The repetitive nature of Surya Namaskara creates an interesting opportunity to observe where we place our attention. We begin by focusing the mind in order to wake up within a familiar context (dharana, or effortful concentration), which invites us to slip into a meditative connection with our practice (dhyana, effortless concentration). Surya Namaskara is often misunderstand as an opportunity to “check out,” but the temptation to merely repeat the sequence in the same way we always have can be a major obstacle to any kind of genuine union of mind, body, and breath.
Patanjali describes dharana in Sutra 3.1 as the binding of the mind to one thing. Desa (point) bandha (bind) cittasya (mind) dharana (concentration)—dharana is the continuous practice of directing our attention to a place, object, or idea of our choice. In asana, we use the physical body as our point of focus. For example, we can direct our attention to the lift of our inner thighs, the length of our waist, or the deepening of our groins. The body is gross, tangible, and relatively easy to feel. It’s the doorway into more subtle choices for our attention, like the breath, the space between the breaths, or the movement of prana and apana in the body.
Sometimes our effortful concentration on one thing organically evolves into an effortless concentration. We use our will to bring our mind back to a single point again and again until our attention expands into awareness—a steady stream of unwavering attention. This is dhyana. When dhyana arrives, our understanding deepens and more of the story is revealed.
We cannot will ourselves into this effortless focus. Think of those 3D posters that were popular in the eighties; you’d stare at a seemingly random design, trying to relax your eyes, and suddenly an image would magically appear. You cannot will it to arrive. In fact, the harder you force your attention, the more illusive the image becomes. The same is true in Surya Namaskara. We must practice focusing our attention, for an indefinite period of time, without break, and with heartfelt intention (Sutra 1.14) and let go of the temptation to chase after the meditative state we’re looking for, or have come to expect, when practicing Surya Namaskara.
The next time you find yourself moving through sun salutations, be deliberate with your attention. Study your attention as you flow with your breath. Where does it wander? To what does it attach? What does it avoid? Practice directing your mind to your chosen point of focus and observe how your understanding of that point deepens. Notice how your understanding of everything else deepens through the lens of that one point. Use the repetitive nature of Surya Namaskara to wake up within the context of the familiar. Practice and repeat.