Eight Limb Path of Yoga – Pratyahara and Dharana

Last week we learned about asana and pranayama, the third and fourth limbs on the Eight Limb Path of Yoga.  If you missed that post, check it out here!  Practicing asana and pranayama can prepare us for the work we’ll do in the next two steps, pratyahara, or turning inward, and dharana, or concentration. 

These two limbs are all about inward focus.  The Eight Limb Path of Yoga starts out by addressing the way we interact with the outside world, our bodies, and our breath. As we progress along the path, the focus shifts to the mind and eventually, the divine.

One of the main concepts of the Eight Limb Path of Yoga is that the outside world, as well as much of the activity that goes on in our minds, is not truth.  As we quiet our minds by practicing the steps on this path, we discover the truth about ourselves and about life.  Here’s a hint: The truth is much better. 

Pratyahara

Pratyahara can be a difficult concept to understand.  In Sanskrit, pratyahara can be broken down into the words prati, or withdrawal, and ahara which means food.  In this case, food refers to stimuli taken into the mind by our senses.  Pratyahara can be loosely defined then, as withdrawal of the senses. 

Pratyahara teaches us to become consciously aware of every moment and is a vital bridge between the more external limbs of the Eight Limb Path of Yoga that we’ve learned about in previous limbs, and the remaining limbs of dharana, dyana, and samadhi which are more internally focused.  Withdrawal of the senses allows us to connect to our inner world.  It creates the optimal conditions for meditation, self-realization, and growth. 

In her memoir Eat Love Pray, author Elizabeth Gilbert describes a meditation session in which she allowed herself to be bitten by mosquitoes without reaction. This is the essence of pratyahara, that we have a choice about our reactions to everything that comes our way.  Pratyahara recognizes that the outside world is only temporary, and the energy inside of us is transcendent. 

Pratyahara doesn’t suggest that we shut out the outside world. Daily life application could be something as simple as putting your phone away for an hour a day. The focus of pratyahara is that we come to understand we don’t have to react to everything.

We can translate this to daily life.  Throughout any given day, we will experience all types of mosquito bites.  It might be dealing with a difficult family member, a challenging task at work, an unfair interaction on the road.  Whatever the case may be, it’s essentially our choice to react. 

In practicing pratyahara, we learn to let things roll off our backs a bit more freely, whether it be a minor thing such as a family conflict, or something more extreme like a diagnosis of a serious health condition. 

Our thoughts and feelings often contribute to, or even directly cause, our suffering.  Pratyahara recognizes that many of our thoughts and feelings come from sensory input. 

Our minds are hard-wired to react to things.  If we perceive something as pleasant, we are drawn to it, think positive thoughts about it.  If we perceive something as unpleasant, we avoid it and think negative thoughts about it. 

With pratyahara, we let this sensory information pass through us to the best of our ability, realizing that most circumstances are neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but neutral parts of our individual journey in this life. 

With pratyahara, we let this sensory information pass through us to the best of our ability, realizing that most circumstances are neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but neutral parts of our individual journey in this life. 

Dharana

Dharana is single-pointed concentration.  Although this may seem like a relatively easy concept, it can be quite difficult in application, especially for an extended period of time.  In terms of meditation, dharana means total focus on the object of meditation free from distractions of both body and mind.  The object can be something like the breath, a sound, or a spiritual deity.  Dharana teaches us that we are in control of or minds, even thought it may not feel like it.  With consistent practice, we strengthen the muscle of concentration and find that it becomes easier to take back control. 

It’s easy to see how our previous work in pratyahara is helpful here.  To practice dharana requires full attention.  By eliminating both external and internal distractions, we’ve laid the foundation to be able to do this.  The main focus of the entire Eight Limbs of Yoga is to come to a place where we’re fully in the present moment (read more about that here!).  To do this, and to be able to fully focus on one thing, we must be free of distractions of both the world, and the mind. 

A relatively easy way to practice dharana is to sit as if you were going to meditate and focus on the flame of a candle. This gives us an easy visual reference. Watch the flame, study it as it moves with even the slightest breeze. Bring your attention back to the flame when your mind gets distracted.

Dharana has become difficult in an increasingly stimuli-dependent society.  We spend so much time doing so many things; our brains have become used to jumping from one thing to the next in a split second.  We’re working a full-time job, taking care of children, attempting to have a social life and hobbies, and the whole time our minds are being trained to jump around. 

Although this may be helpful in daily life, it’s not so helpful when we’re trying to reflect on who we are and why we’re here, and to find the clarity and peace that comes from that knowledge.    

Dharana encourages us to leave everything at the doorstep of our minds for a moment, and to recognize life can be beautiful, and the noise that causes us so much suffering is small in scale to our place in the Universe. 

By training our minds to stay focused, we learn to see each situation that comes our way as a part of life, and to look for the lesson in the situation rather than trying to run from it. 

Final Words

With pratyahara we eliminate distractions.  With dharana, we use that space we’ve created to practice single-pointed attention.  In the last two limbs of the Eight Limb Path of Yoga, we take it a step further and attempt to eliminate even the object of our concentration; to be fully emerged in dhyana, or meditation, and samadhi, or oneness with the Divine. 

At Inspiring Actions, we have so many opportunities to practice the Eight Limbs of Yoga.  Our asana classes, as well as workshops covering a wide variety of practices such as meditation and sound healing, provide the space for us to practice these limbs, no matter which part of the journey we’re on.  Join us at our studios in River Falls and Hudson, Wisconsin, as well as online; we invite you to learn about yourself with us!

Click here for a great discussion on these two limbs, as well as meditation in general, from Emily Rowell Yoga’s “Yoga Off the Mat” series.

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