Dharana & Dhyana: A Somatic Perspective

by Vaishali Iyer

The eight limbs of yoga described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are often taught as a step-by-step ascent, or a process of deepening interiorization which culminates with samadhi in formal sitting meditation. Many times we approach this framework sequentially, beginning with our action in the world, moving through asana and pranayama and only then into meditation. In this traditional understanding, the first two limbs happen “before” asana practice, and the final four limbs “after”. In other words, all of the other limbs happen around asana, and not during it. But what if we were to look at the eight limbs from within the container of asana practice? How would we apply them to our time on the mat, and is there any value to doing so? From my training in yoga and somatic meditation, I believe that Patanjali’s framework is actually meant to be applied both on and off the mat. All eight limbs come into play during yoga asana, and at the same time, all eight limbs support us on our on-going broader spiritual journey.

In this post, I’m exploring the sixth and seventh limbs – dharana and dhyana. From a somatic perspective, dharana is a continuation of the fifth limb, pratyahara. Pratyahara describes the process of withdrawing our attention from the external world – what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch and think. This is usually done at the beginning of yoga asana practice, when we sit or lie down and gently bring ourselves into our inner experience using the breath, mantra, or meditation. In this way we let go of our external vantage point, in which we are looking out into the world, and slowly turn ourselves around to look inward. At the point of looking inward, we are practising dharana.

Patanjali says dharana is directing the attention into one field or area (deshah bandhah chittasya dharana, YS 3.1). This area is the field of the felt body, which we know through the shimmer of sensations, feelings, emotions, moods, subtle tones and shifting, dancing energy. The felt body is the desha (field) to which we direct or bind (bandha) our attention (citta) during yoga asana. The next limb, dhyana, is a continuation of dharana – holding our attention continuously and directly within the field of the body (tatra pratyaya ekatanata dhyanam, YS 3.2).

With this somatic, internal focus, we can begin our asana practice. Then, each breath, movement and posture is an invitation to deepen our attention to the body and liberate the life force that is held in its different parts. The more closely we enter the body, the more we can start to practice intuitively, moving in a creative flow of asanas as our body guides us. At times, we will be called to slow down and drop into the stillness of the deeper body. Here we may explore our forward folds, deep hip openers and inversions. At other times we will want to open out further into vivid energy, brightness and the sheer joy of being alive – taking us more vinyasa-style into standing poses, backbends, and arm balances. The important thing is that we are guided by what we feel and not what we think or believe. We follow the prompting of sensations, energy and subtle awareness – this is how the body communicates and shows us where to go next.

In Indian thought, the thinking mind is one of our six senses. Pratyahara, the foundation of dharana and dhyana, includes withdrawal of our attention from the domain of the thinking mind. This is because the thinking mind is just as “external” to our actual experience as our sight or hearing. We can see this clearly in our asana practice: there are times when our thinking interrupts our attention on the body and tries to take us somewhere else – into a memory, some pending project or some kind of mental analysis of the practice itself. The feeling of being captured by thought is much the same as the feeling of being distracted by a loud noise. Suddenly we find we are not in the body, and in fact, we are somewhere else entirely. This is often accompanied by a subtle tensing in the body, a feeling of discomfort or even the painful edge of a posture. At this point, we can deepen our breath, steady and soften our gaze and re-enter the field of the felt body, re-establishing our dharana and dhyana.

Through asana practice, we are (re)turning our awareness, again and again, to the inner, felt dimension of our body and our experience. Once we set the foundation of our asana in our felt experience of the body, then everything we do on the mat becomes an expression of our own life force. Over time, we start to sense the body as it truly is – totally alive, free, creative and boundless. In Patanjali’s words, this is the essence of the inner body starting to shine through (tad eva artha matra nirbhasam svarupa shunyam iva samadhih, YS 3.3), and the beginning of samadhi.

This article has been featured in the July 2017 issue of the regional yoga magazine, Namaskar. Get your copy at  your nearest yoga studio.