Dharana: Concentration and Intense Focus
This series builds on our introduction to Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga. In this collection of articles, we further explore each step on the yogic path to liberation. This article focuses on the sixth limb – Dharana. Before we dive in, let’s revisit the Eight Limbs of Yoga.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga is a system of ethical observances and practical techniques that has been designed to help us harness the mind and gain control of the body. Through this type of self-mastery, we can dissolve the ego and attain Moksha (liberation).
The Eight Limbs of Yoga are:
What is Dharana?
The verbal root Dhri means to carry, maintain, or hold. The noun form is Dharana, and so Dharana can be translated to ‘hold focused concentration.’
In the previous limb of Pratyahara, we learned how to withdraw prana from our senses and turn it inward to focus our awareness. As we withdraw the senses from external phenomena, our point of steady inner focus becomes sharper.
We use our Dharana, our single-pointed concentration, to still the mind and release us from turbulent thoughts. Dharana is the next step towards success in meditation. To become fully absorbed in meditation, we must be able to control the mind by concentrating on a single point, holding the focal point in the mind’s eye without losing awareness. This one-pointed concentration is known as Dharana.
In meditation, we commonly use an ‘anchor.’ The anchor in meditation is a point of focus to help keep our awareness inwards and on our meditation practice. Often this anchor point is the breath itself, though not always. Other focus points or anchors are mantras, sound (guided meditation or music), visualization, spiritual objects, and a candle flame. You can use any focal point that helps to prevent the attention from wandering off and keeps the senses inwardly focused. We will explore some of these methods later in this article.
As we practice and develop Dharana, we can rely less on a separate focus or anchor point, and concentration will come naturally to move us into the next stage in the journey. Once we can become naturally and easily absorbed in our practice, we move towards achieving the state of samadhi – the last limb and ultimate goal of yoga.
The human mind is highly developed. We think, on average, somewhere between 60,000 – 100,000 thoughts every day. Yet, the mind can only think of one thing at any given time. So you can see from these numbers how fast our minds jump from one thing to another!
This jumping around from thought to thought is often likened to a monkey leaping from tree to tree. Because of this analogy, we refer to the mind’s inability to stay focused on one thought for a reasonable or helpful length of time as ‘the monkey mind.’
Allowing the monkey mind to remain unchecked and untamed is not helpful for your spiritual development. You are not using your mind to the best of its ability because scattered thinking prevents you from achieving your potential. You need to train your mind to become focused on one thing for a more extended period of time. Decide on what you want your mind to focus on at each moment.
Most of the time, unless you are contemplating something, this should be the task at hand, whether that is during meditation, work, or everyday life. When you focus your attention on the thing you are doing right now in the present moment; you do those things better. You will become more productive, the quality of your practice will improve, and the effectiveness of your actions will increase. And all you need to do is concentrate.
Let’s explore how to develop Dharana in everyday life and with some simple yet powerful techniques. Ideally, you should do both of these; practice your concentration during your day-to-day activities, and engage in a regular formal concentration practice.
Dharana in Everyday Life
A useful way to develop concentration skills is to bring your focus 100% on what you are doing, no matter what it is. This technique may remind you of mindfulness, and that is because they are essentially the same thing. The practice of mindfulness requires you to utilize a single-pointed focus on your present moment experience.
We already know from many different research studies that mindfulness techniques help control mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, while also increasing general happiness and satisfaction of life. Bringing this practice into your life can have dramatic benefits on your mental, emotional, and physical health, as well as your spiritual development.
Why not try practicing your Dharana skills for the entire day? You can start first thing when you begin your morning routine. Maybe you go to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. Focus completely on the task of making the coffee and then drinking the coffee. Notice the aroma, the warmth of the cup in your hands, the taste of the coffee. When your thoughts begin to wander, bring them back to the experience of the coffee.
Continue this as you move through your day. You will most likely forget, especially if you are busy, so setting a reminder or alarm on your phone to sound at regular intervals can be a useful approach. When you hear the reminder, immediately bring your full attention to what you are doing. Be totally present and in the moment, noticing as much as you can about your experience. With practice, you will be able to better concentrate on things, your productivity will increase, as will your enjoyment and fulfillment.
Dharana on an Object
This technique is a formal Dharana practice. Choose one object – for example, a flower, a crystal, a statue of your favorite deity, or a candle flame. Place the object in front of you at a level where you can comfortably look at it without straining your neck or eyes. Settle yourself into your meditation posture. Take some deep mindful breaths and do whatever grounding and centering methods you find most helpful.
When you are ready, you can open your eyes gently and focus your attention on the object. Give all of your awareness to that object alone. Notice how it looks, variations in its surface texture and color, notice everything you can about that object.
You will notice that your thoughts wander. That is totally normal for a human being and nothing to worry about. If you keep returning the focus to the object, your mind will eventually give up the resistance, and you will find it easier to maintain concentration. There is a good reason why these techniques are referred to as a practice – we are always practicing.
Continue for however long feels useful to you. When you have finished, gently bring yourself out of the meditation with a few deep breaths.
Sound and Music
Sound is an excellent place to start developing one-pointed focus. Some people find sound easier to maintain focus on than objects or the breath. It just depends whether you are an auditory, visual, or kinaesthetic person. For auditory people, sound can be a game-changer when developing their concentration skills.
Choose a piece of relaxing music to play. Begin as before, settling into your meditation posture and grounding yourself with some Pranayama or deep breaths. Bring your full attention to the sounds you can hear. Notice each note and beat in the music. See if you can differentiate between the instruments. If there are vocals, enjoy the rise and fall of the melody, and contemplate the meaning of the words. Continue until the end of the piece of music and gently bring yourself out of the practice.
Mantra chanting is an excellent form of Dharana development because it is something that you are actually ‘doing,’ and so it is easier to maintain engagement. Also, with chanting, you combine sound and sensation because you can hear the mantra you are chanting, and you can feel the sound vibrations in your body.
Choose a mantra that you like – it could be the mantra of a particular deity with whom you resonate or a simple classic such as ‘OM.’ Get comfortable and start as before by grounding and centering yourself.
When you are ready, begin chanting your chosen mantra. Bring your attention to the sounds that you are producing, and the resonance of the vibrations. You may feel them in your nose and throat, or your chest or abdomen. Just concentrate on your present experience without analyzing or judging.
Mantra chanting is an extremely heart-centered practice, and you may find that you can feel energy shifting in your heart chakra, the area in the center of your chest. That is your heart chakra opening and clearing – a wonderful side-effect of your Dharana practice! If you prefer a guided practice, you can chant along with this one.
When you are beginning to develop these skills, it is easy to become frustrated when you find your attention wandering more than you’d like. It is crucial to release this frustration because it creates an attitude that is counterproductive to what you are trying to achieve.
One-pointed focus and concentration need intention, coupled with relaxation. Frustration causes resistance, which in turn results in a closing and tightening of energy. When there is no resistance, you can become open and absorbed in the thing you are concentrating on.
When you notice that your thoughts have wandered away from the object of your concentration, simply bring your awareness back without judging yourself. It is this judgment that breeds frustration. You judge yourself based on what you think you should be able to do, or what you wish you could do. You judge yourself from where you want to be, not where you actually are. To release this judgment, you need to be aware of and accept where you are right now. This involves being fully present in the moment and being kind to yourself.
You are here, starting, practicing, wanting to develop and grow. That’s more than most people achieve, and so you should be proud of yourself for that. Honor your starting point, and each time your thoughts wander, gently and without judgment or analysis, bring them back to your focal point. That’s it, that’s the practice. Do this every day, and you will soon begin to achieve that feeling of absorption that is the next stage of Dhyana, deep meditation.
The practice of Dharana is the next stage on from Pratyahara and the lead-in to Dhyana. It is holding your concentration on a single point of focus. Developing your concentration is not only helpful for meditation and spiritual growth, but it also improves your quality of life. The skill of focused concentration will benefit your productivity and help you give the gift of presence to all of the people you engage with in your life. That is genuinely the best thing you can do for someone else; be 100% present and concentrate on what they have to say. You will find because of this, your relationships improve too.
We hope you have enjoyed this article explaining the sixth limb of Dharana. If you have missed any of the previous articles in our Eight Limbs series, you can catch up here:
The 5 Yamas of Yoga: Universal Morality
The 5 Niyamas of Yoga: Personal Behavior
Asana: The 3rd Limb of Patanjali’s Path to Freedom
Pranayama: 4 Powerful Life Force Extension Methods
Pratyahara: Harness Your Prana for Inner Awakening
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