Pratyahara: Withdraw to Interact

In the first pratyahara blog, the traditional translation of “withdrawal of the senses” was discussed.  Like many yoga practices – it can seem as if we’re being led in, and consequently away, from the world.  Away from the lives we’re actually motivated to live more fully, more awake with the present moment. i-think-you-are-shirt

Michael Stone once encouraged students to “withdraw your idea of others and the self” – as opposed to withdrawing from society or the natural world. I love the practice of withdrawing my ideas of who someone is, especially those I am closest to.  A practice I invite you try out today, if you have yet to do so.

In the cyclical intertwined nature of the sutras, this practice of cultivating sensory equanimity, actually fuels our ability to more readily and adeptly interact with others and live into the preceding sutras.  The more we’re aware of the interaction between our sense organs and sense objects – the more we’re able to watch the thoughts, perceptions, and reactions that result.  From there, we’re able to see more clearly what is happening right now. Or as Bernie Glassman says, it’s “the ability to approach a situation without superimposing what you know.”

When you practice asana next be aware of the sense(s) you most dwell in – where are you most distracted? Can you use the breath to tune into all the senses equally, and so not be drawn out from the present moment by any one?

“How do we live a balanced life in an unbalanced time? How does our practice help us to maintain the sensory equanimity we need to participate effectively in our families and communites?” Michael Stone

“Only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.” Rilke

Pratyahara: A matter of sense (the 5th limb)

sva-viṣayāsamprayoge ćittasya sva-rūpānukāra ivendriyāṇāṁ pratyāhāraḥ

When consciousness interiorizes by uncoupling from external objects, the senses do likewise; this is called withdrawal of the senses. PYS II.54

Tatah parama vasyata indriyanam 

Then comes the spontaneous, complete and natural mastery over all the senses, that is to say, the natural self-discipline to hold on to I-AM. PYS II.55

turtle in shellWithdrawal of the senses is the traditional translation of pratyahara. Often described as a turtle withdrawing its limbs into its shell, pratyahara can seem a bit esoteric and unattainable outside of a sensory deprivation tank or sleep.

Added to that is science’s ever growing understanding that 1) Our senses are limited in perceiving the true nature of reality (think quantum mechanics and how the computer you’re reading this on is more space than solid) 2) Our senses are intrinsic and vital to our evolution and survival as humans – and therefore are automatic and embedded in the brain:

“The goal of every living brain, no matter what its level of neurological sophistication, from the tiny knots of nerve cells that govern insect behavior on up to the intricate complexity of the human neocortex, has been to enhance the organism’s chances of survival by reacting to raw sensory date and translating it into a negotiable rendition of a world…brain

None of [our] quintessentially human accomplishments would have been possible without the brain’s ability to generate rich, effective, and meaningful perceptions of the world.”
- Andrew Newberg, M.D. (Why God Won’t Go Away)

Yet yoga philosophy insists that pratyahara is not only attainable, but vastly possible.  Science philosophy suggests doing so might allow us to peer closer into the nature of reality. The good news is that both asana and meditation offer concrete ways to encourage* pratyahara.

Asana:
1) Dristhi – Every yoga pose and transition has a corresponding gaze point (dristhi).  When the breath, dristhi, and intention are connected pratyahara arises.  The tendency and desire of the various senses to search off your yoga mat fade. You become located right in the center of your breath – as if you were looking out with breath, instead of your eyes. As if you were practicing in a breath body, instead of one of touch.  Key to the dristhi practice is an experience of dristhi as a field of vision, rather than a single point.  Dristhi uses a single focusing point to allow the gaze to actually widen – to take in the whole panorama before you.

2) Savasana strings – After your body settles into the pose, tune into your senses. Notice how the world has hundreds of invisible strings that pull at you, even lying still in a yoga studio. Mentally imagine scissors gently snipping the threads circling your body – and they just drop away.  No need to push or shut out or harden around “distractions”. There are no distractions, just strings that continue to exist, no longer tugging on you.

Meditation:
1) Body – Almost every meditation begins with the body. It’s important to set your seat as comfortable as possible, with as much attention to alignment as possible.  Creating ease in the body allows us to settle our minds around it. If you find your foot falling asleep every time you meditate, seek a teacher’s guidance to modify how you sit.  Fine tuning aspects such as relaxing the tongue in the jaw, and letting the eyes release deep in their sockets cue further release of the sense organs.

2) Focus – Sound meditation is one of the best ways to release the ears’ insistence on reaching out to the world.  There are several techniques such as playing intentionally vague sounds in order to “short circuit” the ear into letting go, or working intimately with mind and ear to release the constant chatter between the two that goes into instantaneous naming of sounds.

perception

A few final tips:
*Practice asana without music every once in awhile
*If you live in a city, spend time outside of it. Even the quietest block is filled with over- stimulation.
*Spend an entire evening at home without the TV on, the computer on, or music on
*Walk slowly, fidget less – allow the body to settle more
*Refine all the input to your senses you have direct control over: what you listen to on the TV/computer/ipod/in relationship, what you see around your home, what you place on your body, what you buy and prepare to eat, and what you cultivate to smell.

*There are thought-camps around whether pratyahara is something that can be practiced, or if it just occurs when the conditions are right, like sleep. Whether the tips presented can be thought of as practices or setting up conditions is not the focus of this article.

Imagination & Belief – Why Practice in Community? ~ 5

Deep in practice with a group of amazing friends, my own reasons for starting community practice with Satsangs came up.  There are many. One is a podcast of Michael Stone’s (no surprises there).  Before he begins the talk, he says that part of their community is experiencing a difficult time at the hospital, and that there is a card being passed around for people to write in and sign.  The card will later be brought to the hospital on behalf of the community. Then he began his talk.

But I wasn’t paying attention. I was imagining the couple at the hospital and the deep turmoil and pain they must be in.  I imagined the moment when they receive this gift, read the words of a group of people they have intimately connected with on a weekly basis in a completely unique way – not coworkers, not family, not friends per-se, or even really fellow hobbyists.  A group of people who work together in compassion, support each other’s efforts, call each other out on their stuff, share a passion for being as whole-heartedly present and real as possible.  I imagined how uplifted, if even for a moment, they would be.

Then I imagined how that would transpire at any of the yoga studios I taught at. I imagined how I would even know that something like that was going on with one of the students. I imagined how many times this very opportunity has been lost – for our yoga community to be there in a real way for each other’s lives.

Yoga-community1And I imagined what we could do differently. Monthly Satsangs at Mala yoga are a part of that.  There is still more. I believe it is possible for our yoga communities – all over the world – to step into deeper connection and relationship . I believe we all – not just teachers, although I believe teachers need to lead the charge – can evolve our yoga studios into yoga communities where we know much more than each other’s last names, number of children, and current events. Where we meet at more than partner exercises, workshops, yearly parties, and putting our shoes on. I believe in the nourishing, challenging, and uplifting effects of community – and our ability to make it happen.

“If civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships – the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together, in the same world at peace.” - Franklin D. Roosevelt

Pranayama 2: The Questions

Being an ESL teacher taught me to answer every question – even the ones I didn’t quite know the answer to. I, after all, was the default expert on English and living in America, and experts are always expected to have an answer.

Pranayama has taught me to ask, listen, and experience quiet.

Maybe you had a job like mine, or a 3 year old in your life, or heard a koan and ached to give a logical answer, or were raised in a culture that rewards quick correct answers.

Cloud-Hosting-Questions

If gets interesting, for people like us, when we don’t answer – when we give space instead.

Because when we know how to listen, the answers are right there – we’re living them all the time.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyph to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life before he apprehends it as truth.”

interview-questionsOr as Rilke said, “I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Work with this the next time you’re deep in question in your practice or life by dropping the pronouns, but keeping the question. Sometimes, as Stephen Batchelor writes, all you’re left with is “?”.

The question becomes both smaller and larger than you – less personal and with less pressure to answer – the tightness you didn’t realize you were holding around the question loosens. That space allows for creativity in answer, and intuition a moment to creep in.

In your next asana practice, contemplate what your questions are. Perhaps one of these, or something altogether different:

What motivates my practice?
What is my path of yoga?
Why do I bother stretching my hamstrings?

Then allow it to become a mantra, a koan for your practice – just the question, without answering it.  Practice it, live it, and then, perhaps, creativity will seep in with an answer in the most unexpected way.

AskQuestionsPlease

Why Practice in Community? ~ 4

Relationship – to each other, to animals, to patches of sunlight, to snow, to trees, to our desk and the computer atop it, to parents, to coffee makers, to practice, to everything there is – relationships comprise the foundation of our lives.  To cultivate relationships is to cultivate our lives. To deepen relationships is to recognize our capacity to deepen our understanding of ourselves. 

Connected_web_banner-copy3

I have come to understand how you truly cannot describe anything without talking about relationship – almost entirely through the teachings of Michael Stone and the investigations of my own life he has encouraged. Then I attended David Life’s yearly class in New York City on January 3rd.  And in that way the universe has – the teaching was once again brought to the fore front. Or as Davidji said:

“Yoga is the perfection of relationship”

Entering a new session of Satsang (Thursday nights have been scheduled all the way through July!) – I was excited by the message. It also made me think – what are the qualities of relationship, exactly, that we’re working on? A list to get started with:

~ Listening to where someone is coming from as the heart of conversation
~ Giving your attention whole-heartedly
~ Nonharming honesty
~ Responding instead of reacting
~ Silence
~ Residing in Namaste – seeing a person beyond their “stuff” – allowing yourself to be seen
~ Creating a space where there is no good/bad
~ Being aware of the perceptions and conditioning you are automatically putting on the situation
~ Empathy instead of sympathy
~ Dedication to mutually beneficial relationships

None of these, I think, are new for us.  We work with these lessons from our yoga practice all the time – or try to, and fail, and try again, and fall, and try again, and gain a bit of ground, etc.  The unique aspect of Satsang, is that you’re trying this WITH another yogi. Almost all the time we bring our practices into our lives with nonyogis.  While not exclusive to yogis, the following are benefits to practicing in relationship with yogis:

1)    Accountability: Similar to meditation, sitting with a group inspires your posture, how long you stay sitting, and even the stillness within. Practicing relationship with yogis inspires us to stick with the work, to say the difficult thing, to not chicken out trying a new way of listening that is completely counter to the way we’ve been conditioned to over the years, or waiting until “next time”, or however else we let our habits slide when not held accountable to anyone other than ourselves.

2)    Mirrors: Yogis make excellent mirrors of each other –  Right in the moment, we can see how another yogi responds to the same situation. It’s inspiring, and it’s a great encouragement. One of the recent teachings I received was from watching the way another yogi looked me in the eyes whole-heartedly when I offered her a hot cup of water to warm her cold hands.  I saw how I was able to be in the moment enough to respond to her need, but when it came time for me to socially accept her deep thanks, i reverted to my introverted deflection and scurried away.

3)    Sharing: Other yogis are WITH you – they get how important this work is. They’re interested and intrigued by what you’ve been working on or thinking about. They want to know more about that meditation technique you learned, or that article you read, or what happened when you tried this with your coworker.

“It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is.” - Hermann Hesse

Whether it’s in one of the monthly Satsangs at Mala, or with your own group of yogis, or non-affiliated practitioners – take the time this year to make relationship your practice.

Pranayama Practice – What the sutras really say & how we really practice

Pranayama, at least in my experience, was something that I understood early on as something esoteric. It was one of those hidden practices, something not to be done without a teacher (which was frustrating, because a look at any yoga studio’s schedule will show you that someone teaching pranayama on a regular basis is few and far between).  Definitely, according to most translations of Yoga Sutra II.49, not to be done until asana was “mastered”.

It maybe looked a little bit like this guy…  pranayamaor maybe this one…

pranayama-breathing-exercises-2

It was clear that it didn’t look like me. Which was disappointing, because at the same time you encounter these walls, you also encounter descriptions of how pranayama is one of the deepest yoga practices. For example, it is said to lead to “the dispersion of the covering that hides the light of I-Am or the Self.” Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra II.52

I went to teacher training, I read books, I learned nadhi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), and other similar easily accessible techniques.  Nothing that really felt like a practice that I could grow into, and there were still those nagging doubts about if I had mastered asana yet.

Then I really looked at what the Yoga Sutras were saying, and studied for a week intensive with Rodney Yee.

What the sutras actually say:

It’s not that you master asana, and are able to hold headstand for five minutes, or balance on your hands with your foot behind your head, or have a killer uddiyana bandha, or even have finally got down the exact alignment of tadasana. It actually has nothing do to with any achievable form of asana. It is, instead, that you worked within your practice and cultivated five qualities of asana as discussed in Sutras II.46, II.47, and II.48:  steadiness, joy, relaxation, meditation, and equanimity.   It is these qualities which prepare us for pranayama, it is these qualities which set up the conditions for a soothed parasympathetic system.  Simple, unmysterious, completely accessible step one.

What I learned from Rodney Yee:

The next step in finesse of the breath is one of observation.  He quotes Krishnamurti as saying observation is action. Unskillful action is the result of unskillful observation.  Pranayama is not esoteric shooting stars – but the foundation of a skill vital for integrating our yoga practice into daily life.

He encouraged us to choose a pose, or a part of the body, or a moment in our day, and to investigate the breath fully. Where it is, how it moves, what stays tense, what needs our attention, what speeds through, what is relaxed, what is uptight.

You can try this right now. After closing your eyes, feel your breath in your nostrils. Feel the breath as it swirls right around the tip of the nose. Start to have a sense of how far away “your” breath travels into the air before it ceases to be yours.  Start to have a sense of where “your” breath begins.

Stop whenever agitation arises. Pranayama is meant to quiet the nervous system, not aggravate it.

Cultivate an embodied experience of the difference between bearing witness (active, piercing, forceful) and bare witnessing (open, allowing, expansive) in your observation on the mat, cushion, or street.

As Richard Rosen says in Pranayama: Beyond the Fundamentals;

 “Witnessing induces stillness. Initially we feel the stillness when our body relaxes and then our brain, for once, quiets down. This in turn leads to surrender, “letting go”. Westerners – and particularly Americans – are inclined to be go-getter types and not very good at surrendering. We tend to think of surrender as waving a white flag, of throwing in the towel, of giving up in disgrace. But in yoga we actually surrender things we no longer need, things that stand in the way of our own self-fulfillment.”

Intentional, unforced, quiet observation of the breath can be just the starting point for practice this year – taking just five minutes a day. The five minutes on your mat before class starts, five minutes before or after your meditation practice, five minutes on the subway.  Get to know your breath beyond asana poses, and see if the changes you make this year can come a little bit more from surrendering, and a little bit less from force.

Then try to find one of those illusive pranayama teachers or check out Rodney Yee’s week intensive at Karuna Yoga in Massachusetts.

Why Practice in Community? ~3

buddha-awakeIn the November Meditation & Dharma Discussion we delved into OM. One of my favorite parts was discussing the practice of an old Zen teacher (as relayed by Koshin Paley Ellison), where he would ask himself:

“Are you asleep?”  and then answer…
“No, I’m awake.”   then just in case…
“Are you really?”
“Yes, I’m awake.”

The teacher would do this not only upon physically waking in the morning, but throughout the day, even holding this conversation with himself in front of students and the assembly.

What I love about this story, is that second round of questioning.  We can imagine how, perhaps, he only began with the first question. And that check-in would be enough to remind him to step back into being awake and present. Then, over time, his response became automatic.  I think we all can relate to some practice we’ve begun that initially was strong and powerful and would easily draw us into the present, or allow the coverings that cloak the present to fall away.  Then, over time, it became habit, and it was yet another part of the unconscious movement of our lives. Using my mala to meditate was like that for me.

rooster-crowing-2

It’s that second question which demands our attention.

I recently worked with a practice where I would say to myself as I traveled to a studio to teach:

“Consciously breathing (I would feel all the places the breath was moving in my body). Consciously  _____-ing (whatever I happened to be doing in that moment).”

So I’d say “Consciously breathing. Consciously walking.” Over and over, until something changed then “Consciously breathing. Consciously feeling sit bones on the subway seat.”

It was the second part that demanded I stayed present. And it was that second part that showed where I got stuck (sometimes I’d be waiting for coffee, but I would still be saying to myself walking – and I knew that I had dropped out of attention in that moment).

Practicing in community is like that second part – it demands we bring our full attention – whether to be fully listening to your partner, speaking wholeheartedly when it’s your turn to do so, or just fully present with the teachings and the room.

I invite you to try out the “consciously breathing, consciously _____ -ing” practice the next time you’re out and about, or on your yoga mat.

satsang3I invite you to join me and the growing satsang at the monthly Meditation & Dharma Discussion at Mala Yoga – the next one delves in “Namaste” Thursday, December 19th at 7:30pm.

Asana 3: tato dvandvanabhighatah

Tato dvandvānabhighātaḥ PYS II.48

When posture is mastered, there is a cessation of the disturbances caused by the pairs of opposites…whether physical, mental or spiritual

Most translations go on to give examples of opposites. Common ones are: like/dislike, love/hate, relative/universal, hot/cold… And that’s where I got stuck. I, like you, have noticed how yoga has influenced my choices and my outlook over the years. I am less attached to my likes and dislikes, habitual preferences that create cycles of suffering are easier to see. All of them are still there of course, but I get how asana embued with the qualities of the two preceding sutras work towards the cessation this sutra indicates.  Except for hot/cold.

I really really don’t like the cold. If I could transplant my family, close loved ones, and yoga community to New Orleans tomorrow, I would do it. Without thinking twice.

2059-fall-tree-800x600Fall is often a challenging time for me.  Despite the beauty New York offers at this time, it’s all a subtle reminder that winter is coming. cold winter2

All of which meant this particular duality bore closer inspection, and I happened to re-cross its path during late winter, so it was great timing.

While walking down the street I realized I could, in fact, diminish the cold. I could begin ujjayi breathing. I could focus on a mantra. I could draw my body in towards the central line. I could catch myself before I start to complain about the cold to myself or someone else – which only ever makes it more present, entrenched, and generally worse. The cold could be like another teacher, who I would not speak poorly about either in its presence or not. I could stop making it bad and just let it be itself. As I would let a tree be its tree self, my mom herself, my dog himself. I could also stay right in the uncomfortableness until it shifts, without trying to fix it in any particular way – like pigeon pose and how my outer hip felt when I first learned it.

Asana had actually taught me valuable and multiple ways to deal with it.

This was a reminder, which we must revisit again and again, that asana and yoga never change anything or anyone external to us. The only thing asana and yoga ever work on is ourselves. You diminish the dualities, they do not diminish.

To work with this in your next asana class, or really at any time, watch your self-talk for dualistic language especially of good/bad.  Watch for trying to fix bad with forcing good, or vice versa.  Watch your conversation indicators of listening for dualistic tones, and figure out how to make your language match your yoga.

lovehate37-thumb“Who we truly are goes beyond all polarity, including the polarity of love and hate.” Ram Dass

In case you missed the first two installments of asana: one and two.

Swift and Long – a lesson

YogaWheelFullScreenAnatTVI was never going to teach an urdhva dhanurasana (wheel pose) workshop. For my entire teaching career, the idea of doing so was all but laughable.  I integrated this pose into classes purely for students, if it was up to me, I wouldn’t even have taught it.

Early in my first year of teaching I was travelling in India. I received an adjustment in urdhva mukha savasana (upward facing dog) that jammed my lumbar vertebrae into each other with crushing intensity. This was a result of poor body knowledge on both our parts – me in not really knowing how to use my body to back bend with integration, and the teacher in not being able to see this in my body before giving such a strong adjustment.

What once had been one of my favorite poses, was now awful. It was both a swift and long lesson in being in relationship with my body. I have a very flexible body, and wheel pose was something I could do from day one of asana. Mostly because of my flexibility, and very little, even through graduating teacher training, due to my ability to integrate the actions of the pose.  That lack of integration was very keenly felt in every wheel pose since that day.  It grew until my favorite pose was my most hated pose.  It got so bad that up until this past summer, I spent the previous two years grabbing a block for restorative setu bandhasana (bridge pose) when it was time to back bend in every yoga class I attended. Every. Single. One.

urdvha

Throughout it all I tried to figure out what I was missing. I took workshops, I investigated in my home practice, I read, I looked at pictures, I discussed with fellow yoga teachers. I would have brief moments of feeling okay in wheel, but that would quickly pass. I was gathering bits and pieces of the puzzle, but nothing allowed the pose to click into place.

Then this summer I took Michael Stone’s Five-Day Intensive.  Through a combination of new revelatory information, and finally integrating all those pieces – it finally clicked.  I have not only practiced wheel pretty much every day since then, but it was integral in healing my shoulder.

Early in the summer I injured my shoulder to the point where downdog, or even extending my arms out in warrior two, were unthinkable.  The afternoon after Michael workshopped my wheel pose with me, was the first afternoon my shoulder didn’t have its continual hum of ache and injury.  It wasn’t a smooth magical upward trajectory continually from them, but it was the turning point.  Combined with other asana and acupuncture shoulder work – the new integration, strength, and correct usage of my entire body in wheel pose were the corner stones of the healing of my shoulder.

wheel2Which is why – about seven years later – I’m holding a wheel workshop.  Because that swift and long lesson has made me truly fall in love with urdhva dhanurasana – with its therapeutic qualities, its insistence on full-body integration and awareness, its necessary focus on the breath, and that inside-out upliftment that resonates in every cell when you come down.

Why Practice in Community? ~ 2

We all know how important dedicated work towards our yoga practice is – workshops and retreats are cornerstones to a long-time yogi’s practice. Time set aside to delve deep within.

But we also need to keep that going between those times – tune ups, checkins, and working with the day to day stuff right in the middle of the day to day stuff.  Right when it seems strongest, most unlikely to be overcome, most entrenched and who you are. Or you’re in the flow of life, and surface concerns are minor. Those are some of the best times to get really intensive with ourselves – when we don’t have a pressing item on the agenda we can get to what’s been sitting on the shelf for “later”.

satsangI’ve found my experiences with satsang – working with the practice with other practitioners – to provide just the kind of support necessary to meet all those situations. Which is in large part why I’ve begun Sadhana & Satsang on a monthly basis at Mala Yoga.

Last time one of the attendees spoke of how friends don’t always offer the mirror we’d like in order to meet those situations. And, I would add, nor do we always want them to.

Satsang provides that mirror for us – people engaged on the path, in the work together, prompts a deep honesty and sharing you sometimes didn’t even know was at the root, as well as support and comfort when it’s hard.

Another student mentioned to me that she finds this type of meeting so important. That there are so many people in our community looking for this, but we don’t have the outlet in the five minutes before and after class.

For all those reasons, and others you’ll discover for yourself, join us October 24th at Mala Yoga for Sadhana & Satsang.