As we enter into a new year … a new decade, that is … it seems appropriate to start off with a topic that is missing in many yoga classes. To keep it simple for newcomers I don’t always use the Sanskrit word “pratyahara” to describe what we are doing here at Prakrti Yoga, but whether in asana (physical postures), meditation, yoga nidra, or if we are gathered in Sacred Circle, the first thing I ask is that we all tune into our breath. Then I, in some way, ask them to begin to feel into their body.
Eventually I see their breath stabilize, coming to slow, steady, full inhalations and exhalations. Next I watch as their body and breath merge into one. I see their facial expressions soften as the mind begins to rest inside the breath and the body relaxes.
Upon each meeting, as I gently guide them into this state of being fully present in the moment, I trust in each client’s inner wisdom. I trust they will take away any teachings or insights offered throughout our time together. I trust they will learn to connect with their hearts, with their Divine Nature, and learn to live fully in their own truths. I trust they will grow to understand their Dharma, their life purposes.
I may plan and plan, but as I lead classes and work with clients privately, I tend to turn away from my own agenda and allow Spirit to guide, tuning into my intuition and “hearing” the needs of those sharing my space. However, it is rare that I ever fail to begin anything here without having clients settle into the present moment and turn inward, except with my Young Yogis during which I might put this part of class toward the end after they’ve gotten all the wiggles out!
This is sacred space, and most find it easy to temporarily forget the rest of the world while on the yoga mat or bolster. Yet, I want to be sure that all who enter here, eventually realize that they can withdraw into themselves and away from the chaos of busy lives. I want them to understand that no matter what trauma they have suffered or are currently suffering, they do indeed have the ability to heal. I want them to know that they can shift their mood, reduce anxiety, and get rid of chronic body pain wherever they are.
What my clients are learning by their consistent practice is one of the Eight Limbs of Yoga set forth by the great Patanjali in his Yoga Sutra. The Sutra describes a series of practices along the eight-fold path we bring to action at Prakrti Yoga. Yoga Sutra could be considered life guidelines or codes of morals and ethics in which to bring us into healthier physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual, and vibrational health.
Pratyahara is the fifth limb of the Yoga Sutra. It comes from two Sanskrit words, prati meaning “against” or “away” and ahara, which means “food.” In this case, we can refer to ahara as any stimuli we take in and ingest. The essence of pratyahara is “withdrawal of the senses”. Some might describe pratyahara as mindfully filtering what we experience in our outer world.
During pratyahara we make a conscious effort to draw our awareness away from the external world and outside stimuli. We learn to detach from our senses, and direct our attention internally. The practice of pratyahara provides us with an opportunity to step back and take a look at ourselves. This withdrawal allows us to objectively observe our cravings or habits or anything detrimental to our health which likely interferes with our inner growth.
We all have this curiosity to learn more and this drive to do or have more. Many of us are afraid we are going to miss something important or we believe we are too busy to just sit alone for a while in silence and stillness. Perhaps we feel pressure from others or from ourselves to constantly be in motion, working, acquiring material possessions, learning, doing. Yet, we are faced with constant noise – constant stimulation from media, from other people, from multitasking trying to complete a never-ending to-do list.
After a recent short social media hiatus, I reluctantly showed myself again, in part because I had a studio schedule to post for the week. I felt relieved having had all this extra time to fold laundry and clean the kitchen. I felt happier not comparing my life or my business to others who appear to be more “successful” than me. I felt less jealous and angry this Christmas since I didn’t have to see all those “happy” family photos that were to be thrown in this grieving momma’s face! I was less stressed, and it was so noticeable I seriously thought about deleting my accounts. Except experts seem to believe I need social media for the success of my business.
I logged on but it wasn’t long before I shifted from my work on the studio’s Facebook page to bragging about my kid on my personal page. Next thing I knew, I was scrolling through my feed to see what I had been missing over the past few days while I was away. Fortunately, I caught myself and stopped before I got too drawn in. I was proud for not spending too much time away from my studies, as I was on a deadline. Soon enough, though, I caught myself with too many Google tabs open to count. While I was studying my Ayurveda assignment, I was reminded that I need to purchase some herbs, which led me to check my suppliers for the best prices, which led me to the sale on essential oils which I also need to restock, which made me remember I need storage containers for my bulk herbs and herbal and EO blends I make for clients.
Oh … while I’m at it, I don’t like the labels I used last time, so let me just take another minute to see if I can find something more suitable … and oh yeah … which shoes was my son looking at – how much are they? What about those he already ordered – are they still scheduled for delivery on Tuesday?
Wait! I forgot to take my Ashwagandha with warm milk. Since I’m in the kitchen I’ll get my Triphala ready for later, too … Better pee before I get back to studying, but first these dishes need to be loaded and the dishwasher started.
I wouldn’t say I’m ADHD by nature, but it sounds like it, doesn’t it?! According to Ayurveda, I am of Vata Pitta constitution. Being Vata, I’m highly involved in any and all types of thought processes, I feel a constant need to be busy, and everything seems very important to me. Vata when out of balance makes me feel confused, causes anxiety and fear and causes me to forget to eat, among other things. My Pitta part makes me highly ambitious and extremely driven to get things done … and done properly. No half-@%%ING allowed. That Pitta causes me to get frustrated with myself for not being able to stay on task. If I’m not careful, I find I’m mad at the world because I’ve exhausted myself with my own distractions and imperfections, and I had to stay up later than I intended to get my assignments turned in on time. Pitta becomes imbalanced and I suffer from chronic migraines, body pain, and fever because my fiery nature needs to somehow release.
Eventually, I did find my way back to my studies. I giggled as I remembered a question a precious friend once asked me. “Do you ever actually get anything done. From where I sit, you look like a cat chasing its tail, always busy but not accomplishing anything.” I hate to admit he was absolutely spot on, but he was. And it prompted me to be more mindfully present in each and every task.
O.K. so obviously it’s an ongoing practice which most likely I will never master, but it’s one which produces positive outcomes and a less stressed me, so I’ll keep it up.
Recently, there are times when the Kapha in me shows up. Usually it’s during episodes of grief. I feel lazy and unmotivated and just want to sleep and hide from my family and friends. This isn’t a healthy form of withdrawal! That is not pratyahara! It is isolation that leads to depression.
There are different ways to practice pratyahara, based on whichever of my constitutional attributes comes out of alignment. I have found techniques that help restore my senses, calm my mind, reduce anxiety, and ease depression – even while I sit in the bleachers watching my son play basketball. I’ve learned that I can withdraw from the noise of the crowd and frustration of bad ref calls to settle into my own breath and body. I have learned how to just be there in the “Now Moment”, fully enjoying my son play his sport, not worrying about what we’re going to eat later or if homework will get finished, or if I’ve forgotten anything that day.
In our studio gatherings, I give all my clients one simple way of withdrawing from over stimulation and overwhelm that they can take out of the studio and into their world. If they come to me for private sessions, however, I offer other ways to withdraw from busyness and chaos – or maybe even their unmotivation if they happen to be Kapha in nature. I offer personalized methods for what they need to help bring them closer to their True Nature.
Some pratyahara practices I might recommend could include moving the body – focused attention while practicing yoga asana, dancing, running, or lifting weights is a great way to withdraw from sensory overload or things that can cause harm. Taking a break from or performing a full media detox brings your focus back to the things that truly matter, helping to see priorities as they should be. Leaving behind or distancing yourself from other people who bring constant negativity into your life helps clear the mind and emotions of toxicity. Journaling helps you to move inward, or perhaps try gardening. Prayer, meditation and yogic breath control practices are all techniques to move us inward and away from sensory overload and toxic behaviors.
Going forth into 2020, remember this … Input = Output.
If you eat only junk food, it’s going to eventually show on your body or in your skin or in your overall health.* The same is true for what you watch on television, see on social media or in the news, words you read in print, music you listen to, with whom you spend time, places you frequent, etc, etc. You are what you eat. You become what your brain is fed.
Give yourself a break this year. Practice pratyahara.
*(Please Note: No food or body shaming is allowed at Prakrti Yoga! Cheetos have been this eating disorder survivor’s comforting best friend for almost two years now, since the loss of a child.)
Feel free to drop a line to let me know how you practice withdrawing the senses!