shares her thoughts on Dharana and Dhyana – the 6th and 7th Limbs in the Astanga Yoga System

The most-revered ancient sourcebook for yoga practice, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra describes how the mind works and how we can integrate yoga into our lives. Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga includes eight components of practice (“ashtanga” means “eight-limbed” in Sanskrit), and dharana, or concentration is the sixth of these eight limbs. The seventh limb is dhyana, or meditation, and the eighth and final limb is samadhi, or enlightenment. These last three limbs are often studied together and are called antaratma sadhana, or the innermost quest.

By definition, this focus cures the inner conflicts we so commonly experience. When you’re completely focused, 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.

This ability to focus all the mind’s attention toward one thing is the foundation of the next limb—dhyana or meditation—and is absolutely necessary if the practitioner is to reach the liberation of samadhi. One way to understand the distinction between concentration and meditation is by using rain as an analogy. When rain starts, the moisture of clouds and fog (everyday awareness) coalesces into concentrated moisture and becomes distinct raindrops. These raindrops represent dharana—intermittent moments of focused attention. When the rain falls to earth and creates a river, the merging of the individual raindrops into one stream is like dhyana or meditation. The separate raindrops merge into one continuous flow, just as individual moments of dharana merge into the uninterrupted focus of meditation. In English, we often use the word “meditate” to mean “to think,” but in yoga, meditation is not thinking; instead, it is a deep sense of unity with an object or activity.

Yoga students are often taught to meditate by focusing on a mantra, on the breath, or perhaps on the image of a guru or great teacher. These practices are extremely difficult because it is the nature of the mind to jump around 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 at the end of the nineteenth century.

Once you’ve taken the first step of learning to still the body for meditation, you can’t help but notice how “un-still” the mind is. So instead of thinking of meditation as some dreamy state in which thoughts do not happen at all—instead of trying to quiet something that by nature is never quiet—I pay total attention to the agitations which are my thoughts. My thoughts may continue, but paying uninterrupted attention to my thoughts is itself the meditation.