Chapter Three is known as the Vibhūti Pāda, often translated as the Book of Powers, or Accomplishments, or Extraordinary Powers. B.K.S. Iyengar warns the aspiring yoga practitioner not to be sidetracked by personal attainments but to keep focus on the goal of the work, which he describes as inward. Various commentators seem alternately fascinated and embarrassed by this narration of abilities.
There is no denying that Patañjali has given a fair amount of attention to the attainments of yoga in this chapter, and it is worth looking a little closer at the chapter’s common name. Vibhūti is a feminine noun. It derives from vi-, here an intensifier, and the verb bhū, “to be.” Vi-bhū means “to expand,” and so, one might understand vibhūti to be an expansion, an opening up of possibility, a widening of scope and agency. It can mean power; it can also mean magnificence or splendor.
Matthew Remski calls Chapter Three the Book of Wonders, and I like that name. The Vibhūti Pāda leads us into a contemplation of the world in and around us–into the marvelousness of being.
Curiously, the chapter begins in the middle of Patanjali’s description of the eight limbs of yoga. Patañjali (or whatever editor divided the text into four chapters) has introduced the first five limbs in the second pāda and reserves the last three for the third. There are many ways to understand this division. Some commentators interpret the last three limbs to be the result of the first five, to be themselves accomplishments; others describe the first five as the outer limbs, the last three as inner.
In my view, Patañjali (or his editor) has chosen to begin a new chapter with another comprehensive view of yoga, another way to define what yoga is. Dhāraṇā, dhyāna, samādhi are, one might say, the heart of yoga. They interconnect each with the other and they underlie, make possible, the practice of the other limbs. They are yoga.
deśa-bandhaś cittasya dhāraṇā
deśa-bandhaḥ cittasya dhāraṇā
“Dhāraṇā is the binding of citta to a place.“
The subject of yoga is citta, our consciousness, mind, field of perception (see II.4). The last three limbs, dhāraṇā, dhyāna, and samādhi, specifically describe a process of citta. They are a trio of events that work, as we shall see, inseparably from one another. They form a kind of wave pattern of citta activity.
None of our English words quite get at the sense of the Sanskrit citta (from cit, “to perceive”). It is the apparatus by which we observe and experience. It includes our nervous system, our senses and physiological processes, our thought patterns. It can be described as the field in which perceptions arise. My Sanskrit teacher Vyaas Houston once described it as in perpetual motion, and this has influenced my understanding of, my own observations of, my own citta. In many ways, the practices of yoga bring greater freedom to citta; thus, my translation of nirodha (see I.2) as the removal of patterns of mind that limit perception.
Dhāraṇā derives from dhṛ, to hold or to carry (also the root of dharma), and Patañjali defines it here as deśa-bandhaḥ cittasya, binding or connecting citta to a place. Yogic practice begins with the selection of a place–a focal point–to direct our attention to. My introduction to dhāraṇā thus began in an Iyengar Yoga āsana class, and I can still feel today the thrill in my cells at being asked to “circularize the thigh” (the thigh–how round it is!) or “lift the side ribs” (the side ribs, what are those?). One class that delighted me, in particular, began with standing in tadāsana for about thirty minutes, exploring the feet, the inner and outer edges, the ball mounds, the arch, the toes, the heel. To “hold” the places in the body had a profound effect on me–calming, anchoring, expanding.
My sense of dhāraṇā was further shaped by studying Sanskrit with Vyaas Houston. Vyaas began every class with an agreement on the ground rules of participation. The first and foremost was “I choose the point.” This sounds so simple, almost silly: he was asking us to agree to choose to direct citta–ever-moving, ever in flow–to the place of focus that the group was attending to. In Sanskrit class, the “place” might be the sight of Devanāgarī on a big piece of poster paper, the sound of a letter of the alphabet, the feel of that sound in the palate. When we recognize dhāraṇā is a choice, we also recognize that as much as we might fix the attention on a point, it will also at some subsequent moment move again. Choice is an intention; finding one’s attention off the point is an opportunity to choose the point again.
Rohit Mehta, whose commentary on dhāraṇā, dhyāna, and samādhi is well worth reading (see Yoga, the Art of Integration, pp. 233-282), calls attention to that quality of flow and argues that allowing flow is necessary to a relaxed, natural functioning of citta. He compares citta to the eye. When the eye focuses, he says, it establishes both a focal point and a marginal area around that point. The eye keeps the focal point in sight but also moves in and out of the marginal area. That movement allows for a “normal” functioning of the eye, says Mehta, without tension. Likewise, the mind, when allowed to define its own marginal area, will move in and out. The choice to return to the focal point can be made in an easy, non-violent way.
If the marginal area is too large, says Mehta, the mind drifts and all focus is lost. If too narrow, the mind is strained.
Patañjali has previously described the practice of holding a point of focus. Indeed, he has specifically said, in sūtra I.32, that the obstacles we face can be overcome by “the practice of one thing,” eka tattva abhyāsaḥ. The contemplation of oneness, the “thatness” of what is, is not really dhāraṇā, and yet the act of choosing the point is a profound act–the intention to hold a single object or aim (artha), to let go of other things, perhpas temporarily, ushers us into an understanding that expands.
Kierkegaard said, Purity of heart is to will one thing. And in the essay of that title, he asserts that all roads can, potentially, lead to oneness, and that that oneness is the Good. Oneness beckons to us, he says, like a loving mother teaching a child to walk:
The mother is far enough away from the child so that she cannot actually support the child, but she holds out her arms. She imitates the child’s movements. If it totters she swiftly bends as if she would seize it–so the child believes that it is not walking alone. … So the child walks alone, with eyes fixed upon the mother’s face, not on the difficulties of the way; supporting herself by the arms that do not hold on to her, striving after refuge in the mother’s embrace, hardly suspecting that in the same moment she is proving that she can do without her, for now the child is walking alone. –Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, ch. 5
“Most people, even most yoga practitioners, are under the impression that āsanas are merely external and physical. This sūtra removes that misconception. Patañjali defines concentration as the focusing of attention either within or outside the body….. External objects should be auspicious and associated with purity. Internally, the mind penetrates to the soul, the core of one’s being: the object is, in reality, pure existence.” –B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, commentary on III.1
“The mind is not in the habit of attentively focusing on one point. It wants to run here and there, and does. Many times during a meditation session, the mind will quietly slither away, initially undetected. Each time the mind’s wandering ways are discovered, the practitioner lets go of of the wayward thoughts and refocuses on the object of meditation.” –The Reverend Jaganath Carrera, Inside the Yoga Sutras, p. 166
“Deśa means a territory or an area, or in the present context a range. … Let the mind move freely in this realm where the focal and the marginal areas have been defined. Very often the mind will move on and linger in the marginal area. Let this lingering happen without losing sight of the subject of focal interest. It is not necessary to hold on tightly to the subject of focal interest. But if there is no resistance to the marginal stimulations then the mind will oscillate between the focal and the marginal. There will come into existence a right relationship between the focal and the marginal which will take away all strain and tension.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, pp. 236, 248
• Have you experienced strain or tension in efforts to hold your attention? What has helped with that? Have you experienced failure?
• How do you choose a focal point? (What are focal points in your āsana or prāṇāyāma practice?) What are objects or aims in your daily life?
• Do you experience dhāraṇā as constraint or freedom?
• What happens in you when your attention drifts?
masculine noun in compound
place, focal point (from diś, “to point out”)
|masculine noun, 1st case singular
binding (from bandh, “to bind”)
neuter noun, 6th case singular
mind, consciousness, life field (from cit, “to perceive, to observe, to know”)
feminine noun, 1st case singular
placing one’s point of focus (from dhṛ, “to hold, support”)