Yoga teaches us how to cultivate a stable mind. Referred to as dharana in the yoga sutras, this translates to the ability to fully concentrate our attention on a single point. Dharana is the 6th limb in the 8 limbs of yoga.
What is an unstable mind?
An unstable mind lives in a constant stream of thoughts. Think about it: the mind can’t focus on two things at once. When we multi-task for example, we jump from one thing to another. In contrast, a stable mind is unwavering. It can focus on a single thing continuously. Why do we need a stable mind? This state of mind gives us calmness and clarity.
In this article, I explore how we can use breath-work or pranayama, visual meditation, the poses, gaze, the teacher and their guidance, music and ambience, to teach dharana in a yoga class.
Start with pranayama and end with pranayama
A well-guided breath-work can do wonders in reigning the mind. The key, especially in a typical public yoga class, is to make the breath work simple. This means choosing an accessible breath work such as equal breathing, also referred to as box breath or sama vritti in Sanskrit.
- Start the class with a 5 count inhale and a 5 count exhale and repeat 5x. Explain why you’re doing breath work. For some who are ready to start doing push ups and physical activity, often times, it’s good to briefly tell students that the class will start with 5 controlled breaths to help us settle in and arrive.
- Make sure that students are in a comfortable seated position.
- Add the same breath work before savasana. Encourage students to observe their state of mind.
Before savasana, have students practice visual mediation. Yoga Sutra 1.32 talks about a single focus as a way to clear the mind. Here is a sample cue:
Close the eyes and think of something you love. This can be a person, a thing, or place, it can be you. Visualize it and see it taking shape and form. Place it right in front of you directly on the third eye. Keep it there. Is it moving? What kind of details do you see? Give it your full attention. Direct all your energy to that space where you see it in your mind.
Poses and Gaze
Students can check out mentally when the poses are either too hard or too easy. Providing alternatives, especially if teaching a mixed-level class can reach more people. Especially for classes that have diverse students in terms of experience, standing balancing poses work well.
When cuing a pose, provide a gaze when appropriate. For supine poses (lying face up on the ground), you can also encourage student to close their eyes and look internally.
Know when it’s useful to walk around the room and adjust and when to give students space. During standing balances, for example, it’s more useful to provide helpful cues, observe students, or demonstrate and be one with the class rather than walk around and risk disrupting focus.
Music and ambiance
Studies show that music helps us pay attention and it invokes memories. Adding music to a class, now the norm, has become a part of keeping students engaged. But be mindful of how you incorporate music. Here are some ideas to consider:
- Volume: can students still hear your cues with the volume?
- Timing: how does the tempo of the songs match the energetic tone of that particular point of the practice. You might not want to play upbeat dance music when practicing breath work.
- Silence: a Stanford University study on music and brain activity shows that “peak brain activity occurred during a short period of silence”. So if using music in class, don’t feel pressured to use music throughout. I have seen teachers only play music during savasana and it works. In this case, the teacher had to do more guided cues, but it worked.
I tried sensory yoga once and the dark room and disco lights didn’t quite work for me. It took away from the gaze. I could barely hear the teacher over the music. Yoga offers poses that take us inward—poses with the eyes and ears covered, such as plow pose, for example. It’s easy to rely on external sources such as music and lights, and forget that yoga itself has already so much to offer in order for us to feel and focus. Don’t get me wrong–it’s good to explore new ways, but some things are best kept simple.
Stable Mind and Happiness
When our body frees up after practice, that’s when our minds are least distracted. Distraction and the inability to focus drains me of energy. I start feeling impatient, frustrated, and in the end, feel like I haven’t accomplished much. With yoga, I started to understand how much I needed to quiet the mind, so I can actually listen to it as it speaks to me. We listen more when we speak less. This adage that applies when we deal with other people seems to also work when we deal with ourselves.
When people talk of yoga as a connection with the self, I believe my journey with the connection starts with stabilizing the mind. I try to apply this, not just in moments where I need to think deeply but in the mundane. I catch myself when I reach for the phone out of habit when I’m working on my laptop—to check for the sake of checking. Over the years, I’ve tried to incorporate activities that allow me the same focus, such as playing the guitar. When my mind starts making a laundry list of things I have to do and I start worrying, I give myself time to sit and write them down so I can prioritize and focus.