Finding Sanctuary in the Practice of Pratyahara
Life often feels like being on a spinning playground carousel. Sometimes I enjoy the rush of it. But there are times when I feel overwhelmed and disoriented by the unrelenting motion. I just want to get off and step away in order to feel my feet on the ground and take a moment’s pause. In truth, I think everyone has moments like these when they’d like to hit the pause button and take a break.
Being able to withdraw from the harried, busy pace of daily life is vital for our physical, mental and spiritual health. But how can we carve out moments of rest and sanctuary in the midst of many demands and responsibilities? One strategy is to have a quiet, sacred space to which you can retreat. Another can be found in the yoga practice of pratyahara.
A Room of One’s Own
Since I was a child, no matter where I lived, I sought out spaces I could call my own. Sometimes it was a corner of a shared bedroom or a favorite study carrel in the campus library. However, the need for a personal sanctuary didn’t really hit home until I found myself without one.
The realization came follow a move from the home in which I raised my children to a condominium. After the movers left, I was filled with a sense of overwhelm in the face of the mountains of unpacked boxes that made sleep impossible. Rather than toss and turn, I got up and started unpacking in the one room I knew I needed most—my yoga space.
The room was a small, door-less room that doubled as a home office. It housed a window seat, book shelves and just enough space in which to roll out my yoga mat. As I unpacked boxes of books through the quiet, dark-filled hours, the racing of my pulse and the anxiousness in my stomach began to ease. The process of creating order and nesting in my new home was incredibly soothing.
After a few hours and with at least this one space in the house feeling settled, I was able to return to bed and sleep. More than anything, it was the assurance that in the midst of the transition I had a place to escape from the chaos of the rest of the house.
We all share this need of a sacred place in which to retreat– “a room of one’s own” as Virginia Woolf famously called it. Personally, this is my place for quiet reflection, meditation, prayer and yoga. It’s a place where I can step away from the constant barrage of noise, to do lists, dirty laundry and other responsibilities and actively listen to my breath and heart. Your yoga practice also can be a place of sanctuary through the practice of pratyahara.
Pratyahara or “sense withdrawal” is an integral part of any yoga practice. When resting in Savasana or sitting quietly in meditation, the invitation is always to close your eyes, focus on your breath and take your awareness inward. The intent here is to draw your attention away from the constant stimulation of the external world in order to focus on your attention within.
During these times, you may still be aware of ambient sounds, like the traffic outside your window, or take notice of physical sensations, such as being cold or relaxed. However, instead of reacting to this input, you take the stance of a curious observer. As an observer, these moments of quiet witnessing often lead to new insights into your thought patterns, needs, desires and emotions. In yoga this is known as the practice of svadyhyaya or self study.
Of course, you don’t have to sit or lie absolutely still in order to experience pratyahara. Pratyahara can be a part of your movement practice, too. By inviting moments of stillness and introspection into your asana practice, you can find a sense of rest and sanctuary as you move.
Here are three simple steps to help you bring the practice of pratyahara onto your mat:
Step One: Pause
As you come into a pose, pause and close your eyes. Allow yourself to fully experience the sensations of your body and breath. Where are you holding unnecessary tension? What feels comfortable? Is the breath smooth and even or labored? There are few poses that require tensing our jaw, so notice any clenching or over-efforting and let go.
Step Two: Observe
Next, notice the thoughts and judgments that arise: “Am I doing this pose correctly? Should I stay in the pose or come out of it? What will I make for dinner?” Observe the thoughts and judgments with curiosity and compassion. Ask yourself, “What is this pose trying to teach me? Patience? Perseverance? Something else?”
Step Three: Embrace
Allow your body, breath and mind to be just as they are. Know that whatever you are feeling is temporary and will shift as you continue to move through your practice.
By practicing pratyahara on your mat, you can become more aware and present in each pose. And with regular practice, pratyahara can reveal patterns of thoughts, beliefs and behaviors which may no longer serve you. With this knowledge, you have the power to choose to either accept or change them, ultimately moving you closer to living as your true, authentic self.
published 1/25/21; updated 11/20/23