Dharana: training the brain to concentrate

Magnifying glass
Image CC0 from Pixabay

In my monthly look at  Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga, we’re drawing towards the last few now. The three remaining are internally-focused and build towards what can be seen as the ultimate goal of yoga.

These three are: dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (absorption, union). This month I will concentrate (pun intended) on dharana.

Dharana (pronunciation guide) is when we try to keep the mind focused on one thing, concentrating on just that thing, be it the breath or an object, internal or external. Patanjali’s sutra says “it is the process of holding or fixing the attention of the mind onto one object or place.” (Sutra Chapter 3, verse 1)

Concentration not only requires practice, but preparation. Much of the earlier chapters of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are leading the yoga practitioner towards a position of being able to concentrate more easily, e.g. through the physical asana, through appropriate speech and actions etc.

So what should we concentrate on in dharana?

One of the easiest objects to concentrate on is our breath. It’s always with us, whether we’re on a bus, at a desk, washing up, walking etc. Try noticing where the breath movement is (belly, rib cage, upper chest), or see if you can hear the sound of your own breath, or notice the breath as it enters and exits the nostrils. Focus on your chosen aspect of the breath. Probably, within a few seconds you’ll be thinking of something else and will have forgotten all about the breath. This is normal.

Maintaining concentration takes time and practice. This is dharana: it is the practice or process of concentrating. Repeated concentration is meditation (dhyana), the topic for next month, and whilst the two are very closely linked, dharana is more about the learning, the doing.

The mind can be very scattered, with lots of thoughts firing off at different tangents. Image CC0 from Pixabay

So if you find you can only concentrate for a few seconds, that’s ok. You are training your brain, improving your concentration skills. You are preparing your mind for the state of meditation. Much like the asana also prepare the body for these three final limbs.

Other than the breath, what else can you concentrate on? Yoga texts mention appropriate (pure) images – either a picture, object (statue etc), or if you’re outside you could concentrate on a tree, flower, sounds etc. You can also concentrate on a mantra, either repeated internally (silently) or out loud. This could be a simple word like ‘peace’ or ‘love’ or it could be a longer phrase, in English, Sanskrit or any language of your choice.

Once the mind has wandered away from your chosen object (and it will!), you practice dharana by noticing it has gone off-track, and you bring it back. The intention of dharana is the act of re-directing the mind; the practice is less about your chosen object, and more about noticing and correcting the wandering mind. It’s a training programme essentially!

Dharana is useful not just for building towards meditation, but for areas of daily life e.g. focusing whilst writing something in work; practising another discipline (musicians, athletes); really listening to someone during a conversation.

But if this all sounds a bit too strange, you could consider how dharana is actually quite similar to mindfulness, which I’m sure far more people have heard of! Mindfulness is when we pay attention to something, moment by moment, without judging our thoughts. It’s helpful for bringing our minds to focus on the present moment, and not getting tangled up in the past or the future. 

Mindfulness is part of meditation, which is next month’s topic (dhyana), the seventh limb of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga. For now, why not switch off, close your eyes, and concentrate on your breath, just for one minute.

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