“Dharana is the binding of the mind to one place, object or idea.” Yoga Sutra 3.1
Dharana translates as “holding steady”, “concentration,” or “single focus.” Once Asana has calmed the body, Pranayama has controlled the breath, and Pratyahara has eliminated outside distractions, then one can pursue the discipline of meditation. A challenge that many of us face, though, is that the mind has inner distractions as well as outside distractions! Even if your boss, your television, and your social calendar are not in front of you, their images can come up easily in your mind.
It’s like the cliché “Don’t think about pink elephants.” Most people can’t empty their mind of distractions just by saying “I won’t think about distractions,” because that calls the mind to think of different things that might distract us.
Have you ever been totally in the zone? When you’re focusing on something – watching a movie, writing a paper, playing a sport – your attention is totally absorbed in that one thing. Dharana is a way of getting into the zone through focus on one thing.
Imagine you’re training a new puppy. You may want it to learn how to stay in the yard, or to sit and stay still, but can’t expect it to know the commands without training. Likewise, you can’t just pin it down to one place and expect it to stay there without moving. It would be uncomfortable, and focus on wanting to escape. Instead, we might get a leash and attach it to one spot. The puppy has some controlled freedom, and can explore around a certain point, but it won’t run out into the street. Gradually, with proper training and encouragement, it will learn to stay in the yard, or to sit and stay in one spot.
Dharana is like leashing the mind to a particular thing: a mantra, an image, a sound. This disciplines the mind and teaches it focused meditation, which prepares it for deeper stages of meditation.