Dhyana builds on the previous limb, dharana (one-pointed concentration). Dhyana is meditation. Think of dhyana as the maintenance of dharana for longer periods of time. When the mind is focused on one object, or activity, without interruption, this is dhyana. Says B.K.S. Iyengar, “When the flow of concentration is uninterrupted, the state that arises is dhyana (meditation).”
The continued practice of dharana will eventually become dhyana. Dhyana is the second limb of Samyama, the simultaneous practice of the three last limbs of yoga. For meditation, Iyengar recommends placing concentration specifically on the breath because, “nothing penetrates deeper than breath or is more pervasive.” The breath is a common point of focus during meditation, as it is easily accessible—certainly, we can always come back to the breath.
To put dhyana into perspective, think about when you sit for meditation. Let’s say you begin to focus on the breath. Perhaps you choose to notice how the belly moves in and out with each breath. This moment of concentration is dharana. Then you think about how your foot feels—this is a distraction. Then back to the breath. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Then you think about how you need to stop at the grocery store on the way home. You think about what you need to buy there. Then you notice your mind is distracted and guide it back to the breath. This is the mind. The mind is always on the go, chasing thoughts. Dharana seeks to rein the attention back to the moment—to one single point.
When the moments of dharana become longer, say, a few minutes or more of maintaining your attention on the breath without distractions, the transition to dhyana has taken place. When the mind no longer chases each distracted thought, but rather remains concentrated on the object of choice, without interruption, dhyana is experienced. Dhyana opens up space, so to speak, for the calm that sets the stage for a deeper connection to be made in the next limb, Samadhi.
Next time you sit for meditation, notice the stream of concentration. Do the moments of concentration alternate with many thoughts? Do you notice longer stretches of time when you are able to maintain your attention on your breath (or the object of your focus)? Observe the patterns without judgment. Remember, this is practice. It will always be just practice.