Yoga Sutras for modern life. Sixth limb: Dharana

Have you ever been so fully focused on what you were doing that the rest of the world seemed to fall away? These ephemeral moments of intense absorption are glimpses of dharana, the sixth step on Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of yoga.

In this sixth episode of the series dedicated to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, we explore how to practice dharana in our everyday life, on and off the mat.

What is Dharana?

As we’ve moved along the path of yoga through asana practice, meditation and control of the senses, we’re now ready to go deeper. This is where we encounter dharana, the binding of the consciousness to a single point.

Dharana is about concentration and laser-focus attention. It can be achieved by centering our focus on one object or task – it could be something internal, like part of the body or a chakra, or something external like a picture, statue or another object. It’s not so important what the object is that we are focusing on, the purpose is to quiet the mind being in a state of total concentration.

While moments of concentration sometimes happen spontaneously, the dharana that Patanjali refers to is an intentional state of absorption that can be actively practised like any other skill. According to this idea, this practice of concentration leads to a deeper understanding of the self.

Dharana can be described as a step halfway between the occasional unstructured sort of relaxation that you may reach in savasana and complete immersion in meditation or dhyana (the 7th Limb, we’ll explore this next time). It is a deliberate focus on an object, mantra or on the breath that eventually brings us to a meditative state.

Dharana in practice

Iyengar describes dharana as ‘positively and thoughtfully thoughtless’, which – I think – is a great explanation for trying to sit back from the endless flow of thoughts that we all have in our minds all the time. In dharana, we are aware and yet empty at the same time, an essential state that precedes full meditation.

Dharana can be learnt, practised and mastered. Even though sometimes it seems that we have no control over our thoughts, the mind is like a muscle that we can train. Dharana is one way we can practice this control.

Practising dharana helps to focus, giving the mind something to chew on while quieting the rest. Especially when we are experiencing strong emotions in life, dharana can help to balance these feelings and we can find a place or moment of rest.

4 steps to master dharana

You can practice dharana as part of your asana routine or when you are out and about in your everyday life by focusing on one task at a time.

  1. Find a comfortable seated position or find a moment of quietness in your day. Sitting in a relaxing position allows you to be still and focus. Tension in your leg muscles may pull your attention away from the practice.
  2. Choose an object to focus on. Try closing your eyes and choose an internal object, such as your breath, a body part, a chakra, or a mantra.
  3. Try to reach total concentration. Beginners may find it easier to start with a wide range of focus around a chosen object. Throughout your session, gradually narrow your range until you are laser-focused. If you choose to concentrate on a mantra, silently repeat it in your mind as you sit or perform the task you are doing.
  4. Practice, practice, practice. Regular dedication to dharana can be essential to achieving great results and to feel the benefits.

Dharana in everyday life

We are all so adept at multitasking that the ability to focus on a single thought or object has become rare. Practising dharana in our everyday life, then, means making a specific commitment to focusing on one activity at the time. It also means prioritising among the many directions we are often pulled and making a conscious decision to live in the present moment.

Living in the present moment with one-pointed attention is in itself a form of meditation. We can see dharana as an opportunity to truly appreciate what we are doing while we are doing it, raising self-confidence and enhancing empathy and creativity in the process. People can wait a little. Phone calls and text messages can be returned later. With practice, you’ll find life can become more enjoyable and you will be able to go about your daily activities with a greater sense of peace.