What is Dharana?

What is Dharana?

This article is part of a series exploring ashtanga yoga, or the eight-limbed path. You can check out previous articles on the fifth limb, Pratyahara, the fourth limb, Pranayama, and the third limb, Asana, as well as the articles exploring the yamas (Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha) and niyamas (Saucha, Santosha, Tapas, Svadhyaya, and Ishvara Pranidhana) for more background.

Dharana is the sixth limb of the eight-limbed path as defined by Patanjali, who compiled the Yoga Sutras. Dharana means “holding,” “concentration,” or “steady focus.” When you practice Dharana, you are “binding” the mind to one place, idea, or object.

Beginning with the fifth limb, Pratyahara, the rest of the eight limbs are about training the mind. Pratyahara was about withdrawing the senses from the constant barrage of stimulation in the modern world. Once that skill is refined and you are able to ignore external stimuli, then you can move onto Dharana, which is the practice of concentration on one single thing.

To practice Dharana, you work to hold an object in your mind without wavering or distraction. An object of concentration can be an image, a deity, a chakra, a candle flame, a mantra, the breath, or even tasks that you undertake throughout the day – more on that later.

The practice is the key

Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi (the sixth, seventh, and eighth limbs) together are called sanyam, which translates as “control.” These steps are often studied together, as they are a direct progression of the mind into a state of oneness with the universe. Dharana is the practice of concentrating, while Dhyana is when total concentration is achieved (we’ll talk more about Dhyana and Samadhi in upcoming posts). In other words, Dharana is training yourself to meditate; Dhyana is the actual state of meditating.

Why bother?

We’re not all looking for a pathway to enlightenment, but there are other compelling reasons to develop this skill. Dharana is about strengthening the power of concentration. Like any other muscle, you can make your mind stronger at focusing on a single object. Laser focus can help in all aspects of your life; how much more could you get done if you sat and focused for 30 or 45 minutes at a time instead of getting distracted? We are used to jumping from focus to focus throughout the day – work, to Instagram, to work, to a text message, to work, and so on throughout the day. Dharana is about the practice of controlling what your mind focuses on instead of thinking you can’t help what you think about.

Improving your ability to focus can also improve your relationships and your own mental health. Being fully present in daily situations, akin to the concept of “flow” or being “in the zone,” allows you to be completely focused on yourself and your loved ones instead of being partially present or distracted. Being fully immersed in your current task leaves no room for indecision or debate, allowing you to let go of restless or anxious thoughts.

From Ananda.org:

“In the Hindu epic, The Mahabharata, Arjuna demonstrates Dharana. Dronacharya, the teacher of archery, is holding a contest. There is a statue of a vulture placed high in a tree, and its head is the target. As each student approaches to take his turn Dronacharya asks him what he sees. One replies, “I see you, my teacher, the tree, the sky, and all who have gathered around.” This student misses his shot. The next replies in a similar manner, and he, too, misses.

Finally, after everyone else has failed to hit the target, Arjuna approaches. In response to the question he answers, “I see the head of the bird.”

Dronacharya asks, “Don”t you see anything else?”

Arjuna replies, “I see only the head of the bird.”

He then shoots his arrow and hits it right on target.” 

Dharana in everyday life

To practice Dharana in your daily life, you need to focus on one thing at a time. Try setting a timer for tasks and keep yourself focused for that length of time. For example: washing dishes, doing work, reading a book, eating, or spending time with loved ones. For that amount of time, put away your phone, turn off the television unless you’re actually watching it, and spend your time doing that one thing.

Dharana in your yoga practice

The same idea applies in the studio. To practice Dharana during your yoga practice, focus on one thing at a time, such as the breath. You can also try setting an intention and focusing on that throughout your physical practice. During meditation, try using a mantra that you repeat silently as you sit in stillness. A mantra can be anything simple and repeatable in any language; the point is that repeating a silent mantra occupies most of your brain power and is a powerful tool for training concentration.

In our next two posts, we’ll explore the progression of Dharana into Dhyana and Samadhi. Happy practicing!