Home Yoga Practice: Focus (Dharana)
Who wouldn’t like to increase their ability to focus? We feel frayed and pulled in so many directions because of the pace of work life, home life, political life, recreation life… so many lives!
I think we could debate all day about whether the distracted mind is worse in our modern 21st Century Covid lives than in any other time known to mankind. We are easily distracted people no matter the era we live in.
Focus, or Dharana, is the sixth of the eight limbs of yoga (well, I don’t know if we really need to think about them sequentially – another long debate/argument).
As we emerge from our behavioral practices and physical practices (yamas (outward behavior), niyamas (inward behavior), asana (body), pranayama (breath), pratyahara (senses)), we arrive at the doorstep of the mind and that’s the gateway to our spirit/consciousness.
Dhar means “to hold,” in sanskrit, according to TKV Desikachar.
When we practice Dharana we are practicing holding something in our minds, in our attention, in our awareness. Then, like all of yoga, we observe. We look at the struggles that we have in holding. What lets go? Like watching our fingers lose a grip on something. At what point do we let go? Is it from an inner voice that is telling a lie? “You can’t do this? You’re not good enough.” Is it from a voice that is telling a truth? “This is enough for now.” “I am distracted.”
Over time and commitment we build up endurance with focus.
The goal of the focusing is to be able to direct the undistracted mind toward an object with ease and steadiness and observe the truths within that moment and object.
I like to approach this aspect of practice much like the physical aspect.
And I choose to use aspect rather than level. When we think of the limbs as levels we can push off ever starting to work on some of them saying we’re not at that level yet.
But I don’t want to postpone the integrative aspect and applied aspects of yoga. This is an integrative applied practice.
Focus, like a muscle, can whither if not used.
Heck, we can learn we had no awareness it was even there or what powers we have with it.
And, I too, start various focus practices and tell myself, “I’m not good at…”
But that’s a falsehood. I’m not practiced at my focus.
Asana and Dharana
The good news is that all pose practice works our focus. So, yay?
By bringing our attention onto the mat and into our skin and the nuances of movement and body responses to the mind, we get to observe the attention level we can practice.
Do we rush into a pose? What did we not notice when we rushed?
We all have far-away distractions of the mind: being in a pose and actually doing a work project or timeline in our minds.
We all have close-by distractions of the mind: being in a pose and criticize our cuticles, hate the way our clothes are fitting, noticing how someone else is in the pose.
Either way, reeling the mind back into what I call “the internal landscape” rather than the outward distractions is a constant back-and-forth of the practice. Hopefully over time we can increase the steadiness of holding the mind on an action/energy/point of focus.
But there are certain postures that can really help direct the mind. Or, distract us from our distractions.
Often the one-legged balance postures help in this effort. In order to maintain being upright our mind cannot afford to do the laundry while we’re in the pose (unless you have developed so much ease that you don’t have to work hard to remain in the posture – but that’s another level, hah!)
Here are the four specific poses I chose to work on this week.
And a caveat. There’s lots of practice required before some of those poses. If you’re not strong in the legs and core and have established solidity and foundation on two feet, don’t jump into one-legged poses. Just sayin’.
This pose asks us to send energy downward in one leg for rooting and perpendicular in another leg for stability and the torso also perpendicular for equilibrium. Getting our minds to direct energy in all those directions and getting the body to actually do it requires directed attention. We must hold the direction or conduction of the heel of the lifted leg to create the sturdy bolt of energy that suspends the leg against gravity.
It’s kind of like a magic spell. If we start to think of the kitten that sat on our lap the night before, poof! The magic is gone and we collapse.
As we harness the attention into holding this posture with steadiness of body, the steady mind gets to see what’s busy INSIDE the pose. What adjustments and micro adjustments are going on mentally into the physical body? “Squeeze more here. Ease up here. Untense the back. Firm up the ankle. Feel the earth. Notice the breath. Ignore that itch. Toes are going numb.”
Anything that requires long lines of the whole body in sturdy steadiness helps laser the focus.
The arms are pushing strong and steady downward. The legs have to be engaged to push back strong and steady back through the heels. The tummy and core have to hug to maintain a solid, non-mushy center. Our whole physical being has to be engaged in “holding” or physical focus. But physical heat building quickly. And so does mental heat.
That heat makes us confront so many levels of intensity and notice how we respond to intensity.
Yes, standing on our hands.
But, remember the practicing ahead of time and all of the work we’ve already put into our practice – establishing foundation, and kindness and breath and contentment, etc.
Changing where we are connected in our root has an instantaneous way of bringing our focus to the fore.
If you are new to this, start in downward dog and practice walking on your hands back to your feet and back to downward dog. Feel the weight-bearing. Allow the weight-bearing.
Then when it feels less scary or strenuous, do the opposite, walk the feet up to the hands while keeping the hands flat.
In both of these situations, bring your attention to the body and stability and the muscles and actions that are creating that sense of stability. Observe the emotions that come up. Notice when the mind jumps to an expectation of a completed or “full” pose. You are bearing weight, aka, standing on your hands. Why is this not good enough? (contentment)
If you are feeling stable enough and confident, go to a wall and face it in downward dog and practice lifting one leg up. Not taking the foot to the wall, just get accustomed to feeling inverted, upside down and bearing your weight. Carrying yourself from a different vantage point. Observe your focus and your breath and how long you can hold a space of “ease and steadiness” in body and mind. Then take a break or switch.
Seated Twist (matsyandrasana)
Twists that we hold require a leverage point, something hard and firm providing a resistance to help the twisting motion. So that’s a bind. And where there is a bind, we are at “the hold” of focus.
This twist, sitting with one leg lengthened in staff pose and the other bent with an arm wrapped for the bind, gives lots of hold points for focus. The straight leg should be rooting and pressing down, which requires applied attention. The leg that bent requires the foot to be pressing firmly to the earth, more applied attention. And the twisting from the base of the spine requires more – you got it – applied attention.
Twisting is torque applied. So it also requires applied attention to not be forcing. Force would not be a connective practice. That would be dominating or commanding.
This leads me to a final note about focus, at least in my current exploration.
I have spent a lot of my years believing that focus was lasering my will. It was how I believed my success in academics, my profession – heck anything – was achieved. Lasering my will was me forcing my dominance or defiance. For example, “I’m not going to let them think I can’t do something because I’m a woman. “ “I’m going to prove I’m worthy as a person of color and do it 10 times better.” I had to be THE best which means superior when you think about it, or when I think about it. And being superior by deductive reasoning means others are inferior. And that just lands me at dominance.
It has even reared its ugly head in my yoga over the years.
I work now on my focus to mean being present, not lauding over, not THE best or (gods forbid) PERFECT (but the language slips into my internal voice).
When I’m forcing a pose – balancing, strength, twisting – I know I’m not being present, I’m being dominant or defiant. That’s not how I want focus to manifest within me because it prevents my connection to what is. It’s me trying to be in charge.