Pratyahara: Meditation and Breathwork for a Deep Inner-Journey

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I want to talk about Pratyahara and offer a helpful breathing practice to accompany it. First I feel I need to give it a little context.

Yoga 101

Yoga is old. One of the earliest mentions of yoga comes from the Rig Veda, one of the oldest vedic texts dating somewhere around 1700–1100 BC. So, OLD.

Patanjali was a yoga scholar (some say a school of thought—doesn’t matter) around 200–500 CE who wrote a generalized guide to yoga called The Yoga Sutras. Sutra is a Saskrit word meaning suture or stitch. The Yoga Sutras are therefore 196 verses “stitched” together in order to create a larger patchwork of what yoga’s main goal is and how to practice it.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali starts by defining yoga as the ability to calm the mind into stillness to arrive at a state of Oneness with all things. He outlines 8 limbs of yoga or ways to practice arriving at this Oneness. These 8 limbs are presented from gross to subtle ways to practice yoga.

The 8 Limbs of Yoga

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The first limb is the Yamas or outward observances, the way we treat the world. If we’re assholes to everyone around us, we’re missing the essential point that somehow I’m everything and only hurting myself.

Second is Niyamas, or inner observances, the way I treat my inner comportment, my cleanliness, contentment, and ability for self-discovery through work and submission.

Third comes yoga Asanas, or the poses, how literally applying this knowledge to the body, mind, and spirit of my personal being and attempting to discover the unification of all of these. This is what most of us refer to when we think of yoga. That’s fine—you don’t have to start practicing at the beginning—whatever gets you onto the path.

Fourth, Pranayama refers to how this work affects one’s energy through breathwork and other energy manipulation through the chakras, or primary energy stations located along our spine.

Fifth, and this is what I want to talk about most today, come Pratyahara or gaining control over external influences and learning to withdraw from our senses as the entrance into the inner-being.

Photo by  Alex Adams

Photo by Alex Adams

Sixth is Dharana, or fixed concentration on one thing.

Seventh, Dhyana, deeper concentration where you begin to lose your sense of individuality and the object you’re observing start to merge.

Lastly the eights limb is Samadhi, or the state of Oneness.

So now you’ve got probably more information than you need about yoga philosophy and ancient texts, what does this Pratyahara business have to do with me?

If you’ve ever tried meditating, you’ve likely tried at least a few ways of meditating and discovered one or two ways that really help you to go deep into your meditation, where something begins to happen and we start to get that meditation hit that everyone is talking about. In part, this ability to go deeper into ourselves starts with Pratyahara.

The senses are a wonderful tools of cultivating presence. Paying attention to our senses help us wrangle in our wild and wandering mind to a state that is here and now. We’ve used our senses perhaps with the “There Is” Practice or similar practices. However, getting stuck into this mode of paying attention to what is outside maintains external attention and might prevent a deeper inner-journey. So, learning to move beyond our senses inward to a state of raw here-and-now-ness may deepen your meditation practice.

Your senses are always firing and constantly giving the brain information. In fact, there’s so much information happening all the time, that our brains have to learn to filter and select what is essential and what it can turn off. Pratyahara experiments with learning to turn ALL the senses off to find a state of deeper inner-awareness on our pathway to discover that the answers are within instead of outside of us.

To to practice Pratyahara start by listening to your senses and then go inward beyond them.


Breathing Practice to Complement Pratyahara

Here’s a breathing practice followed by a meditation that can help you with just this

Brahmari: Bumble Bee Breath

Brahmari breath is kinda weird so bear with me. What you do is sit, close your eyes, and place your hands on your face with your index fingers over your eyebrows, your middle fingers covering your eyes, fourth fingers just below your nostrils, and little fingers under your lips. Your fourth and fifth fingers therefore create a cradle around your mouth. Your thumbs gently plug your ears. This closes all the exits, except your nostrils. Now, you release your pinkies to take in a big breath through your mouth, replace your pinkies and close your mouth and let out a long hum until you have no more breath. When you’re empty, breathe in again and do another round. Continue for several rounds. Have fun with this: try high pitches, low pitches, make up little tunes— whatever. Ideally, you’ll drown out all other senses except the sound of your own humming in your head.

You may also choose to omit the crazy hands-to-face business and use earplugs and an eye mask—less adventurous but probably just as effective.

This practice will confirm to your neighbors peeping through the windows that yes, you finally have gone nuts and that they should probably look for another neighborhood. Better just to have some private space to do this.

After several minutes of this, keep your eyes closed and choose a meditation that cultivates a strong internal focus, something like mantra meditation or mindfulness meditation.

I might suggest using the Insight Timer and setting your timer for 20 minutes using an interval bell to ding after 5 minutes. Do the Brahmari breath for 5 minutes and after the interval bell dings, try a mantra or mindfulness meditation for the remaining 15 minutes.

This will be a great 20 minute practice to really cultivate inner-focus.

If you’re curious, give this a shot and let me know how it goes.

Kauai Yoga

I Have A Dream

I Have a Dream

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12 hours before the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would deliver his iconic I Have a Dream speech, he still didn't know what he was going to say. But on that historical day, August 28th 1963, Dr. King lead the march, and on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial delivered one of the most important speeches in American history. 

 

In his speech, Dr. King references the opening lines of Shakespeare's Richard III's when he said, "This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn. . ." portending the change of season in America's social climate.

Free At Last!

But toward the end of his speech, something miraculous happened. The famous gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was nearby and used her commanding voice to shout, "Tell them about the dream, Martin."

At that point Dr. King stopped delivering his prepared speech. He stood powerfully and began preaching to the quarter of a million people in attendance on the lawn of the memorial, and prophetically to the millions and millions of people who have since heard his words, punctuating each point with "I Have a Dream."

According to U.S Representative John Lewis who also spoke that day, "Dr. King had the power, the ability, and the capacity to transform those steps on the Lincoln Memorial into a monumental area that will forever be recognized. . . he educated, he inspired, he informed not just the people there, but people throughout America and unborn generations." more than 50 years later, we are those generations.

 

Free at last!

Part of the power of Dr. King's I Have a Dream speech was his important references. In it, Dr. King references not only Shakespeare, the Bible, gospel spirituals, political and religious leaders, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Constitution, but also Dr. King's speech and entire social message was a strong, tacit reference to the principle of non-violent revolution for the sake of making lasting social change. This principle of non-violence was championed by the social revolution led by Mahatma Gandhi who referenced the ancient Yoga Sutras. In Sanskrit the word Ahimsa means non-violence. The Yoga Sutras state that in order to become one's highest self, one must embrace the seminal principle of non-violence which is truly the gateway of unconditional love.

In fact, Dr. King was so inspired by Gandhi that in 1959 he visited Gandhi's birthplace in Gujarat, India. This visit left a profound impression of the concept of non-violent civil disobedience and further strengthened Dr. King's commitment toward America's struggle for human rights. And just like in India, it was a non-violent revolution that drove lasting change in America's social attitudes.

Free at Last!

In his speech, Dr. King also references transformational heat. In the Yoga Sutras, Tapas is defined as the heat necessary for transformation, like pottery fired in a kiln. Yoga means union. In yoga, we practice implementing this transformational heat to bind body, mind, and heart in our own person to work toward our highest self. With this proverbial heat, we then direct and bind the larger body of our family, our community, our nation, and our world in the spirit of its highest self. Growing pains are evidence of Tapas. Certainly there were growing pains in the Human Rights Movement. This heat was Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus. It was The Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. It was The March on Washington in 1963. It was Bloody Sunday in 1965. The heat that causes change can be necessarily uncomfortable, sometimes outright painful. Dr. King was on the burning tip of the spear of social transformation, a searing heat that would eventually take his life. But because of the heat of this social movement, The March on Washington and the I Have a Dream speech were two events that helped signal America's transformation of becoming a greater nation. That speech marked and catalyzed significant growth in this country. We are still growing. 

Transformation starts with an individual. Gandhi said,

"If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.... We need not wait to see what others do."

How are we willing to step into that heat of personal transformation? Are we willing to personally grow to ensure a strong body, bright mind, and open heart and grow into our highest potential? Are we willing to stand up for an injustice? And how do we make that change both as an individual and as a nation that allows all parts to grow stronger rather than being cut or compromised? Surely this is a difficult task. To ensure mutual growth, we change while practicing non-violence, Ahimsa. Like Gandhi and Dr. King discovered, Ahimsa is both the personal and global non-violent revolution that makes lasting change. Whether it's internal change like greater mindfulness or a more healthy body or external political or social change like gun control, same-sex marriage, political partisanship, undocumented immigrants, or anything else, the question is how can we instigate a change that invites all parts to grow in the process?   

 

We've grown as a nation since 1963 but we still have much more to do to honor all the beings who live here. It is because of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. that we have a strong foothold on freedom, a firm platform where we can step into America's future and truly become the nation that our forefathers like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy and leaders like Dr. King believed we could be, one where people dare to dream. We can't go back and we can never unlearn what we've learned.

We can move forward. We can grow individually and as a nation by referencing the past. We can reference both the failures of social inequality, and the inspiration of the I Have a Dream speech, as mile markers that will direct us toward protecting the freedoms that make us all grow closer to actualizing our highest potential, individually and as a nation.

And we can use the principles of non-violence (Ahimsa) through understanding the principle of heat necessary for transformation (Tapas) to help us in this practice. We can practice moving toward a future where, like Dr. King says, children of all races (and I believe given current social and political issues he would include people of all sexual orientation, documented and undocumented immigrants, gun lovers and gun haters, Republican and Democrats etc.) could all hold hands and with exuberance shout the refrain, "Free at last! free at last! thank God almighty, we are free at last!" 

Join me this week as we continue Dr. Kings legacy by practicing transformation through non-violence and growing individually as the first step to continuing our growth as a nation.

There Is . . . No Spoon

Seeing Clearly

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The Yoga Sutras is a book written by an ancient yoga scholar, Patanjali, around 200 AD and outlines much of the philosophy yoga.

A major principle in the Yoga Sutras is the principle of Avidya, or misapprehension. In Sanskrit, the word Vidya means to see clearly. Avidya is the opposite of clear seeing.

Unfortunately our human experience is rife with Avidya, this unclear seeing. I believe that one of our major lessons in this earthly existence is to learn to recognize our Avidya and enlighten ourselves by simply learning to see clearly and by so doing expand our sense of Self.  

Seeing Clearly Precedes Good Judgement

Seeing clearly precedes good judgment. The world exists. Things just are. We all translate what is and color it with judgment: good, bad, right, wrong. Often, our judgment of the world, our misapprehension, prevents us from seeing what is true and makes us see only what we believe about what we see.

An old story goes like this: Once, a man was walking through the jungle at night and was very afraid of being eaten by a tiger. He heard something coming toward him and knew that it was a tiger so he pulled out his knife. When the animal stepped out onto the path in front of him, he immediately stabbed it and it fell dead. Only after he killed it did he realize that he had killed his best friend. His Avidya prevented him from seeing what truly was and caused death and suffering.  
 

With the practice of yoga we can learn to place a little space between events and judgment. With this space between action and reaction, we reduce our Avidya by practicing seeing things as they are and not how we judge them. The principle of reducing our Avidya is not about being emotionless and dispassionate, but rather learning to stop our judgment for just a moment and attempt to see things as they are before making a mindful next step. 

A Simple Meditation Technique

A simple but effective way of practicing Vidya, clear seeing, is by doing a simple form of meditation which I learned from one of my teachers, Donna Farhi, which I call the “There Is Practice.” You can do this anywhere and while doing anything but one way to do it is by simply sitting comfortably with a cushion on the floor (a chair or couch works nice, too).

Meditations for Sleep

Close your eyes, and acknowledge all the things you are currently experiencing with the phrase “There Is” in your mind.  "There is the sound of traffic. There is apprehension. There is a 20-pound cat sitting in my lap and licking my big toe." Anything you sense, feel, think, do, point to it with the phrase, "There Is . . . ."

Try to erase the personal pronouns I, me, or my from what you perceive. Erasing personal pronouns for a stint tends to change our understanding of what is as something that is more than what is only in relationship to ourselves.

Though simple in application, this practice is profound in its understanding. It’s profound because this practice helps us expand our identity from identifying with the smaller self as related to the experiences we have, i.e. “I hear the sound of the clock,” to a larger Self that includes everything, i.e., “I am the sound of the clock.” The “There Is Practice” is about seeing things just how they are without our own personal judgment getting in the way. It allows permission for the world to be the way it is and not just the way my smaller self thinks it should be. I like to set a timer and practice until the timer rings. Start with 10 minutes and increase the time as you like.

I invite you to practice Vidya this week by coming to yoga and also practicing the “There Is Practice.” With more accurate perception, we will be less reactive and more mindful in our decisions. We will find an expansiveness of being. With practices like yoga and the “There Is Practice” we reduce our Avidya and begin to see the world and what really is.