In our series of Patanjali’s ancient teachings of Ashtanga Yoga written in his 5,000 year old yoga sutras, we next come to dharana – concentration. And next after dharana comes dhyana – meditation or contemplation. Together they sound like ancient Greek gods, and they actually do have some powerful teachings to offer us. Our other posts about Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga Sutras have all covered each element on its own. But given how closely linked concentration and contemplation are, it’s helpful to review them together this time.
It’s interesting that even 5,000 years ago, Patanjali saw the benefits of cultivating better concentration skills. Apparently paying attention has challenged us since long before the television, laptop, cellphone, Facebook, Instagram, and Pokemon Go. Dharana and dhyana come after Patanjali’s suggested observations in the yamas and niyamas, our asana posture practices, the breath practices of pranayama and withdrawing from reacting to our senses in pratyahara. But it is clear that a little more concentration would also help us through each of those practices as well.
The big difference between dharana and dhyana is that we concentrate on a single focus in dharana. This is like step one. Step two evolves as our concentration skills sharpen to the point that we have a deep general awareness of what is going on around us. It is similar to the differences in anapana meditation, where we focus on our breath only, and vipassana mediation, where we go past our breath focus to also notice thoughts and sensations as they rise and fall. “Meditation in Plain English” by Bhante Gunartana is a great resource for learning more about these practices, and is one of the texts we study in Scholé Yoga University.
Usually, when we try to focus, we quickly experience how hard it is to stay focused as our ego chatters away in our mind. Over time, coming back to our breath helps us concentrate longer. We still notice that our mind wants to run off and think about groceries to pick up, that thing our friend said last week, that thing we said yesterday that we could have said differently, what we’ll wear on our date, and so on.
Using our breath helps us to stay present and concentrate. Thoughts will still come, but by keeping attention on our breath, we can also notice how thoughts want to grab our attention as they arrive. By watching, we can stay present rather than get absorbed into that 24/7 mental movie playing through our minds. And then we can watch the thoughts go. This is how we cultivate concentration, which in turn, helps us cultivate more of what we want throughout all areas of our lives.
Training Up on Concentration & Meditation
Meditation is an excellent way to work on both dharana and dhyana. It’s a rather simple practice. Decide on how long you would like to meditate, and set a timer to remove one more distraction from your mind. Just three to five minutes is a great start, and then you can work up to longer as you like.
Sit in a comfortable position, let your hands rest on your knees or lap, and begin to pay attention to your breath. It’s helpful to close your eyes as well. Notice your inhalation – is it deep, or shallow? Notice the little space between breaths. Then notice your exhalation – follow the breath all the way out, and then continue to follow it all the way back in. That’s it. Thoughts will come, and some will likely sweep you away. Once you notice, there’s no need to judge. Just come right back to your breath. With regular practice, you’ll be able to stay focused for longer, and even watch the thoughts rise and pass away while staying present and concentrating on your breath.
The powerful yoga practice of meditation doesn’t require a studio, or even a mat. It can be taken with us anywhere. Even if we strangely found ourselves in prison, it is a practice that requires nothing that we don't already have, and no one can take away. Next time you notice you are annoyed waiting in line, or for a bus, or for an appointment, try taking a few moments just to come to your breath and work on your practice.