dhāraṇāsu ca yogyatā manasaḥ
“And a readiness of the mind for holding a point of focus.”
Prāṇāyāma connects one to the inner light. “And” (ca), Patañjali says here, it readies (yogyatā) the mind (manas) to hold a point of focus (dhāraṇā).
Just as the limbs of yoga are part of the same fabric, intertwine and support each other, so do the sūtras thread back and forth through Patañjali’s text. To follow the particular threads of the terms here can help us with a sense of the fabric of the whole.
Patañjali begins chapter three by defining dhāraṇā, which is, in his system, the fifth limb of yoga. The word literally means the act of holding (from dhā, to hold, support–same root as dharma), but Patañjali means something specific by it: deśa bandhaś cittasysa dhāraṇā, he says in III.1. Dhāraṇā is the fixing of the consciousness to a place. This moment of fixing the attention is fundamental to the process of yoga. (Patañjali’s definition of abhyāsa–I.13–is, likewise, the effort to be steady there, on a point of focus.)
In other words, dhāraṇā is the ability to hold an object in the consciousness. It is the ability to focus. In this sūtra, the word is plural. Patañjali seems to emphasize the repeated, ubiquitous, essential aspect of placing our attention. Indeed, in this moment of placing the attention, holding the awareness on an object of focus–what happens? Generally the mind comes to some conclusion of one kind or another, forms a thought about the object, or perhaps associates to some other idea quickly–some other object or thought.
Citta (consciousness), as described in sūtra I.35, is in ongoing motion, has its own quality of flow, direction, interest. In Sankhya philosophy, citta is considered to be made of three parts, manas (mind) being one of them. Computer-like, it is the part of citta that processes the information of the senses. Thus, Patañjali here is calling particular attention to that function of citta. When, in practice, we choose to abandon our distracting thoughts and return to the focal point, we come into awareness of the patterns of thought, and we begin to sense more directly. We come to know these patterns, see them as patterns, admit that they might be obscuring our sight. Perhaps we don’t have control over ending them, but we notice, let go, then affirm, quite simply, that for this moment, we return to the point of focus.
In prāṇāyāma, the point of focus is the breath–its quality, its frequency, its placement in the body. Intimately connected to the movements of our thought, the breath itself can affect the thought. When we bring awareness to breath, the effects can be profound.
B.K.S. Iyengar states that prāṇāyāma bathes the inner body (see II.40), and a sensitivity to inner sensation, processes, grows. This inner feeling and sensing–interoception–is a key way the individual comes to know her own self, to experience identity, to see more fully and more truly. This is a process of transformation, though might also be described as a return, a recovery and awakening of our sensing, feeling self. Habitual thought patterns release.
In Barbara Kingsolver’s 2019 novel, Unsheltered, she tells the story of Willa, an unemployed journalist, once comfortably upper-middle-class, who now finds herself and her family living in a house that is falling down and that she cannot afford to repair. The house is cracking apart, rain leaking in, plaster and wood ripping apart, collapsing down, and Willa faces profound insecurity for the first time in her protected life–thus the title Unsheltered. But there is a larger meaning, both for Willa and for our modern society. Willa has assumed she would be affluent, and that her children would live as she has lived. Her daughter explains to her that the world cannot afford the ongoing expansion of the economy nor the exploitation of resources that have allowed Willa’s comfort. Willa weakly protests:
“I’m human, Tig. We live, we consume. I think that’s just how we have to be.”
The daughter chides the mother:
“Of course you think that. When everybody around you thinks the same way, you can’t even see what you’re believing in.”
Willa’s beliefs have prevented her from seeing the unsustainability of much of the American lifestyle–single-family home ownership, fossil-fuel use, throwaway consumerism. They have also prevented her from seeing another way of life that is possible. In the falling away of those beliefs, Willa comes to experience herself “unsheltered” in a psychological sense. She must let go of what she thought provided security and comfort, and re-find her values in the people, the life around her.
Sutra II.41 speaks of readiness to see the self, ātma-darśana-yogyatvā (ātma, “self,” darśana, “sight,” yogyatvā “ability”). I translate that phrase as receptivity. The letting-go process, the willingness to be unsheltered, helps us know ourselves better, receive the sense of our fullness, the abundance in our relationship to each other, to the earth. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika speaks to this deep and powerful process:
Center the self in space and space in the self.
Make everything space, then don’t think of anything.
Empty within, empty without, empty like a pot in space.
Full within, full without, full like a pot in the ocean.
—Hatha Yoga Pradipika, IV.55-56
“In the presence of something new the mind’s security is naturally threatened, for under its impact the mind is compelled to revise its own conclusions. And it is this which the mind all the time wishes to avoid. It is safe for it to remain entrenched behind its own conclusions and judgments….This process has become so much a part of our lives that the senses all the time depend upon intimations and directions from the mind. The intervention by the mind has resulted in the vast areas of the universe remaining shut off from our ken. We live in a universe which is stereotyped and monotonous. Through the intervention of the mind, we are allowed to see only that which the mind considers safe for us to see….To reeducate the senses is to allow them to function freely without the interference of the mind.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, p. 225-226
“Perturbations usually arise from the activation of a latent impression, or saṃskāra, erupting into some sort of distracting bodymind state. Although it is an effect rather than the cause of this state, the breath’s agitation often creates or activates other saṃskāras, initiating a chain of rumination and body disturbance. One can see how any attempt to suppress the breath might perpetuate this cycle. Patañjali’s prāṇāyāma brings the cycle to a halt. Absorption in the breath flow, as toward any other object, moves consciousness in the direction of interiorization and calm. Increasing stillness brings about discernment of the subtle aspects of breath–its subtle internal feelings….” –Chip Hartranft, The Yoga-Sūtra of Pataṇjali, p. 41
“Is there any substitute for the sigh? Or for the simple, deep, diaphragmatic breathing that remembers the peace of childhood sleep?” –Matthew Remski, Threads of Yoga, p. 122
• Has your practice affected your ability to focus? Has it affected your idea of what focus is?
• How willing are you to admit you have been mistaken?
• What belief systems keep you from seeing the truth?
• Are their ways that yoga practice has led you to feel unsheltered?
feminine noun, 7th case plural, “in, on”
holding a point of focus (from dhṛ, “to hold, support”)
feminine noun, 1st case singular
readiness, fitness (from yuj, “to yoke” + -tā, which forms an abstract noun; literally, fit for the yoke)
neuter noun, 6th case singular, “of”
the mind (from man, “to think”)