Each scorching afternoon during the summer when I was 8 years old, I’d crawl into my favorite chocolate brown, fringe-bottomed easy chair and dive into a Nancy Drew novel. As I read about the daring exploits of my favorite heroine, I was transported to another time and place. I wouldn’t notice anything around me until I surfaced to find my mother standing near and realized she had been repeatedly calling me to dinner.
Years later, remembering this ability to focus so completely on one thing proved valuable as I tried to understand what second-century philosopher and yogi Patanjali was writing about when he discussed dharana—the state of concentration—in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The most-revered ancient sourcebook for yoga practice outlines ashtanga yoga, the eight components of yoga practice. The word “ashtanga” means “eight-limbed” in Sanskrit: ashta = eight, anga = limb. (This is not to be confused with Ashtanga Yoga, a vigorous style of asana practice.)
Much of modern, western yoga focuses on asana and pranayama—the limbs postures and breathwork. When we begin to study yoga philosophy, we may address the yamas and niyamas that guide our personal ethics and our interactions with others. But the last three limbs—dharana, dhyana, and samadhi—are often studied together and are called antaratma sadhana, or the innermost quest. They are important to the purpose of yoga—union of mind, body, and spirit.
Dharana, or concentration, is the sixth of the Eight Limbs. In chapter III, verse one of the sutras, Patanjali explains concentration as the “binding of consciousness to a [single] spot.” This means bringing your full awareness to one thing, idea, or focal point.
Sometimes we see this kind of intense attention in a musician focused on the music to the exclusion of all else, or in an athlete in a tense moment of a crucial game. Yoga practitioners actively seek out this depth of concentration in the practices of asana and pranayama. But I believe that you can find dharana whenever a person is fully present and focused on an activity or object. I like to honor this state of absorption whenever and wherever I find it.
By definition, this focus cures the inner conflicts we so commonly experience. When you’re completely focused on one thing, you can’t be of two minds about something. Like many people, I’ve found that when there’s a disparity between my actions and my thoughts, I become more fatigued and feel less joy in my life. But I don’t feel conflict—even though I may encounter difficulties—when I’m truly focused on and committed to the moment.
Dharana, the ability to focus the mind on one thing, is the foundation of dhyana or meditation.
To help yoga students understand the distinction between concentration and meditation, I use rain as an analogy. When the moisture in clouds or fog coalesces and concentrates, that moisture becomes raindrops. The clouds represent everyday awareness; the raindrops represent dharana—intermittent moments of focused attention. Then, when the rain falls, the raindrops merge into one continuous stream. This is like meditation—the merging of the individual thoughts into one stream of consciousness. Individual moments of dharana merge into the uninterrupted focus of dhyana.
In English, we often use the word “meditate” to mean “to think.” In yoga, meditation is not thinking—even if you’re trying your best to think about one thing. For example, yoga students are often taught to meditate by focusing on a mantra, the breath, or a candle flame. These practices are difficult because it is the nature of the mind to jump from idea to idea, from sensation to sensation. In fact, Swami Vivekananda called the mind “a drunken monkey” when he introduced meditation to the United States.
Once you’ve taken the step of learning to still the body for meditation—perhaps by holding a posture, lying in Savasana, or sitting in Lotus pose—you can’t help but notice how “un-still” the mind is. But that is the nature of the mind—to have thoughts. Instead of trying to quiet something that by nature is never quiet—pay total attention to the agitations which are our thoughts. Our thoughts may continue, but paying uninterrupted attention to them is itself the meditation.
Meditation is not some dreamy state in which thoughts do not happen at all. Instead, it is a deep sense of unity with an object or activity. It is the raindrop becoming one with the stream. And it is absolutely necessary if we are to reach the liberation of samadhi.
The final limb in Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga is samadhi, or enlightenment. This most indescribable of limbs. In a way, writing about samadhi seems like giving a hungry person words about food instead of food itself. But finding words for samadhi is a worthwhile practice. Unless we’re aware of the possibility of wholeness, we may find it virtually impossible to start our journey toward it.
When I first began to study yoga, I thought that samadhi was a trancelike state that would take me away from everyday consciousness. I would find myself in a “better” state of being. Over the years, my understanding has changed. Now I think of samadhi as exactly the opposite of a trance. Samadhi is a state of being intensely present without a point of view. You are aware of all reality and perceive all perspectives at once, without focusing on any particular one.
To understand this better, imagine that each of us sees the world through a filter constructed of all of our experiences and ideas. Our gender, our race, our personal history, our cultural values, our education, and other factors are woven into it. This filter influences how we perceive and interact with the world. It becomes the sum total of our beliefs—conscious and unconscious—about reality.
Samadhi is the state in which we experience reality without the filter. We experience reality not as our various parts, but as one unified being. Samadhi is the state in which you are aware on a cellular level of the underlying oneness of the universe.
Finding unity in life
How does samadhi relate to daily life—a life filled with cleaning the kitchen, driving to work, caring for a family? This bliss state may seem to have nothing to do with our everyday activities. But we may find moments of light in mundane, but important activities. Many of us have had a taste of this state outside of formal meditation. Some people have this experience during worship, others during lovemaking, still others while walking in the woods.
Patanjali teaches us that we are always capable of experiencing samadhi. At any moment we can become whole and fully present. If we understand this, that understanding becomes a fundamental acknowledgment of our true nature. The concept of samadhi brings with it the possibility of a deep hope about our growth as human beings.
Want to deepen your yoga practice? Join Outside+ and get unlimited access to exclusive articles, sequences, meditations, and live experiences—as well as thousands of healthy recipes and meal plans from Clean Eating and Vegetarian Times, plus can’t-miss content from more than 35 other brands, like Women’s Running, Backpacker, and Better Nutrition.