Going out on the 6th limb
Dharana (pronounced DAR-ah-nah) is one of the 8 Limbs of Yoga. It is described as a type of focused attention, or concentration. One has to wonder why this important yogic practice is relegated to the sixth limb position! Our ability to concentrate and to focus is at the heart of both our meditation and asana practices.
Let’s look at the order of the 8 Limbs of Yoga, starting with the first five. Right thought, speech and action as described in the first two limbs (the Yamas and the Niyamas), posture and breathing in the third and fourth limbs (Asana and Pranayama), deep awareness and the ability to withdraw from sensory input with the 5th limb (Pratyahara). At the sixth limb we arrive at the practice of single pointed attention on an object of focus (Dharana). Maybe the discipline of the first five limbs helps us to develop the serious intention required to practice Dharana. And the other thought is that the 8 Limbs of Yoga aren’t necessarily practiced in any particular order!
To practice Dharana we concentrate deeply to lock consciousness in on a single point. The importance of Dharana is probably evident to our practice of yoga. It’s made even more clear in the opening of the third chapter of the Yoga Sutras. Chapter three starts with a complete description of Dharana. By the fourth and fifth verses we learn that it is a key to wisdom.
4. Concentration, absorption, and integration regarding a single object compose the perfect discipline of consciousness.
5. Once the perfect discipline of consciousness is mastered, wisdom dawns.1,2
The steps to single pointed focus is similar to many of our yogic practices. It starts with watching the mind, and bringing it back to the practice when it wanders. The following Dharana information is largely based on teachings from one of my teachers, Freedom Cole3. Here are the steps, science, benefits, and practice of Dharana:
Practice steps for Dharana
- Sustain attention on a selected object of focus
- Self monitor
- Detect wandering thoughts
- Return attention from wandering thoughts to the object of focus
- Disengage from distractions
- Practice 3-5 minutes. Work up to longer periods of time
- More experienced Dharana would include Pratyahara
Dharana and the science of EEG
Research using EEG (electroencephalogram), scientists are able to view activity in the brain during meditation. It is through the practice of Dharana that to focus the mind.
- Increased Gamma waves in the frontal lobes
- Increased activity in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex
Therapeutic benefits of Dharana
Science is coming online to help us understand the yoga therapy benefits of Dharana. Measurements such EEG, heart rate, heart rate variability are quantifying the results of meditation and the deep focus that Dharana plays.
Dharana may benefit:
- Research indicates that it may benefit depression by reducing active brooding on negativity
- May reduce distractibility and cognitive decline
- Strengthen self-monitoring, mental stability, and memory
- May be beneficial for trauma and addiction by strengthening the prefrontal cortex
- May improve Mindfulness meditation practice (without concentration skills, mindfulness may turn attention to anxious or traumatic stimuli). Dharana may help keep the mind from turning in a negative direction
How to practice Dharana with Asana
Dharana is an embodied practice. There is no need to engage the mind in all sorts of rational thought forms. Focus on the body. Focus with the body. A few examples of basic Dharana practices, going from simple to a more complex approach:
- Focus on a body part (i.e., the big toe in a forward bend)
- Focus on a specific muscle or a specific repetitive movement (i.e, vinyasa flow)
- Focus on combined integration of asana, pranayama, and pratyahara (i.e., sun salutations as a “meditation in motion”)
Dharana, the sixth limb of yoga, is the development of skill to consciously control attention. It is at this point that the 8 Limbs of Yoga do tend to work in a linear fashion. The seventh limb is Dhyana, the state of meditation. And finally, what we all are waiting for: Samadhi, the eighth limb, the state of Yoga.
1The Wisdom of Yoga, by Stephen Cope, Appendix B – Yoga-Sutra in English translated by Chip Hartranft
2Online pdf of the Yoga-Sutra in English by Chip Hartranft. Includes Sanskrit pronunciation guide, Sanskrit-English translations, and Sanskrit-English glossary
3Freedom Cole, Integrated Yoga Therapy Training, Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, Stockbridge, MA, 2019