photo credit: Shan Sheehan

photo credit: Shan Sheehan

YS III.1 desha-bandhas chittasya dharana

“Dharana is the binding of the mind to one place, object or idea.”

—Swami Satchidananda

Following Master Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we now begin the third of four books, which starts with the sixth of this eight-limbed system: Dharana, focused concentration. We leave the realm of the physical practices and move into this subtler, mental practice, intended to lead us to the final steps of meditation and the goal of all yoga practices: enlightenment.

These teachings—the eight limbs—complement and support one another. They do not stand alone; together, they form a system. As such, no one practice can be said to be “better” or more important than any other. However, they also build on one another, so there is a certain order involved. For example, while not impossible, it would be extremely difficult to start with Dharana without having practiced Asana to prepare the body to sit comfortably for extended periods and Pranayama to even out the breath, thereby calming the mind. Modern Western teachers tend to focus on the physical practices, but the ancient masters who wrote them down made it clear that the goal was to still the mind. The previous limb, Pratyahara—redirecting the focus of the senses from outward to inward—can be a real eye opener when you first try it, when you realize how noisy it is in there. Learning to let go of the noise is a part of this next step.

Think about how often and how easily distracted you are in your life. You sit down at your computer in the morning to start work (at home due to Covid), then your child calls you from the next room, your cat walks across the desk, your phone pings, a window pops up on your screen with a warning to update your software, you feel hungry, a pretty bird lands outside your window—all that sometimes within the span of a few short minutes! If you get up every time something like this happens, you’ll never get any work done, but you can’t stop life. You learn how to focus your attention on the task at hand and not be constantly drawn out by external stimuli. Life continues to move all around you, but you remain still. Inevitably, something will pierce your concentration. You lose your train of thought and turn away from your work. But eventually—whether a few seconds or a few hours later—you sit back down and start all over again.

It’s the same with Dharana. You sit down with the purpose of meditating, close your eyes, even out your breath, choose a single point of focus—maybe counting the breath or repeating a mantra (see Dharana Techniques, the practice of the month)—and begin. Three seconds later, a thought pops into your head that perhaps you forgot to turn off the oven. You resist the urge to get up and check, try not to think about it, and bring your focus back to your mantra. Four seconds go by, and you suddenly realize you are not repeating your mantra; you are making a grocery list. You “put the list away,” refocus your attention, and start again. This is how it goes, especially if you are new to the practice. It’s totally normal.

What we are really doing here is training the mind, or—more aptly—re-training the mind. In today’s high-tech, hyper-connected world, our attention is so scattered and so outwardly directed that trying to sit still and focus is like reigning in a wild horse. It takes a lot of work, a great deal of patience, dedication to the outcome, and time to achieve the goal. The good news is, the ancient masters promise that if we do all this, the goal is guaranteed. All we need to do is the practice, again and again, for as long as it takes.

by Laura Golden