In yoga class, the focus is generally on one of the eight limbs of yoga: Asana. Asana is the physical practice of yoga that was originally viewed as a way to prepare the body for later (higher) versions of yoga - ultimately resulting in Samadhi (becoming one with the Universe).
Obviously, it’s a long trip between physical exercise and enlightenment, and the general itinerary is as follows:
The Yamas and Niyamas - Ethical practices that we often discover in class and that I’ve covered in a few blogs.
Asana - The physical practice with which you’re familiar
Pranayama - Breath exercises; many yoga classes integrate pranayama into class.
Pratyahara - Disengagement from the sensory world (we do this in Yoga Nidra, and I will write more about this limb at a later date).
Dharana - Concentration
Dhyana - Contemplation
Thus, in brief, the path to enlightenment moves from grounding yourself in a strong ethical practice, readying the body for meditation through physical practice, breath work, and sense withdrawal, then engaging in meditation through Dharana and Dhyana. Samadhi occurs naturally when you’ve reached a certain level of meditative awareness. It’s important to note that you can’t chase enlightenment. The harder you try, the less likely you are to obtain it.
Similarly, as much as possible, Dharana is gentle concentration. So, it’s more like gently focusing on your kids at play than forcing yourself to focus on something you need to study (e.g. cramming at the last minute for an exam).
In meditation, you find an anchor to the present, something on which to focus your attention so your mind isn’t wandering to the next thing. Often, yogis use a mantra (a powerful word or phrase) to center the mind, but you can also use something visual, like a candle flame or yantra (an artwork with spiritual significance, such as the Throat Chakra yantra below).
Recently, I’ve been using my Asana practice as a form of Dharana. For each posture, I focus completely on the sensations in my body to concentrate on the present. This can be tricky, as you do not want to bring judgment to these observations. Instead, you note what is happening in your body without comparing yourself to others, your past, or where you want to be in the future. You’re simply feeling.
Once you have your mind relaxed on a single focus, you have cleared the way for Dhyana. Dhyana is contemplation on a single concept, idea, object, deity, project… you get the idea. It is turning your mind over entirely to a single thing.
If these two limbs seem similar, it is because they are intertwined. Dharana is state of mind and Dhyana is the process of the mind. Before allowing your mind to process something, it is important to reach a meditative state of mind. The reason is that we need to find a new way of thinking to solve our problems, work past writer’s block, or contemplate the divine.
As Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that we used to create them.”
We recently explored these two limbs in class. At the beginning, I had students bring to mind a single creative project, problem, or decision to mind. Then, I explained we would be using Dharana and Dhyana to address that problem. During the physical practice, I asked them to focus on the sensations in their body, without judgment, to anchor themselves fully in the present. Then, during Savasana, I invited them to contemplate that single issue to see if they had gained access to any new solutions or ideas.
I’m not sure if they had any lightbulb moments, but I have done these practices on my own and noticed that it helped break through writer’s block quite a few times.
If you try this at home, feel free to comment below.