Yoga - The quest for one-pointed mind
by Shameem Akthar
All standing and balancing asanas help in strengthening confidence and a sense of balance, as well as concentration, helping the mind learn to become one-pointed
It is said that the demon king Hiranya- kashyap hated Lord Vishnu so much that he kept thinking of him all the time. Conversely proportional to his hatred in terms of volume and intensity, his son Prahlada adored the Lord, much to the resentment of Hiranyakashyap. In the final analysis, Lord Vishnu decreed that both their respective hate and love would become two sides of the same coin of devotion. That focus was everything. That such dharana led to dhyana. Focus became worship.
Before we get sidetracked by the novelty of the thought behind this interpretation, let us resume this column’s topic—concentration. The yoga of concentration, also called dharana, is the sixth of the eight steps that lead to the final one of merger or samadhi. Dharana follows pratyahara, or the withdrawal of senses. This is not abstinence as some interpret, but an ability to shut out outside noise and our inner voices in order to keep our attention focused on the work at hand. Somewhat akin to what the Great Wall of India, Rahul Dravid, demonstrates every time the going gets rough for the Indian cricket team. His interviews reveal how he never allows past performances to affect his current moment of trial (except as tools of learning). He remains unfazed by recriminations, shutting out the gush of expectations that seems to crumble our players often, even shutting out the overwhelming fatigue, ‘concentrating on one ball at a time’.
To demonstrate similar focus, we can refer to the example of Arjuna, when Dronacharya tests the skills of his wards by asking them to aim their bows on a target. Each one fails the teacher. They see everything else. Only Arjuna remains entirely focused, never taking his eyes off the target—not seeing even his teacher. Akin to what another cricketing legend, Sachin Tendulkar, demonstrates when he enters the Zone. According to him, he sees nothing, hears nothing, not even the loping gait of the bowler; seeing only the ball whizzing towards him, he hears only its whirr. Such immense focus came to his advantage the day he played stupendously, after his father’s death, keeping aside even crushing grief. This then is pratyahara, the ability to withdraw the senses. This leads automatically to dharana which is actually worship or dhyana. Once pratyahara is learnt, the last three steps in yoga become more clearly visible. But they always remain a continuous effort. They always remain a journey, not a destination.
Yet, for a relentless practitioner, the lines separating the last three steps of yoga—dharana, dhyana and samadhi—become blurred. That is why people who love their work use the clichéd ‘work is worship’ phrase so aptly. But the Gita admonishes us not just to focus on what we love, but also to complete what we do not like—by working at it dispassionately. Its here that pratyahara helps dharana, by enabling us to unshackle our minds from the knots of emotions, keeping the focus intact and uncluttered.
The Gita has proclaimed what management gurus, executive stress-busters, time management experts repeat ad nauseum—to be in the here and now, focused, not worrying about whether you like a task or not, but just doing it. We unwittingly drag our feet over tasks we dislike or fear. Again, we feel stressed for having procrastinated, or when we dislike or fear a task. We feel bogged down and wait for the future when we would be relieved of such stress, fear and worry. But for most of us these negativities are continuous reality and a stress-free future remains only a mirage we hopelessly pursue.
It is all very well to expound such fears from the comfortable perch of a column, but the reality of life calls for more compelling solutions. For this, one has to look towards yoga. And just as confidence workshops have games that release their participants from in-built fears, yoga too has devised various ways in which we can remove our distracting fears and mental fevers.
Though the eight limbs of yoga denote a sequence, they are a continuous process with one step helping the other, some steps occasionally coming together to help you leap into freedom and joy. For this, we need to start at the beginning—with asanas. All balancing asanas teach concentration. You cannot assume a balancing pose while thinking how good you look, how your neighbour is eyeing you with envy, how your teacher is applauding. For, the minute you think any of these distracting thoughts, you will be flat on your face! To perfect a balancing pose (such as bakasana or crane pose) your mind has to converge completely into the drishti or point of attention. You can have no thought, even of elation.
Each asana, in fact, is the first base of training for such concentration. It is here that the mind learns to become subdued. It is within the depth of a pose that you purge your mind from its relentless chattering, and learn to surrender to the moment. Pranayama or breathing practices go one step further to enhance this level of focus, which is why, despite being simpler to practise, they require immense discipline that remains a challenging prospect even for advanced practitioners. Then we cultivate this focus further with trataka or eye exercises, again requiring immense discipline, which, if cultivated well, are said to bestow the practitioner siddhis or powers. Even these must not distract a practitioner as he continues on his upward spiral path. Because, as Swami Sivananda rightly notes, this yoga is difficult to attain but easy to lose. Just as a sportsman, whatever his level of fitness or the record of his performance, can suddenly fail under pressure, so also, we too can falter if we lose our sense of focus.
As the name suggests, it is among several poses that replicate the moves of the dancing Shiva. For this version you need to have developed a sense of balance from simpler one-legged poses like Ekpada Pranamasan a (one-legged prayer pose).
Stand straight. Bend right leg backwards, reach out right hand to hold right ankle. Inhale, raise left hand. Exhale, bend down, arm held out straight ahead. Keep your attention on your left thumb, breathing normally. Repeat with other leg.
As you become more confident in this pose, use your right arm to move the right ankle away from the body. This extends and intensifies the stretch of the leg. Most beginners tend to stand straight. The correct version is to bend as much forward as you can, since this helps you gain confidence and improves the sense of balance that begins to wither with age. All standing and balancing asanas help in strengthening confidence and a sense of balance, as well as concentration, helping the mind learn to become one-pointed. The suppleness of the limbs is a bonus.