In Sanskrit, dharana means concentration, specifically on a single point of focus. 2020 has been a whirlwind of important events, each one fighting for our attention. Our smartphones have caused many of us to lose focus, while we mindlessly “doom scroll” through social media, amplifying our anxiety and sense of helplessness. In this fast-changing world, it is imperative to learn and constantly improve the skill of concentration.
Cultivating Concentration Through Focus
When we were young, our parents and teachers often told us “to focus.”
But did they ever actually teach us how?
For me, the answer is no, and I keep this front of mind while learning the practice of dharana. One of my teachers used this analogy when explaining dharana: lack of focus is like a light bulb while a laser pointer is dharana. A light bulb's energy shoots out in many directions, while the laser pointer is concentrated and focused into one stream of energy. I’ve also heard it described as “tunnel vision,” where we only see the desired outcome, rendering all other things irrelevant.
One of the biggest teachers for me within my continued efforts to synthesize all 8 limbs has been my drishti practice while doing asana yoga. Drishti is a Sanskrit word that means “yogic gaze.” Using this gaze has helped me cultivate my focus. Here’s how I do it: I gaze towards the tip of my nose, which activates the third eye. Sometimes, I utilize a drishti where I close my eyes and focus on the brow point as well.
The word concentrate comes from the Italian word concentrare, meaning to bring together or come to a common center. Drishti is my favorite way of cultivating concentration, whether in asana, pranayama practice or even during plant sits, when I commune with the healing powers of plants in nature.
See also 3 Herbs for Mental Clarity and Focus
Concentration through Observation
Dharana is more than simply having the ability to maintain a single pointed focus, it’s about observing the scattered nature of thought. Part of dharana is being able to observe when our attention is drifting away from what we desire to concentrate on and simply bringing it back towards our focus. Understanding this has changed my approach to many tasks and activities. Whether I am changing my eating habits, working towards sustaining a 40-day practice, or reading a book, dharana has taught me that thoughts, energy, and attention will naturally wander from my desired point of concentration. And when that happens, I’m not doing anything “wrong.” Instead, dharana has taught me that if I do not finish my 40-day practice, lose focus when reading a book, or forget the changes I’ve made to my diet, I do not judge myself too harshly. I simply observe, and bring my concentration back to the task at hand. Any perceived hindrances become part of the cultivation and understanding of concentration itself. The more I do this, the easier it is for me to concentrate on anything, no matter how long. This embodied experience of dharana allows me to experience the process. When we learn to deepen our concentration, we organically begin to traverse into the next limb of yoga: dhyana, meditative absorption.
Try This Mantra Meditation for Dharana
This is a personal variation of a practice that I was given during my yoga teacher training. The main focus during this practice is to concentrate on the drishti. The gaze can be with eyes closed and focused on the third eye point or softly gazing at the tip of the nose. We will be repeating the mantra “Har.” “Har” is an aspect of God that represents God’s infinite creativity.
To begin, sit in Easy Pose (Sukhasana) with a straight spine. Bring your arms to a 90-degree angle above your head. Chant the mantra, “Har, while closing and opening your fists quickly. Be sure to touch the upper palate just above the teeth to emphasize the “r” sound when chanting. During each repetition, pull the navel inward and allow it to naturally return to a relaxed position. Continue for 11 minutes.
This year, Yoga Journal's annual ambassador road trip—the Live Be Yoga Tour—is going virtual. We are calling it The Decompression. Recently, we’ve all been asked to journey inward, to take moments of pause and stillness, and to slow down, rest, and prioritize the things we value. Follow the Live Be Yoga 2020 series here, stay connected with us at @livebeyoga on social, and join the movement to find beauty in stillness.