As we all start to settle back into something that feels a little more routine, it’s a nice time to take a look at how we might deepen our yoga practice. If you’ve reestablished a consistent practice, what’s next? At its heart, Ashtanga Yoga trains concentration and works on our nervous system. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at the concentration piece.
Let’s take a step back from what we think we know about Ashtanga Yoga and break this down a bit. The word Ashtanga means “eight limbs” and it comes from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, which describes eight limbs of Yoga. Two branches summarize the moral and ethical perspective: yamas and niyamas. Branches three and four describe practices, asana (postures) and pranayama (breath and energy management). Branches five and six describe states or qualities that we can approach through practices like pratyahara (drawing the sense inward) and dharana (concentration). Dyana (meditation) and samadhi, the seventh and eighth limbs are states that arise, not something we do. But, what we do, and how we do it, can make it more likely that those states arise.
Branching out from asana
So, let’s take the perspective that we are interested in Yoga in the broader sense, and we are showing up to out mat to practice Yoga, not just asana. If we just go through the motions of asana, or focus solely on adding more poses, or different poses, do we automatically move toward deeper states of awareness? No.
So how do we use our practice to move towards those deeper experiences of awareness? It starts by strengthening our concentration. We can’t be aware of something that we’re not paying attention to. So first we practice paying attention.
Concentration is actually a practice. The tools for practicing concentration in yoga are built into the Ashtanga method. We even have multiple objects of concentration to choose from. If one of them isn’t working for us on one day, we can just choose another one. “Choose” is a key word there. Concentration doesn’t happen automatically. Our concentration muscle is like the physical muscles in our body in that we have to work it consistently with intention if we want to make it stronger.
Choosing an object of concentration in yoga
So how do we use our time on the yoga mat to strengthen our concentration muscle? Once we’ve made a choice to practice honing our concentration in yoga, we need to give some thought to our object of focus. What are we going to focus on?
Asana: an object of concentration
As I mentioned earlier, there are tools built into the practice for this. Our first step might simply be paying attention to the pose that we’re doing. Asana, or our posture, is one object of concentration. There are lots of good reasons to pay attention to the pose that we’re doing. Paying attention in a moment by moment way to the sensations in our body means that we’re aware of subtle changes when they happen. This helps us catch those moments where something feels “off” or needs to change. And that, helps us prevent injuries. The body can also be a good radar for our general state of being—mentally, emotionally, and physically. The closer we pay attention, the more aware we are of subtle shifts and changes, and the better we are able to answer the question: how are you?
And that brings me to our next object of concentration: drishti. There are nine “official” drishtis, or places to put your gaze during practice. And none of those nine are your neighbor’s mat! The drishtis include: nose, third eye, navel, hand, right/left, up to the sky, thumbs, and toes. If you don’t know the dristi for a pose, or don’t remember it, then simply gaze softly in the direction your head and neck are going. Drishti shouldn’t add stress or need to be forced. It’s there as a way to help draw the senses inward (pratyahara) and as an object of concentration.
Breath and bandha
We also have the breath to pay attention to, and we have bandha, which I consider to be part of the breath. Much like checking into our body sensations to see how we’re doing, our breath also tells us something about our state of being. If we pay close attention to the quality of our breath, we notice it’s changing all the time. During our yoga practice our breath tends to speed up in some places. It might become more harsh or raggedy in places. And at other times it likely becomes smoother and feels easier to control. All of those qualities of the breath tell us something about what is going on in our nervous system during those moments. It may be give us information that leads us to change something about a pose or our practice for the day. But, we won’t have any of that information unless we first practice noticing.
The intention of bandha is one way we can steer the quality of our breath and energy/nervous system. In that way it’s also an object of concentration. I won’t go further into bandha in this post, since we’re really talking about concentration.
The value of paying attention
We live in a world that rewards our brain neurochemically for NOT sustaining our attention in one place. But, we still get to choose how we interact with that world. Resisting the pull to look at our phone one more time and instead keeping our focus on whatever it is we’re doing during the day will strengthen our concentration muscle. Similarly, in the Mysore room, resisting the pull let our eyes and thoughts to wander around the room, and redirecting our focus to our object of concentration will strengthen our concentration muscle.
But, it can also be uncomfortable and sometimes feel irritating or frustrating to practice focusing on one thing. So, it’s important to hold ourselves and our practice with compassion. Just as we would offer encouragement and compassion to someone else we knew who was learning something new and challenging, we need to treat ourselves that way as well.
So, once we’ve settled on an object of focus, let’s say the breath, how do we practice concentration?
How to practice concentration
Start by noticing the breath—not judging—just noticing. Then look closer. What subtle moment by moment changes do you notice when you examine your breath with deep interest, as if it’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever watched? As you continue along this way, at some point you’ll notice you’ve stopped paying attention to your breath. Maybe you’re lost in thoughts about breakfast or something you’re going to do at work later. Or maybe your attention wandered to what someone else is doing in their practice. In that moment, gently, and with compassion for yourself and the challenging practice of paying attention, bring your attention back to your breath.
After working with the intention of concentration in yoga for a few weeks or months, notice the effects. You might notice that concentration translates off the mat. Maybe you notice it’s a little bit easier to pay attention at work or school. You’re now experiencing the benefits of concentration practice.