Transforming your Yoga Practice through Samyama

Woman in yoga pose with focused gaze
Photo by h1r0

Getting focused is a concept for which I have great respect, in part, because of how challenging it can be. Though holding a specific focus during my yoga practice does not come easily to me, this yogic concept known as samyama can be profoundly transformational, taking my asana or meditation session to new heights.

In the Yoga Sutras, samyama doesn’t appear until Book Three, Sutra 3.4, where Patanjali explains samyama as occurring when the last three of yoga’s Eight Limbs are practiced simultaneously. These limbs are dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (allowing one’s concept of “self” to be dissolved).

The word “samyama” is comprised of two parts: sam, meaning “together,” and yama, meaning “discipline.” Mastery of samyama is developed gradually, through years and years of dedicated yoga practice.

I admit that until recently, Book Three of the Sutras felt forbidden to me, after a teacher of mine encouraged me to wait and read this section of the Sutras after I had dutifully practiced the first two books of the four-book text. However, the more I integrate samyama into my own yoga practice, the more I’m convinced that the wait may not be necessary.  According to Sutra 3.5, “by the mastery of samyama comes the light of knowledge,” so why not begin practice this now?

To get started practicing samyama, one can choose an internal or external point of focus. Though the Sutras suggest consulting a trusted teacher when selecting a focal point, if you feel ready to begin exploring the power of intentional focus, there are some simple, accessible techniques you can try on your own.

If you choose to focus internally, simply observing your breath is a great place to begin. The next time you find yourself on your mat, take notice of your breath. Can you keep your awareness on your breath during the entire practice? If not, take note of how often your mind drifts away, and see if you can guide your awareness back to your breath when the mind wanders. Can you become completely entranced by the rhythm of your inhales and exhales?

To focus externally, consider integrating a gaze-point or drishti point during your asana practice. Drishti brings awareness to the pace at which our thoughts move—and hence, helps to quiet the mind. For example, in Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog Pose), the drishti is at the nose tip, and when in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose), the gaze-point is the navel. The next time you enter an asana practice, set an intention to utilize drishti points during the practice, and see how long you can focus before the mind wants to move. If/when the mind wanders from your gaze-point, use it as an opportunity to refocus your awareness.

Another option for focusing externally is to meditate while holding a soft gaze fixated on an object, such as the flame of a candle. Observe the practice of sustaining your focus on your chosen object for an extended period of time, and see if you can reach a point where your sense of self seems to dissolve inside the object. This dissolving of self is a way to begin feeling the sensation of samadhi, or oneness through meditation—a key step in mastering samyama.

It is important to remember that the journey to samyama is simply that—a journey. It begins with small moments of integrated focus and leads to a place of profundity over many years of practice.

Have you begun to experience the liberation that sustained, dedicated focus can bring?


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Yogic Wisdom

It's also helpful to realize that this body that we have, this very body that's sitting here right now in this room, this very body that perhaps aches, and this mind that we have at this very moment, are exactly what we need to be fully human, fully awake, and fully alive.
- Pema Chodron

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