dog, to human, to tree, and back again!
This is what the practice of dharana does for our minds; helping us to keep our thoughts within a specific arena and not venture too far away.
Dharana in the Yoga Sutras
Let’s take a look at what Patanjali says about dharana:
deśa-bandhaḥ cittasya dhāraṇāYSoP 3.1
deśa = place
bandhaḥ = binding, contraction, holding together
cittasya = citta (mind) + asya (abiding)
dhāraṇā = concentration
Therefore; concentration is binding the psyche (mind) to a place.
Patanjali wrote about dharana with regards to having the ability to hold your mind together in one place, without distraction. He explained this limb after pranayama and pratyahara because these two practices are conducive to yogic one-pointed concentration.
Similarly, it’s a prerequisite for the following two limbs (dhyana and samadhi) because concentration is necessary in order to experience meditation as a state of being, pure consciousness, rather than performing the activity of meditating (as dharana may feel).
why is dharana important?
The human mind is extremely developed. In fact, our brain is like ‘100 billion mini-computers all working together‘! Because of this, like our puppy, it needs training!
Some researchers think that humans have between 60,000 – 80,000 thoughts a day (that’s an average of 2500 – 3,300 thoughts per hour!), whilst others say it’s more like 6,000. Either way, that’s a lot of thoughts.
As the Buddhists say, humans have monkey minds! This is a concept that Buddha used to describe the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys who are constantly causing chaos – hollering, fighting, chattering, and distracting us.
Because our minds have the tendency to behave like these monkeys, we can be left feeling unsettled, confused, out of control, or like we are constantly in a battle with our thoughts.
As the number of distractions only increases in the modern world, these monkeys just get louder and louder! You might be busy judging, disagreeing, catastrophizing, remembering, imagining, and generally letting the monkeys run amok.
It’s so easy to get lost in these thoughts and as a result, stop living in the present moment. Dharana means that we can control the monkey mind, instead of allowing them to run away from us as it would normally do.
In fact, dharana is actually a perfect practice for the monkey mind because it’s so self-absorbed.
This is backed by science too! When our minds are not focused on a specific task, a group of brain regions (including the posterior cingulate cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, and inferior parietal lobule), now named the Default Mode Network, becomes active.
This was discovered by chance when researchers found high levels of brain activity in participants who were simply resting quietly.
In essence, our brain goes into its ‘default’ thoughts, daydreaming or recalling memories, even when we are trying to relax and be non-active.
Focusing on something inside, or outside, of yourself for an extended period of time will assist in quieting the constant chatter.
how to practice dharana
Dhāraṇā is when we create a condition so that the mind, going in a hundred different directions, is directed to one pointTKV Desikachar: Religiousness in Yoga, Chapter 11 Page 154
If the practice of concentration feels alien to you at first, that’s totally expected. Dharana might seem like it takes a lot of effort to start with, especially if you’re not a meditator.
Like anything, it takes practice!
The more you practice, the more you will be able to rest in the act of dharana. You may even find you can remain in this state as you move through your daily life.
Let’s look at some ways that you can practice one-pointed concentration:
1. One thing at a time
Try to keep your concentration solely on whatever is in front of you – take one thing at a time.
When you eat, just eat! Take in your food with all of your senses. Don’t watch TV with your dinner, scroll through your phone, or answer emails (which I’m sure many of us are definitely guilty of).
Can you apply this practice to your exercise, cooking, or cleaning habits, too? Maybe you can decide to do your daily walk without listening to a podcast or cook dinner and wash up without music.
If doing this every day feels like too much for you, start with once a week, simply making a commitment to be present as much as you can.
The chakras are a great inner tool for dharana.
You can hold your focus on their symbol, sensation, color, area of the body, or anything else that feels intuitive to you.
3. The heart space
Similar to the practice with the chakras.
I find this particularly useful as some (including myself) feel a stronger resonance with their heart space. This is one of the areas that I like to meditate on because I feel most drawn to this area of the body.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be the anahata chakra. I personally like the idea of the spiritual heart (or the Atman – Supreme Self), the space in the center of our chest that is the core of wisdom, love, peace, and compassion.
It’s our essential nature, Supreme Consciousness.
The spiritual heart is more than the anahata chakra, because the Atman (spiritual heart) is one with Brahman (the Absolute).
You may choose to simply tune into the energy of the heart space at the center of your being, or visualize a lotus in your heart.
Chanting the mantra internally or externally, focus on its vibration.
You could also use the practice of japa mala here or combine mantra chanting with the practice of trataka (below).
Yantras are sacred geometry symbols. They visually represent the vibration of particular mantras and deities.
Depending on the kind of energy you are trying to work with, choose a yantra with that intention. Use the symbol as your concentration point.
The ancient practice of candle gazing, using the flame as a point of focus for dharana. It can also be combined with yantra by putting the symbol in front of the flame whilst gazing.
You can read all about this practice here.
More on the 8 limbs
You may find it beneficial to learn more about the 8 limbs with these other articles: