Dharana is the beginning of the innermost quest. In the first 3 limbs (yama, niyama, and asana) the practitioner begins with the external quest – the firmness of the body. The movement from asana to pranayama to pratyaharatouches the inner quest – the steadiness of intelligence. The last 3 limbs (dharana, dyhana, and samadhi) comprise the innermost quest – the benevolence of the spirit.
Dharana translates as “concentration” specifically on one thing. The Yoga Sutras (I.17) describe 4 kinds of concentration; but to begin, we start with focus on an object (savitarka) like a candle, mantra or the breath. The practice is to move towards a single pointed (eka grata) state of consciousness.
In asana, we find the edges of awareness in the physical body; pranayamadraws us inward to the organic and energetic subtleties of the pose; pratyahara reaches inward to a quiet expression of the authentic self. Dharana is the stilling of the mind so that it rests in a an unchanging state.
Pratyahara is the bridge between the inner and innermost quest. In the first 3 limbs (yama, niyama, and asana) the practitioner begins with the external quest – the firmness of the body. The movement from asana to pranayama to pratyahara touches the inner quest – the steadiness of intelligence. The last 3 limbs (dharana, dyhana, and samadhi) comprise the innermost quest – the benevolence of the spirit.
Pratyahara translates as “the withdrawal of the senses”. If the normal use of our senses is directed outward, then the cultivation of pratyahara develops the ability to be in the present moment and attune to the inner experience.
In asana, we find the edges of awareness in the physical body; pranayamadraws us inward to the organic and energetic subtleties of the pose; pratyaharareaches further inward to a quiet expression of the authentic self.
BKS Iyengar describes pranayama as “conscious breathing—not deep breathing. Prana means energy or life force and pranayama is the channelling of energy within the body.”
If you observe your normal breath – just watch it, without controlling it — you will notice that it’s irregular, shallow, and difficult to pay attention to. Just as we turn our attention in asana to how the big toe stretches, or how the shoulder blade moves, in yoga we turn our attention to the breath with intention. Then, we can tap into the energetic force that supplies the organs, muscles, skeleton, circulatory, digestive, and reproductive systems with live-giving constituents.
Pranayama has 3 movements: the inhalation, the exhalation; and the retention. Each aspect of the breath is a potential for inquiry and experience of the next step of the journey inward. II.52 Pranayama removes the veil covering the light of knowledge and heralds the dawn of wisdom.
Asana means pose or posture or seat. According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, an asana is defined as the experience of “perfect firmness of body with steadiness of intelligence in the mind (shtira), and benevolence of the spirit (sukham). In practice our work is to understand and experience the asana to the maximum, without aggressiveness or self-harm (otherwise its not yoga).
“Asana brings steadiness, health and lightness of limb. A steady and pleasent posture produces mental equilibrium and prevents fickleness of mind. Asanas are not merely gymnastic exercises; they are postures … By practicing them one develops agility, balance, endurance and great vitality.
Asanas have evolved over the centuries so as to exercise every muscle, nerve and gland in the body. They secure a fine physique, which is strong and elastic without being muscle bound and they keep the body free from disease. They reduce fatigue and soothe the nerves. But their real importance lies in the way they train and discipline the mind… The yogi frees himself from physical disabilities and mental distractions by practicing Asana…. The yogi conquers the body by the practice of asanas and makes it a fit vehicle for the spirit.” From Light on the Yoga Sutras.
saucha santosha tapah svadhyaya ishvarapranidhana niyamah
Cleanliness and purity of body and mind (saucha), an attitude of contentment (santosha), training of the senses with ardor and devotion (tapas), self-study and reflection on sacred words (svadhyaya), and an attitude of letting go to the source of all things (ishvarapranidhana) are the observances or practices of self-discipline (niyamas), the second limb of Ashtanga Yoga.
The last three Niyamas represent the path of kriya yoga, the yoga of action.
The path of karma, selfless service, is represented by tapas (ardent, devoted action); The part of jnana, learned, earnest study, is represented by svadhyaya. And, the path of bhakti, love and devotional surrender, is represented by ishvara pranidhana.
The yamas focus on “right living” with others, or how we conduct ourselves in regard to all living beings including the planet. The yamas include:
- ahimsa – Non-violence
- satya – Truthfulness
- asteya – Non-stealing
- brahmacharya – Non-excess, particularly in sexual matters.
- aparigraha – Non-possessiveness
A couple of points to note:
4 of the 5 yamas describe what not to do. These are practices of restraint. Consider that we begin the practice of yoga (restraining the fluctuations of consciousness) through our behavior (what not to do) first.
- Ahimsa is first on the list, therefore the most important.
- Satya comes next, suggesting that we tell the truth without violent intent.
- Consider that all these codes of conduct apply to all beings – humans, animals, the planet.