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Turning Inward

Pratyahara, the 5th limb of the 8 limbs of Ashtanga yoga, is the practice of turning the senses inward. I have written quite a bit about pratyahara in the past, perhaps b/c it is one of my favorite limbs to teach and to practice, and because, along with pranayama, it is necessary in order to transition from our more physical practices to the spiritual practice of meditation.

In today’s divided world, those of us who are active in leading the way for positive change, are frequently met with resistance from all sides. It is crucial for us to take time to nurture our inner being in order to do the work we do. We have to be our own care-givers. Practicing pratyahara is part of this practice. In a society addicted to technology - computers and television - we are constantly assailed by negative impressions through media - fake news, politics, war, suffering, climate change, and so on.  Pratyahara involves not only releasing negative impressions, but nurturing our souls with positive impressions.

From Yoga International, “According to ayurveda, sensory impressions are the main food for the mind. The background of our mental field consists of predominant sensory impressions. We see this when our mind reverts to the impressions of the last song we heard or the last movie we saw. Just as junk food makes the body toxic, junk impressions make the mind toxic. Junk food requires a lot of salt, sugar, or spices to make it palatable because it is largely dead food; similarly, junk impressions require powerful dramatic impressions—sex and violence—to make us feel that they are real, because they are actually just colors projected on a screen.

We cannot ignore the role sensory impressions play in making us who we are, for they build up the subconscious and strengthen the tendencies latent within it. Trying to meditate without controlling our impressions pits our subconscious against us and prevents the development of inner peace and clarity.”

One of the most important things we can do to care for ourselves when we are feeling agitated, depressed, stressed or anxious is to turn off the television, and leave the computer and cellphone with messages turned off. Whether you take 20 minutes, an hour or a day - Take this time to reorient yourself to nature - to your natural self, and your inner needs.

The practice of yoga offers options to help us “re-set”. The physical practice of yoga through asana can help you to get out of your head and onto your mat. Pranayama techniques can be especially helpful to focus your attention, and prepare you to go inward, releasing what does not serve you. Alternate nostril breathing can help to clear out the negative tape loop playing over and over in your head and focus your awareness internally. Alternatively, Brahmari breath - or Bumblebee breath can be helpful in drawing your focus inwards.

Mudras can also help us to focus our awareness on one point. Try Samputa mudra to go inward or Abhisheka mudra (pictured above) to focus your attention towards the 3rd eye, as you close your eyes or soften your gaze.

Additionally, sound can be a powerful way to infuse your being with positive impressions. This can be any kind of music that you find soothing, or it can be a mantra or song that you enjoy singing. A repeated mantra can focus the mind on one sound such as “Om” or “So Hum” Different sounds have different effects on the body/mind. For more on sound and healing, check out:

The practice of Yoga Nidra offers another way to restore our body/mind with rest and positive impressions. There are an abundance of free practices on Insight Timer and other apps, or on youtube. Find a voice that relaxes you, and take 20-30 minutes out of your day to rest.

One of my favorite ways to practice pratyahara is to get out in nature - try to find a place where you can be alone and away from other people. Allow yourself to soak in all that is natural beauty around you - the sound of birds and animals, the smell of leaves and trees, the feel of the air moving, the sight of flowers, flora and fauna. Try to immerse yourself in nature at least once a week. She is, after all, our Mother. It is good to remember where we came from to re-energize and restore our sense of well-being.

These practices can be crucial in allowing ourselves to reconnect, to give our senses a break from the constant assault of tv and social media, and to prepare us for the deeper practices of mindfulness and meditation.

In peace, Namaste. (Photo from "Mudras for Healing and Transformation" by Joseph and Lilian Le Page)

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