Teenagers at my church go on a week-long pilgrimage to a Holy site as part of their discernment process before confirmation. As a youth leader, I learned many practical things about pilgrimage: how to organize it, where to go, how to prepare physically for the long days of walking, etc. But I discovered the most important part of pilgrimage from our wise Faith Formation director (imagine a female Dumbledore in a long india-print skirt, shoulder-length grey hair, and an infectious laugh). After the evening meal, when the group re-gathered after another day of walking, she encouraged conversation to center on this question:
Where did you see the Holy today?
Dharana, the sixth of Patanjali's yoga limbs, is often translated as concentrated focus. It is similar to pilgrimage as it is practiced through specific exercises that direct our attention away from distractions to that which is presently before us. I was introduced to this limb by being encouraged to “watch” my breath. In this practice one observes the sound and sensation of the inhalation, the brief pause between inhalation and exhalation, and follows the exhalation to the pause before inhalation. This breath-watching exercise invites yoga students to focus their attention on the breath and observe bodily sensation. In doing so, the student is gently prompted to become the objective witness or seer, free of judgment--taking in the body's information without the distraction of mental commentary or wanderings.
The importance of focused attention in our yoga practice cannot be overstated: our mindful presence is drawn from the focused attention we bring to the practice. This witness to our own bodies, mind, and breath, connects us to information that help keep us safe and balanced in our asanas, and affirm our being. In the medical world, studies confirm how a regular practice of non judgmental focused attention through yoga and meditation, provides rest and relief to our monkey minds, improves memory, increases productivity by strengthening the brain to be better able to concentrate on the task at hand, and is a skill that can be successfully cultivated for chronic pain management. (more…)