Yoga - Focus in Practice
by Shameem Akthar
Practising dharana or focusing in each pose will tighten the reins of our galloping mind.
Even established and world-renowned meditation teachers are known to take pot shots at the physical aspects of yogic practices, particularly the poses or asanas. These teachers rubbish asanas as acrobatics, displaying some smugness at being on the gyanamarg or path of intellect to God. They feel the hatha yogis are egocentric since they are bodycentric.
This column does not intend to cross swords with such a viewpoint. Each one tends to think his or her path is the only or the most perfect one. Squabbling about which is better will only distract us from the original goal - which is to remain on the path in the first place. But this column is directed at those who use the body to meditate, the original intention of yoga. My own experience and failures have taught me that there is, indeed, a tendency to get carried away by an unyogic sense of achievement when you master an extremely difficult pose. But the real yoga begins when you can calmly be in the pose, without wobbling, and focus on the breath and often on the particular chakra, which the pose is said to rouse. And to some extent, set aside the sense of achievement and inner thrill you feel, since this can indeed feed your ego. All this can be extremely difficult, so no wonder then that we try to bypass such mental discipline required in the pose.
There is also a weakness among hatha yogis to focus only on the poses or breathing practices, increasingly subjecting themselves to more difficult tapas in just these two limbs of yoga. Then, from here, we jump right into meditation or dhyana, the seventh limb. We do, I confess, often forget the other five limbs of yoga - including yamas and niyamas (rules of conduct which exhort us to be truthful, non-violent, non-covetous), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses, so we are not reactive), dharana (concentration) and samadhi (the final goal of god-realisation). We feel doing one well will ensure that the others will all fall in place. But each of these limbs needs to be kept in focus when we practice our asanas. This column will limit itself to examining how to best create the sense of dharana or concentration in the pose.
Practicing dharana or focusing in each pose will tighten the reins of our galloping mind and help retain it in our hands. This is the first priority for any yoga practitioner. Everything else will fall in place: be it the inner healing (you will find with your mind under control, you fall ill less), improvement in poses (because the mind is so fine-tuned you can execute difficult co-ordinations better, be it in advanced poses or even in dance steps that are totally unrelated to yoga). Trying to execute an advanced pose merely on the strength of your muscles or flexibility of the body can be rather taxing. It may take you years to reach a pose this way. But shoring up your mind with dharana practiced separately or as part of your asana practice will help rev up your practice amazingly.
Most of the body's difficulties begin in the mind. When the focus becomes one-pointed you will find the body becoming more flexible. This, I speak and vouch for from direct experience. I remember returning from a strenuous meditation camp and negotiating an advanced version of the wheel pose without a struggle. This was a pose in which I had been struggling for over a year! Similarly, after attending a three-week mind-body workshop I was able to slip right back into a full forward bend without a hint of pain. I had, some months ago, injured my thigh trying something extremely foolhardy and had been unable to do this most basic of poses. But some mental clearing process at the mind-body workshop, combined with the focus it bestowed, seemed to miraculously heal my body. I was amazed at how well I could sink back deeply into the pose, as if somehow with the mind's cobwebs cleared, the body's blockages too had disappeared.
Therefore, dharana or focus, is the magic wand in yoga - to multiply benefits to the mind and body. To practice this is very simple really. When negotiating a pose you need to focus on the spot which feels the brunt of the physical pressure of this pose. This is the 'center' of the pose. In yogic language, this is the chakra, which is being awakened by the practice of this pose. This may baffle some as psychobabble. Actually, chakras are variously said to correspond to the body's endocrine map or the nerve plexus (where the nerves converge). For instance, in a bow pose or dhanu, the entire focus of the mind has to be on the manipura chakra or the navel center. That is where the body is straining the most. On a physical plane, manipura chakra corresponds to the important glands - adrenal (perched on the kidneys), pancreas (dealing with blood sugar), liver (fat release and over 500 other functions). Manipura chakra is, therefore, not surprisingly, the center of fear or anger (since the glands, like adrenal, rouse these feelings). So, keeping your focus centered on it can have a tremendous psycho-neurological effect. It also calls for immense discipline since a bow can cause powerful stretches throughout the body - the legs, the hands, arms, thighs, hips are all under strain. The mind can be distracted by such wide-spread strain, feeling it as pain, making you want to release and get off the pose fast. But when you localize your attention you will find the pain receding to the area of maximum strain. You can imagine how much discipline is called for to narrow down the mental focus when the body is screaming inside for release. And when you focus further, you will relate subtly to that Vedantic truth: I am not this body (Na deham). Maybe, when the practice is more fine-tuned, we will be sensitive enough to appreciate the ultimate truth to which such disassociation of the body leads to: Soham (I am that, meaning I am God). This, then, is the final goal of yogic poses: to use the body to discard its identity and merge with the divine.
Nasikgraha Mudra (Nose-tip gazing):
This is an excellent way to firm up the yogic sixth limb of dharana. Sit up straight. Gaze at the tip of your nose (avoid in case of eye problems like cataract, glaucoma as well as depression). Keep your attention focused on it. If the mind wanders, pin it to the breath, feeling it at the nostrils. Don't do it for long initially, since this can cause strain. Build up stamina slowly. It improves concentration, is useful in anger management and controlling emotional upheavals.