This article was written by Srivatsa Ramaswami and is reproduced here with his kind permission:
The terms Dharana and Pratyahara are the lesser members of the Rajayoga family. Usually, a lot of importance is given to Asana and dhyana/samadhi among Hatayogis and Rajayogis. But Dharana is a very important anga of yoga. It is the transitional point, or activity, which makes the first meaningful change in the mind, or Citta, of the yogi. Even if it does not lead into the next stage of dhyana, it has very important practical implications.
The word dharana comes from the root dhr to support, hold. Several words are derived from this root. Dharma is one which means to hold and uplift (dharate uddharyate va iti dharmah). Dharani or earth comes from this root. In my mother tongue the ground or floor is known as tarai or dhara. So dharana is used as absorbing and holding on to knowledge in the vedas. Patanjali uses the word to indicate the process by which one is able to slowly keep an object or idea in the mind. Specifically he explains it as repeated attempt to bring the mind’s focus to the same object until the mind is able to remain focused on it undisturbed by other thoughts.(desa bandhah cittasya dharana). Repeated attempt to bring the mind to the same object- even as it is the habit of the mind to wander- is the effort put by the yogi called dharana. It is said to mature into dhyana at the next stage when the mind is able to be with the form of the object continually for the entire duration of meditation by the yagabhyasi.
In many places yoga teachers teach meditation. More often than not, due to improper or insufficient preparation of asanas and pranayama or non observance of the prescribed yamanayamas, the rajas/ tamas dominated mind fails in the attempt to hold on to the object. It is all the more difficult for people who are habitually distracted and have a problem of attention deficiency.
Even though Dharana is the first step in yogic meditation of the Rajayoga school and is said to be part of yogic meditation called samyama, Dharana affords its own stand alone benefits. Even in cases where it may not lead to the next stage of dhyana due to– as mentioned earlier– some inadequate preparations like not following the yamaniyamas and not doing asanas and pranayama regularly, the mere practice of dharana introduces a new discipline to the mind.
Usually our mind, especially in the modern world, is forced to remain distracted almost all part of the day and almost continually. Our tasks are usually varied and of short time span. The mind over time falls into a distracted (vikshipta) groove. This samaskara gets strengthened over time and it becomes difficult for the mind not to remain distracted or focused. This was recognized in the olden days and so they made a ritual so that every child will be forced to remain focused for a period of time a few times a day on a particular uplifting object say a mantra.
For instance many youngsters around the age of 7 get initiated into vedic studies. One of the rituals is to do sandhyavandana three times a day. In it one has to do mantra pranayama for about 10 times followed by Japa or dharana of the famous gayatri mantra. The kid will chant the mantra for 108 times in the morning, 32 times at noon and 64 times at dusk. This is clearly a dharana practice by which the mind is guided to think of the gayatri a number of times in succession.
This daily practice helps to maintain the samskara of remaining focused on an object, in this case the gayatri. As Patanjali says, these practices can be applied to different objects. Samyama capability is used by the Yogi. But the dharana capability can be used by ordinary people to focus on different objects. This way the individual does not lose the capacity to remain focused.
Japa, which is a form of dharana, is certainly an old innovative way to keep the mind capable of sustained attention. A moment’s reflection will reveal that in modern times there is no specific procedure analogous to this dharana. If yogis would do dharana after asnana and pranayama, they could remain more attentive to some of the subtler tatvas mentioned in Yoga texts and hopefully in course of time will be able to attain the dhyana stage and hopefully samadhi. Ordinary folks not particularly enamored of samadhi may still benefit by improving the capacity of attention.
My Guru Sri Krishnamachrya stressed the importance of dharana sakti, the power of absorption and retention. He would say an ideal student’s mind should be like a sponge, quickly absorbing anything offered by the teacher. Occasionally while teaching he would, if he thought the student was a bit inattentive, say that the student was losing dharana sakti. The ability to hear intently and retain the information was foremost in the study of vedas in the olden times. There is actually a prayer mantra in the upanishad as follows:
dharanm me astu
Oh Lord, I salute You! May I have Dharana. Let me not reject anything the teacher teacher me (due to inattention). Let me absorb all the knowledge (dharayita) which I hear from the teacher. And further let me retain all the knowledge I have so acquired. OM
Some form of dharana practice may be attempted by all, young and old to regain the capacity, firstly for attention, then absorption and retention of knowledge. Further it may be noted that a distracted mind is in a state of duhkha (pain or vitiated internal environment) and the focused mind is in a more peaceful state of sukha.