Pratyhara: Yoga That Has Nothing To Do With Flexibility

For my 30th birthday, I opted to disappear to Kripalu, a yoga and meditation center in the Berkshires.  I wasn’t hiding from the new decade.  On the contrary, I was excited about it.  I’d heard good things—mostly from my Mom who raves about her thirties like they were a collection of charming islands in the Mediterranean she visited once.  I loooooved my thirties she reminisces.  But I knew I needed to celebrate differently—internally.  I had lived a nonstop lifestyle until that point, and my “inner life” needed to catch up, so I took pause with a meditation retreat in the mountains, in solitude.  Not complete solitude, of course.  I was surrounded by people.  They did yoga, danced, drummed, and chanted.  Some changed their names to sound Indian.  I meditated, did yoga, ate vegetarian meals, put away my cell phone, went to bed early, and privately craved sugar.

In the preceding year: I started this blog, often toiling at my computer till the wee hours of the morning; ran my first marathon, often rising just a few hours later to train in frigid Boston temperatures, before arriving to work long hours as a marketing executive at a magazine in the midst of a recession, and served on several committees for charitable organizations I loved.  It was fun, fast-paced, and fulfilling, but I sometimes wondered if I had a multi-tasking, Type A death wish.  No wonder I ran away for my birthday.

The impetus for, both, fleeing to the hippie hills on my birthday and running a marathon was the same: I wanted to be alone.  I needed quiet.  I craved the simplicity of one foot in front of the other, over and over again, with monk-like regimen.  I learned to enjoy running without music for hours at a time.  When I ran with my training partner, we sometimes bopped along passing the miles with meaningful or mundane conversation, but at other times, we trotted beside each other with scarcely a word shared.  Cara was also on the verge of 30, and on the verge of getting married and relocating to New York City.  We had plenty to think and talk about, but, sometimes, we just wanted to run together and listen to our footsteps.

This is pratyhara, an innate need to retreat inward to restore our senses.  Most of our energy is lost through our five senses, especially sight.  We spend our days looking, listening, feeling, and tasting for things in the external world.  These experiences can be awesome, symphonic, scrumptious, soothing, and exotic.  Or, graphic, cacophonic, disgusting, painful, and putrid.  Each of our senses adds depth to our lives; however, they can also overwhelm and deplete us.  To this end, the yogi makes time to retreat inward and experience the internal landscape for a change.  This reenergizes us, like the marathoner stopping for water along the course, then carrying onward.

Pratyhara’s significance is even more important for the modern yogi, whose senses are assaulted at a much higher rate and volume than any other yogi to date, by virtue of the Internet age.  The smartphone age.  The social media age.  The age of potential, wondrous, technological distractions and stimulus if we so desire, at all times.  It’s an exciting, fun, and informative time to be alive, but it’s also downright exhausting.

Here are some easy examples of pratyhara you can try to refresh and refocus:

  • Close your eyes and take four long, slow, deep breaths.  Do this four times per day.
  • Turn off all electronic devices for periods of the day, especially at night.  You will sleep more soundly, and your nervous system will be recharged by morning, likewise your laptop.
  • If you always practice yoga with music or in a studio with mirrors, choose a silent class without mirrors for a change.  Fully focus your attention on your mat.  Notice the difference.
  • Eat simple, all-natural, whole foods, skipping sugar, caffeine, and strong spices for a period to give your taste buds a rest.  Soon, fruit tastes sweeter, and you’ll crave less sugar.  Food will become a sensory experience again, as it is when you taste new cuisines on vacation or dine at a gourmet restaurant where no detail is overlooked.
  • Take a personal vow of silence for a ½ or full day.  Communicate your intention to friends, family, and business associates (a weekend day is best for those who work Monday-Friday).  Spend the time mostly in solitude, using as few words as possible.  If you have a boisterous household, an occasional silent morning or silent breakfast is a nice way for the family to wake up mindfully and observe quiet together.
  • Enjoy a walk or run in nature, sans music or a cell phone.
  • Use an aromatherapy eye pillow during sivasana and other restorative yoga poses to fully draw your drishti (gaze) inward and rest your eyes, while revitalizing your sense of smell.
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  • Yoga G33k

    I think I might have to try my yoga practice without music tomorrow…after reading your blog I realized its been awhile since I’ve had that experience and I should try it! : )

  • Alli

    Can you write me a note to sleep in class? hehe ;) For real: I tried four slow breaths today and it was soo relaxing

  • Sylvia Alakusheva

    Thank you for reminding us about Pratyahara Rebecca. I find this to be the most important of the 8 limbs of Yoga as it is absolutely impossible to achieve the others without it.
    Overtime, and thanks to the deeper awareness I’ve discovered through Yoga, I have become much more tuned in to my surroundings. I find it difficult now to be on my computer for more than a couple of hours at a time; I find the need to withdraw from the bright screen, go out in natural light, rest my eyesight. Loud music can be pretty irritating to me as well, so I have enjoyed practicing in silence, like you suggested. I do find my practice to be much more powerful and therapeutic this way.
    And after a long day at work, there is nothing better than just ‘zipping it’ for a couple of hours :-) Meditation is a great way to draw in and enjoy some silence.
    Aaaaaah, I need to close my eyes now :-)

  • omgal

    This is more of a sub-post than a comment. Thank you for being so thorough! I especially enjoyed your point about our protective/instinctual energy being dispersed rather than harnessed. Such an excellent point–and an incentive to turn inward and maximize all that potential. Quiet moments to you:-)