Yoga is all the rage these days. You hear of everyone and their brother and sister doing yoga. Celebrities are photographed and published in glossy magazines espousing the many benefits of yoga. Clothing retailers are getting in on the goods by selling yoga clothes. There is even a movement to make Competitive Yoga an Olympic sport (DO NOT get me started on that one….) It’s everywhere – or at least it seems to be.
It also seems that, to the mass public, yoga = Asana. While it is true that Asana (postures, poses, the physical movement) is an important part of yoga, it is far from all encompassing. The Sutras of Patanjali, the essential bible for all yogis, states that there are 8 limbs of yoga that make up the yogic lifestyle. Asana is only one of those limbs. Each limb is important and much has been written about each one. We all have to find a way to live our lives to the best of our ability using these limbs as a guide. One of the most questioned limbs is the 5th limb: Pratyahara. And, being the kind of person I am, I want to dive in and look at the one that is the most … um … abstract.
Pratyahara means Withdrawal of the Senses. Why would anyone want to do that? Sounds are good! Tastes are good! Smells are good! Sights are good! Yes, this is true, and lemme tell you, I love good things! According to Patanjali, however, Yoga is the “restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff.” In other words, directed focus in the midst of distraction. Being centered. Being devoted. Being on track. Being present. Being internal. Being – without being swayed. Pretty hard to do that when your kid is screaming at his brother, you can only smell the burnt popcorn left over from movie time, your belly is growling because the popcorn burned, you are working on your grocery list in your head, and someone washed your favorite sweater on hot and now it’s fitting you like a 3 year old’s scuba suit. At times like this, it helps to withdraw from all that stuff and get really centered and focused in order to stay cool.
Pratyahara, however, also comes into handy when nothing else is going on at all, because it’s really an illusion that nothing is going on – something always is happening, even if it’s only in your brain. Have you ever listened to the chatter that goes on inside your brain? We all are constantly talking to ourselves in our heads, even when we don’t want to, mean to, or even realize we are doing it. Quite often, this self talk is negative and harmful. We tell ourselves we can’t, we shouldn’t, we don’t deserve. We tell ourselves we’re not good enough, smart enough, thin enough, flexible enough, enough enough. These judgments play no part in a yogic lifestyle. They distract us from our greater purpose. They detract from the holy beings that we are. They sabotage the whole job we are put here to do – to hold and share The Divine Light that lives in us all. No wonder we are edgy, scattered, dissatisfied, soul-hungry human beings!
What would it be like to quiet the chatter? What would it be like to see, smell, taste, touch, and hear what goes on without letting it inside? What if we were inside a bubble, completely present in the moment, but essentially untouchable? What if, no matter what, nothing could ever harsh our mellow? This is what Pratyahara is all about. Pratyahara gets us to a place where we are focused, present, aware … and our mellow is untouchable.
So how do we do this? The same way we do anything – PRACTICE. Many folks practice Pratyahara while in Savasana. This is an excellent place because you are alone with your thoughts and your body isn’t doing anything other than maintaining it’s vitality – heart is beating, lungs are breathing, but nothing else is moving. For me, however, I practice all over the place and one of my favorite places to practice is on my mat during my physical practice of yoga. Somehow, when my body is doing one thing, I can focus and see if my mind is busy doing another.
When I dedicate my Asana practice to the limb of Pratyahara, I change things up a bit. While I’m fond of Vinyasa (flow) style yoga, Pratyahara requires me to slow down and use less engaging music (my favorite being instrumental music backed with ocean waves,) or none at all. I often will do much of my practice with my eyes closed so I’m not distracted by what I look like in the mirror, if my mat is straight and aligned, or whatever. With my eyes closed, I can release my judgment. I begin to see with my third eye and intuition takes over. I also hold my asanas for much longer than I would in a Vinyasa series. When we hold our bodies in pose for an extended time, our bodies release endorphins that help us feel empowered and alive. We gain an awareness that we can overcome discomfort (be it physical or emotional or mental.) We also can really hear our mental chatter with clarity. Once we hear the negative things we tell ourselves (all lies, by the way,) we can clear them and make room for beautiful acceptance (the truth.) Our breath pushes away that which does not serve us and it also brings us new tools and awareness for a better existence off the mat. Finally, I include a lot of binds in my physical practice. Bound poses encourages us to surrender, to let go, and to let us be OF this world instead of IN this world. When we are bound, we are forced to be totally present. Our bodies are still and, thus, we can focus our energy on stilling our minds. When all of these things come together, we can find ourselves pulled out of our flesh until we exist as pure Prana – life force – that flows through all living things. We get out of ourselves to become our best selves.
Release+Acceptance+ Surrender= Pratyahara= Freedom
Pratyahara is a practice. It is something that must be worked on daily. It doesn’t always come naturally or easily, but it does come. I am learning about this and know it will be a life long study. Yoga, in all forms, is not a way of living, it is a way of being – within myself and without.