Sanctuary and Pratyahara

Finding Sanctuary

A number of years ago, my daughter moved into a studio apartment in Boston. The apartment was three rooms—a living space that doubled as a bedroom, a bathroom and a tiny, efficiency kitchen. The day of her move she was overwhelmed as her furniture and boxes of clothes and dishes quickly consumed any free floor space in her very small living quarters. I could tell from the expression on her face and her strained tone of voice that she was fighting a meltdown. It was hard to know where to start unpacking.

I’d felt the same way when we moved several years later from our long time home to a condominium. I remember being unable to sleep that first night. So 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 worked through the quiet dark-filled hours unpacking, I began to feel the racing of my pulse and the anxiousness in my stomach ease as the room took shape and the bookshelves filled with my beloved books and memorabilia. After a few hours, I was able to return to bed and sleep, now assured that in the midst of the transition, I had a place to escape the chaos of the rest of the house to meditate or practice yoga.

We all need a place to which we can retreat. “A room of one’s own” Virginia Woolf famously called it. For me, it is a place for quiet reflection and prayer as well as for my yoga practice. 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 for God’s “still small voice.” Being able to withdraw from our harried, busy lives is vital for our physical, mental and spiritual health. Our yoga practice also provides a place of sanctuary through the practice of pratyahara.

Pratyahara or “sense withdrawal” is something we experience commonly during savasana and meditation. When we lie in savasana or sit in meditation, we close our eyes and focus on our breath, withdrawing attention from the external world but without completely losing contact with it. We still hear sounds and feel physical sensations, but we endeavor to observe them rather than react to them. In the quiet of savasana and meditation, new insights can arise, and we find a temporary sanctuary from the noise and busyness of life.

We don’t have to sit or lie absolutely still in order to experience pratyahara. We can invite pratyahara into our asana practice using these three steps–

  1. Pause – As you come into a pose, pause close your eyes and allow yourself to fully experience your body and your breath. Where are you holding unnecessary tension? What feels comfortable? Is the breath smooth and even or labored? There are few poses that require us to tense our jaw, so notice where you are expending unneeded effort and let go.
  2. Observe – Notice any 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?”
  3. 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 throughout our yoga practice, we can recognize our thoughts and divert the energy away from thoughts about the pose and back towards being in the pose and experiencing it. At the same time, the practice of pratyahara can bring us closer to our true selves. It provides a tool for observing our thought patterns so we can choose to either accept or change them.

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