Dharana Shakti : the capacity to sustain spiritual experiences

The sudden inflow of energy, the rapture and the sense of release that one feels after a favourable period of meditation is not easy to sustain. The mind mostly misinterprets the experience, the heart seizes and appropriates it, while the physical body feels relieved and exhausted that it has ended.  We tend to yawn and eat junk food after a period of meditation because the physical body is tamasic(dull) by nature and not accustomed to the newly attained tranquility.  Instead of yawning and dissipating the energy gained during the meditation, the body needs to be molded to become more supple and receptive; the cells of the body have to be made more and more conscious through regular exercise and refined eating habits so that it can sustain longer and greater spiritual experiences.  Sri Aurobindo denoted this power of the body as Dharana Shakti or Dharana Samarthya (retention capacity; Samarthya or Shakti = capacity, Dharana = retention).

Atlas holding the globe. (flick Creative Commons. Click image for source.)

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother would decline to accept as disciples those who had a weak body because Integral Yoga made demands on the physical being.  Those who wanted peace and serenity in the heart were dispatched to Ramana Maharshi’s Ashram[1].  Exceptions were made in case of highly developed souls such as Kanailal Ganguly who, during his first meeting with Sri Aurobindo, frankly admitted that his “nervous being [was] very weak”.  Sri Aurobindo reassured him, “That doesn’t matter. My nervous being also was weak, and Mira’s nervous being too was weak; but we have become strong now.  I think after sometime you too will be all right.” [2].

During the yogic transformation, disciples would inevitably discover the limitations of their physical body, as this exchange shows:

Nagin Doshi: The physical consciousness is too weak to hold the experience even for a short time. It gets fired. The mechanical mind takes advantage of this and rushes in. How to prevent such obstacles? It is really a pity that in spite of having the higher experiences before me I cant respond to them. What is the remedy?

Sri Aurobindo: No remedy except the possession of the physical by the higher consciousness and a consequent throwing outside of these things[3].

Sri Aurobindo himself had difficulties in building up the capacity to retain spiritual experiences, as the following entries from his diary, The Record of Yoga, indicate.  (English equivalents for Sanskrit terms are enclosed in parentheses).

27 Nov 1912: The brain works at anything enjoined on it, but there is a disinclination in the karmadeha (physical) previous to the work or for a particular work. The fumes of tamas (dullness) are strong in the brain, but do not prevent the luminosity working, although it is like the sun on a clouded day [4].

21 Jan 1913: The physical siddhi is obstinately disputed, especially health; even the kamananda (physical bliss) is forcibly interrupted. Nevertheless this great change has been established in the sanskaras(habits) of the body that, while formerly it felt release from the continued ananda(bliss) as a relief and as its normal condition of purity & freedom, now it feels continuity of it to be its normal condition and absence of it to be not purity but want, not freedom but a bondage [5].

This is a very significant observation that has been made above.  Sri Aurobindo indicates that the habits of his body are changing; those who have engaged in physical culture will concur that there comes a moment when the exercises that previously seemed to exhaust the body suddenly become effortless.

Sept 29-30, 1914: Continuous intensity of the kamananda (physical bliss) is now restored the question is of the degree of  dharanasamarthya (retention capacity) in the body. It is the battle that has now to be fought out, for there is no other real obstacle to the permanent & not recurrent continuity of the Kamananda [6].

24 July 1915:  Intensity of premananda fails now only because of the inability of the prana(life energy) to hold it. The prana is accustomed only to calmness or to an equable ananda [7].

The remark above indicates that in later stages of Yoga, it is not enough for the body to be able to just remain calm in repose; it must also be able to bear the intensity of the greater power and bliss that flows into the body.

10 May 1918: The strong intense sahaituka still leaves a doubt whether the body is capable of bearing and therefore holding its indefinite prolongation and increase. This dharana-samarthya (retention capacity) also must be determined in order to ensure permanence. When it is fixed, Ananda will help to enforce perfect arogya (health) on the body [8].

May 13, 1918: Kamananda is [increasing] rapidly in sasmarana continuity,  but it still tends sometimes and the Ananda tends always to diminution of intensity by vismriti. The opposite tendency of increase by continuity is not yet strong enough to get permanently the upper hand. There is also the habit of discontinuity which though no longer proper to the physical body is imposed on it by the mind of the Akasha (plane) of the surrounding [physicality] and accepted through force of past habit. The old sanskara (habit) of the body that the Ananda must be discontinued to give it relief, exists also in that mind and has its effect in bringing about discontinuity. The latter can be more easily eliminated than the general habit of discontinuance, which cannot be finally expelled except by the growth of the nihsmarana action [9].

Explaining all the passages seen above would be an unnecessary detour here.   The key point is that the body has to be made more supple and luminous in order to sustain spiritual experiences.  As the Mother put it succinctly, “One should find relaxation in force and light, not in darkness and weakness”[10].

Sri Aurobindo wrote at length on the retention capacity (Dharana Shakti) that needs to be developed in The Synthesis of YogaHere is an excerpt from the chapter called “The Power of the Instruments:

The body is not only the necessary outer instrument of the physical part of action, but for the purposes of this life a base or pedestal also for all inner action. All working of mind or spirit has its vibration in the physical consciousness, records itself there in a kind of subordinate corporeal notation and communicates itself to the material world partly at least through the physical machine. But the body of man has natural limitations in this capacity which it imposes on the play of the higher parts of his being. And, secondly, it has a subconscient consciousness of its own in which it keeps with an obstinate fidelity the past habits and past nature of the mental and vital being and which automatically opposes and obstructs any very great upward change or at least prevents it from becoming a radical transformation of the whole nature. It is evident that if we are to have a free divine or spiritual and supramental action conducted by the force and fulfilling the character of a diviner energy, some fairly complete transformation must be effected in this outward character of the bodily nature. The physical being of man has always been felt by the seekers of perfection to be a great impediment and it has been the habit to turn from it with contempt, denial or aversion and a desire to suppress altogether or as far as may be the body and the physical life. But this cannot be the right method for the integral Yoga. The body is given us as one instrument necessary to the totality of our works and it is to be used, not neglected, hurt, suppressed or abolished. If it is imperfect, recalcitrant, obstinate, so are also the other members, the vital being, heart and mind and reason. It has like them to be changed and perfected and to undergo a transformation. As we must get ourselves a new life, new heart, new mind, so we have in a certain sense to build for ourselves a new body.

The first thing the will has to do with the body is to impose on it progressively a new habit of all its being, consciousness, force and outward and inward action. It must be taught an entire passivity in the hands first of the higher instruments, but eventually in the hands of the spirit and its controlling and informing Shakti. It must be accustomed not to impose its own limits on the nobler members, but to shape its action and its response to their demands, to develop, one might say, a higher notation, a higher scale of responses. At present the notation of the body and the physical consciousness has a very large determining power on the music made by this human harp of God; the notes we get from the spirit, from the psychic soul, from the greater life behind our physical life cannot come in freely, cannot develop their high, powerful and proper strain. This condition must be reversed; the body and the physical consciousness must develop the habit of admitting and shaping themselves to these higher strains and not they, but the nobler parts of the nature must determine the music of our life and being.

The control of the body and life by the mind and its thought and will is the first step towards this change. All Yoga implies the carrying of that control to a very high pitch. But afterwards the mind must itself give place to the spirit, to the spiritual force, the supermind and the supramental force. And finally the body must develop a perfect power to hold whatever force is brought into it by the spirit and to contain its action without spilling and wasting it or itself getting cracked. It must be capable of being filled and powerfully used by whatever intensity of spiritual or higher mind or life force without any part of the mechanical instrument being agitated, upset, broken or damaged by the inrush or pressure, – as the brain, vital health or moral nature are often injured in those who unwisely attempt Yogic practice without preparation or by undue means or rashly invite a power they are intellectually, vitally, morally unfit to bear, – and, thus filled, it must have the capacity to work normally, automatically, rightly according to the will of that spiritual or other now unusual agent without distorting, diminishing or mistranslating its intention and stress. This faculty of holding, dharana shakti, in the physical consciousness, energy and machinery is the most important siddhi or perfection of the body.

The result of these changes will be to make the body a perfect instrument of the spirit. The spiritual force will be able to do what it wills and as it wills in and through the body. It will be able to conduct an unlimited action of the mind or at a higher stage of the supermind without the body betraying the action by fatigue, incapacity, inaptitude or falsification. It will be able too to pour a full tide of the life-force into the body and conduct a large action and joy of the perfected vital being without that quarrel and disparity which is the relation of the normal life-instincts and life-impulses to the insufficient physical instrument they are obliged to use. And it will also be able to conduct a full action of the spiritualised psychic being not falsified, degraded or in any way marred by the lower instincts of the body and to use physical action and expression as a free notation of the higher psychical life. And in the body itself there will be a presence of a greatness of sustaining force, an abounding strength, energy and puissance of outgoing and managing force, a lightness, swiftness and adaptability of the nervous and physical being, a holding and responsive power in the whole physical machine and its driving springs [mahattva, bala, laghuta, dharana-samarthya] of which it is now even at its strongest and best incapable [11].


  1. Bulletin of the SAICE, Feb. 1960, pp 80-81.  (Mother: “So in other days I used to send them to Ramana Maharshi, saying, ‘Go there, you will get into meditation and you will find rest’.”); Nirodbaran. Talks with Sri Aurobindo, vol. 2, p 542, 10 Mar 1940. (Sri Aurobindo: “For peace he can go to Ramana Maharshi. When people come here for peace I always ask them to go to him.”)
  2. Kanailal Ganguly.  As I remember.
  3. Nagin Doshi, Guidance from Sri Aurobindo, (Pondicherry: SABDA, 1987), vol. 2.
  4. Sri Aurobindo.  The Record of Yoga, p 119.
  5. ibid., p 213.
  6. ibid., p 636.
  7. ibid., p 878.
  8. ibid., p 1055.
  9. ibid., p 1065.
  10. The Mother.  Collected Works of the Mother. vol. 12, p 54.
  11. Sri Aurobindo.  The Synthesis of Yoga, CWSA vol. 23-24, pp 730-732.

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  5. Why spiritual experiences do not repeat?
  6. Stabilizing the body before meditation
  7. Transcending the work-leisure cycle
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  14. The ability to withstand hardships in the spiritual path

30 thoughts on “Dharana Shakti : the capacity to sustain spiritual experiences

  1. Diane

    A brilliant post Sandeep, and most timely
    I have an inherited nervous disposition, and it was by actually reading the Record that I made a much greater headway in diminishing its effects on my mental vital and physical.
    I have always found it interesting that Sri Aurobindo did not recommend Hatha Yoga to the disciples any ideas why not?
    I did do hatha yoga for a number of years but have always found that walking works better for me, perhaps because i live in a National Park and bush walks are just outside my door.

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Why did Sri Aurobindo not recommend Hatha Yoga to disciples?

      One would have to be a Guru to know the answers to such questions! It might be because Hatha Yoga might interfere with the Mother’s action on the Chakras. In any case, the Ashram inmates already worked during the day and also participated in various sports so the physical body was being exercised.

      I found one instance where the Mother explicitly forbade one disciple, Venkatraman, from practicing Hatha Yoga.

      Interview with the Mother. The main advice she gave me was to use my tongue carefully, that is, not to be indiscreet. She finds my progress satisfactory — is not in favour of my practising Hatha Yoga which I was seriously attempting.
      (K.S. Venkatraman, My Diary Leaves, 28 Jan 1936)

      Now that the Mother’s direct presence is not available, I guess it would be prudent to practice Hatha Yoga in the initial stages (for those who need it).

  2. Rick Thomas

    Sandeep, I must thank you for this article. It pieces together essential points of Sri Aurobindo’s comments on this aspect of yoga.
    Reading your article, which so skillfully pieces together both comments in Synthesis and Record of Yoga , brings those points about developing the “capacity to retain and not spill” , all the way into the outer physical, into clearer focus.
    I myself had been quite frustrated for some time by this lack of capacity to retain and attention to remember the status or position of focus of identity, particularly affected by the already “naturally” and “behaviorally” established patterns/habits/memories.
    As new experiencesand energies come into the vessel the more it seems imperative for there to be an appropriate governing consciousness and capacity to recieve it and hold it. There has developed at the same time both an increased patience and aceptance of things as they are by nature (less reactive drama) while yet a more focused attentionor, as Mother would say, sincerity or rememberance to open and surrender constantly
    What has become a clearerlight for me now is the “absolute” necessity, as they have described it, of a “change of government” also, as the abiding manaaging human mentality. vitality, physicallity are too dominated by the atavisms/sanskaras/memories of past patterns. This status quo is like a living in death and being disempowered rather than “Being in the Light”

    1. Sandeep Post author

      We all go through these transitional problems. One has to live a spartan life like an athlete or a soldier when it comes to food and exercise, otherwise there is no further progress.

  3. mike

    “Why did Sri Aurobindo not recommend Hatha Yoga to disciples?”

    Perhaps the postures in hatha yoga arouse the kundalini from the base, which is not compatible with Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga – where kundalini is supposed to first descend from above. Might be a conflict.

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Yes, must have been something like that. Hatha yoga would have interfered with the Mother’s action on the Chakras.

      Btw, there is a pending question for you on a different thread

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  7. Sandeep Post author

    The unattainable beauty
    The thought of which was pain
    That flickered in eyes and on lips
    And vanished again:
    That fugitive beauty
    Thou shalt attain.

    (George William Russell aka A.E., The Promise)

  8. huta

    O Misfortune, blessed be thou; for through thee I have
    seen the face of my Lover.

    One must already be very strong, very far along the way, to
    be able to face success and the little enjoyments it brings without
    giving way. Those who can do this, those who are strong, do
    not run after success; they do not seek it, and accept it with
    25 May 1960

    Sandeep the above are Mother’s words explaining an aphorism of SA on misfortune. However i have a question what does she mean by being strong here and secondly often when I read their writings esp like the above sample the advice may be given to sadhaks on the spiritual path but then its useful to material and mundane life too. Passing an exam or being honest at a time and place when everything around u isn’t is also a kind of Sadhana…. do u think its ok to apply the advice of the Mother mostly not always, given in a particular context n the realm of spiritual life to mundane life too???

    1. Sandeep Post author

      If “all Life is Yoga” as Sri Aurobindo said, then the advice can be applied in other contexts as well. The circumstances of life can be transformed if one approaches life from a higher perspective.

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  12. Satya Prakash

    Hi Sandeep,
    Many many thanks for this beautiful article. I myself was pondering over this as I used to yawn and get sleep after some serious meditation. But I have a doubt. All through the post it is mentioned regarding how our physical body should be and once it is perfected how blissful would be the resultant state. But nowhere are the actual steps mentioned which are needed to progressively make our physical body more receptive to higher consciousness. I mean like what our food habits should be, sleeping habits and all those. Why i am saying is because i was very happy when i finally found this post and thought maybe some practical steps would have been mentioned as to how to deal with such physical weakness and how to increase the retaining capacity of our body but which, I didn’t find any where. Sorry if i missed it but i would be glad if you would also mention the practical steps needed to increase the receptive power of our body.

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Beyond the obvious such as eating healthy food, exercising and getting good sleep, there are a few other things which can be done.

      Learn to keep the body still and breath normally when the body is tired.
      When you get exhausted, don’t eat junk food and watch TV as people normally do.

      See some other observations listed under another blog post “transcending the work-leisure cycle

      Also see what the Mother has said under “four austerities and four liberations”

      1. Satya Prakash

        Ok boss,
        Thanks for the quick reply, will definitely go through the links. Apart from this I just wanted to ask one more thing which is completely irrelevant to the present discussion. Forgive me if this is not the right place to ask a personal question. For a long time I have been facing this problem of severe head ache, for almost like 8 years. Initially I tried all possible methods like surgery, a course of medicines, eye and brain checkup…..nothing seemed to work and i then just gave up on it and accepted it to be a part of my life. But now after having come through all this ways like yoga, spirituality and all, i kind of have a feeling that maybe there is a permanent cure for my this problem. Since you have gone so extensively through the works of Sri Maa and Aurobindo, so I thought maybe you can advice me something regarding this. And one more thing, is it ok to meditate even if i am having a bad headache?
        Once again sorry if I asked it in a wrong place.

      2. Sandeep Post author

        Satya : Once again sorry if I asked it in a wrong place.

        Ok, you are pardoned for the crime of asking questions in the wrong place 🙂

        It is difficult for me to offer a diagnosis for your headache over the Internet, but I can make one suggestion. Every day, you should open a book by Sri Aurobindo and read it for 15-30 minutes with a blank mind. Keep doing it even if you dont understand what he is saying. There is a spiritual light contained in his words which might heal your headache. Try this for a few weeks and see if it helps.

        Satya: And one more thing, is it ok to meditate even if i am having a bad headache?

        If you do it correctly, it should relax the brain and relieve the headache. If the headache makes it difficul to watch the mind, try to focus your attention on the body instead. Breath gently and watch the sensation in your stomach, back, thighs, calves, soles of feet.

        Try this exercise as well : https://auromere.wordpress.com/techniques/widen-the-consciousness/

        Have you identified a specific reason for the headache? Is it general anxiety, diet, a troublesome person, bad weather, seasonal or other recurring variation, hereditary weakness ?

      3. Satya Prakash

        ha ha, i am grateful for the pardon :)).
        “If you do it correctly, it should relax the brain and relieve the headache”
        Well for me meditation means sitting silently with my eyes closed and trying to concentrate on the picture of some realized master. I think it could be great if you could suggest me a link regarding Sri Maa and Aurobindo’s sayings on the topic of meditation so that i can actually understand it from there viewpoint.
        “Have you identified a specific reason for the headache”
        Someone once had told me that I am suffering from sinus headache, not sure though. Some times if i have had a long verbal discussion, if i have spent too much time under fan, read too much on internet (like wikipedia or some informative blogs) or have to plan all by myself for a trek or trip (maybe this is general anxiety), i tend to get a severe headache after such conditions. It’s definitely not a troublesome person or some hereditary weakness as i am the first person in my family to have such a long running headache. Regarding diet or bad weather i am not sure because many times i have been on monsoon treks in which we hike under very rainy and windy conditions with minimal diet but i still am ok throughout and after the trek. In short it happens very randomly. Since nothing in the medical field ever worked for me or atleast clearly indicated what the actual problem is, so all i know is it’s just a head ache. I have never tried yoga in my life, only very recently i have been trying atleast to meditate regularly.

      4. Sandeep Post author

        Satya: Some times if i have had a long verbal discussion, if i have spent too much time under fan, read too much on internet (like wikipedia or some informative blogs) or have to plan all by myself for a trek or trip (maybe this is general anxiety), i tend to get a severe headache after such conditions.

        Maybe some imbalance in the vital airs (vata, pitta, etc). Try Ayurveda.

    1. Satya Prakash

      Thanks Mike. But by magnesium do you mean some medicines? Because there was a time when i used to take lots of medicines. I got fed up and have left them ever since :). Because all this medicines they temporarily suppress my head aches, but it again appears after some time.

  13. mike

    Hi Satya. l really mean’t magnesium supplements in tablet form – not really medicine as in pharmaceutical. l believe anxiety may be caused in a lot of ppl these days because so much food is processed and magnesium is stripped out due to that. As said in the quote below. Magnesium deficiency can also be responsible for headaches [but l’m no expert and your condition could be anything]. Cerain medication can cause magnesium deficency as well, l believe:

    “Migraine headaches
    Magnesium deficiency is related to factors that promote headaches, including neurotransmitter release and vasoconstriction [51]. People who experience migraine headaches have lower levels of serum and tissue magnesium than those who do not.”

    “Magnesium used to be an abundant mineral found in numerous foods. But over time, food processing practices essentially stripped magnesium out of most diets, causing numerous people to be magnesium deficient.

    Magnesium plays a role in over 300 different chemical reactions in the body, and many studies have shown that a deficiency in magnesium contributes to several mental health problems, including anxiety.”

  14. mike

    Perhaps you just need a good multi-vitamin – you could be lacking something that your not getting in your diet..
    l’ve had a sinus problem for years [rhinnitis] but it doesn’t give me headaches – probably affects ppl differenty, though..

    1. Satya Prakash

      Thanks a lot for this. I did google out for magnesium rich foods and found out so many of them are easily available. Will try to incorporate them in my daily diet :). Thanks once again,

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  17. 01

    “those who have engaged in physical culture will concur that there comes a moment when the exercises that previously seemed to exhaust the body suddenly become effortless.”
    Sure, in hatha and calisthenics yes, but it never happens to me with taoist exercises unless I do them wrong, too fast, strain too much, etc. It’s like they’re designed for sickly people, heh. Wow, I hope I won’t look like Atlas, lol. I seem to gain huge amount of muscle compared to my (very small) effort, hmmm.

    I don’t understand exactly WHY is it dangerous? Is it because it’s (downwards) kundalini, is that it? But stabilizing the mind yoga sutras-style shouldn’t cause any damage? Technically, it’s just making yourself less crazy, wouldn’t that actually help the body? When I was doing spells I didn’t noticed any additional physical problems. Psychological, maybe. There’s some truth to urban legend of magick making people crazy, I think. When you use your mind wrong it gets broken. Never had any dramatic physical problems from it, though. But it’s in pop culture, Willow got nosebleeds when she teleported Glory, heh. Never tried teleporting anyone (lol!) so I don’t know.


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