The Eight Limbs of Yoga: An 18-week mini-course
WEEK FOURTEEN: PRATYAHARA
Encouraging the Senses to Draw Inward
- Sutra II.54
Having prepped my morning cup of coffee, I settle cross-legged into the center of my red love seat placing a pillow slightly under each knee and snuggle my back into the firm support behind me. I gaze out at the surrounding park and distant mountains as the morning light filters through windows from three directions. Ahhh yes. To start my day with meditation is such a gift. And though fairly consistent, it is never the same twice.
The term meditation practice can be deceiving. There tends to be an expectation that meditation means to still the mind while achieving nirvana. And if that doesn’t occur, then there are often feelings of failure and frustration. “I can’t meditate. My mind never stops.” Have you ever heard those words inside your own head? Or maybe even uttered to a friend? I have certainly heard them from several of my students.
The truth is, one cannot make meditation happen. It is the result of several other practices that are well outlined in the Eight Limbs of Yoga that I have been sharing in this 18-part mini-course. If you haven’t been following the course until now, I invite you to return to the beginning of the JOURNEY TOWARD SELF because it is incredibly valuable and will most certainly affect your approach to Yoga. Those wise Yogis from the past outlined this path to awakening with such clarity.
Here we are at the 5th Limb of Yoga known in Sanskrit at PRATYAHARA. Translated, it means to draw our senses inward paying attention to the world inside our own skin. This drawing inward begins to free us from the distractions that are always present in the world around us.
"Just as a tortoise withdraws its limbs, so when a woman withdraws her senses from the sense objects, her wisdom becomes steady." -Bhagavad Gita
As I settle myself into my supportive seat, yes on a couch, I give myself a few moments to squirm about, perfecting the placement of feet and knees, adjusting the skin across my hips and spine, aligning my shoulders and head to find that just right balance for my bones to settle and my muscles to relax. I am particular about my hand placement choosing one of several mudras – gestures – that reflects my mood of the morn. Sometimes hands are down on my knees to bring a grounding sensation. Sometimes I face them upward to feel more open and receptive. My most common choice is to interlace my fingers and touch the tips of my thumbs together, resting my hands in my lap with for sense of connection between myself and all that is. (mandala mudra)
With my physical body in place, I offer it my full attention, scanning slowly from head to toe feeling all sensations. I search for places that feel tense or dull. I pause and sink in inviting the opposite, releasing or enlivening. Sometimes the feelings shift, sometimes not. I move on. I reach my toes and move back up, this time expanding my awareness to include my entire body as a whole. This process of attention draws my sense of feeling inside, beginning to penetrate deep beneath the skin and into my very core as the world around me fades to the background.
As the senses withdraw, the intuitive mind awakens.
Breathing becomes my anchor securing me to the present moment. I feel my breath moving into and out of my body, rising and falling, expanding and contracting, lightening and rooting. My ears open and settle on the oceanic rhythm vibrating through my canals drowning out external noises; the churning of my kitty cat clock, the whoosh of the hot water heater igniting, a momentary conversation between walkers passing by on the nearby trail. I am aware of them in the background yet I focus more deeply and listen to the sound of my breath, and outer sounds pass through me without disturbance.
My eyes have been closed from the start helping me to more fully feel the sensations in my body, and hear the flow of my breath. Now reflecting on the quality of my eyes, I soften them from corner to corner, and consciously settle the weight of my eyeballs deeper into my skull amazed at the release of tension that follows this simple inner suggestion. I draw my inner gaze either up between my brows or down to the center of my heart. Just like my hands in mudra, the choice of my inner focus brings a different effect. I begin to watch…. my body, my breath, my thoughts, my emotions, my comfort, my challenges, my distractions. When I catch myself getting involved with problem solving, comparing, judging or even entertaining ideas, I gently return my attention to the sensations of the moment.
This is what I feel in my body right now. I hear my breath flowing in. I hear my breath flowing out. I see my heart. I see myself. I see this moment. I am tasting the sweetness of this present moment. I draw my senses inward and rest in the present moment.
Pratyahara, withdrawing our senses, has the power to settle us into a place of deep reflection, more aware of our inner landscape and its constant changes, and less attached to the world outside. It lies at the threshold between the external practices of asana and pranayama and the internal ones of concentration and meditation. These limbs prepare the fertile groundwork for the next three limbs, leading to the experience of meditation.
I hope you enjoy these equally delicious practices along the way. Begin today. They are simple, though not always easy. The key is consistency, returning over and over again to the present moment, sensing what is alive in YOU.
To experience pratyahara, lie down in a fully supported position and enjoy to this 10-minute guided relaxation.
“Dwelling in stillness and looking inward for some part of each day, we touch what is most real and reliable in ourselves. When we can be centered in ourselves, even for brief periods of time, not having to look elsewhere for something to fill us up or make us happy, we can be at home wherever we are, at peace with things as they are, moment by moment.
- Jon Kabat Zinn, Wherever We Go There We Are