Pratyahara—The Pathway to Calming the Mind
A healthy mind is paramount to living a healthy life. Pratyahara, defined as withdrawing from the senses, is the 5th limb of Yoga, and offers us a pathway to free the mind from the internal voice and ultimately become calmer. The five senses, of course, are hearing, touch, sight, taste, and smell, which input everything we experience to our mind. For example, when we are practicing next to someone with an old yoga mat that’s starting to smell—the smell triggers our attention away from the meditative qualities of our practice and negative thoughts arise. Beyond the senses, we also have our internal voice, one of which is our ego. I think we can all relate to this little internal voice. You know the one, who is judging, setting goals, comparing, and fantasizing, maybe feeling too good about ourselves, or constantly beating ourselves up. Often the momentum of life has a way of keeping our minds smothered with activity. As a result, the mind becomes unstable and we lose contact with our true consciousness. Fortunately, anyone can tap into Pratyahara to calm the mind on a daily basis.
Sitting in meditation for just 5–10 minutes first thing in the morning before you enter the world is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself.
Here a few tips to help practice daily Pratyahara:
1. Yoga practice—The obvious one. To ease the mind into stillness in Ashtanga yoga we practice the Tristana Method. We focus the mind to get out of the external world and grab onto the Ujjayi breath, Dristi (gazing point) and the Asana. This method can be translated into different classes or styles of yoga you may be practicing. So if Ashtanga isn’t your thing then give the Tristana method a try in your next flow class and see if you can get a break from that internal voice. Often when we practice, our attention can be pulled in many directions: wondering if you’re doing it right, looking at other students, taking too many water breaks, fidgeting with clothes or hair, etc. To limit these distractions focus on placing the mind on the steady rhythmic ujjayi breath, lock in your gaze and place it somewhere that’s comfortable for the neck, and focus on how the asana feels rather than how it looks.
2. Morning rituals—Offering some peaceful morning rituals can keep the mind on track for liberation. Sitting in meditation for just 5-10 minutes first thing in the morning before you enter the world is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself. In essence, you are choosing to put everything on hold so you can check in with yourself first. Try sitting on a couple of couch pillows or a meditation cushion so the hips are above the knees and your seat is comfortable. Begin by closing the eyes and counting the inhale up to four and then counting down from four on the exhale. Do this for 10–15 rounds and then just let the mind float for a few minutes. Also, incorporate a 5-minute total body stretching/joint rolling routine followed by a hot cup of lemon honey water.
3. Controlling your tech—Establishing some healthy boundaries with our computers, and cell phones in particular, will aid in calming the mind. Try incorporating daily “dark” hours in the morning and night where you do not take calls, texts, emails, etc. Invest in a real alarm clock and put your phone in a location that allows you to not look at it before bed or first thing in the morning.
Think of the mind as a muscle or a pose we have been working on for some time. The more we work on it, train it and refine it, the more adept it will be at tapping into a state of peace. By entering into Pratyahara regularly, the subtle benefits of our yoga practice will take shape. My teacher, Tim Miller, explains Pratyahara as a bridge between the external and internal limbs of yoga. By learning to control our sense organs and directing them inward, we will gain the ability to hold our mind in one place. We begin to enter dharana or single focus. Then, once our mind is steady we can find dhyana or meditation with more ease allowing our minds to regularly enter a state of tranquility. In life the eight limb path is not a linear step by step approach; the limbs work collectively and can be interwoven together to create mental and spiritual harmony.
“When the five senses are stilled, when the mind is stilled, when the intellect is stilled, that is called the highest state by the wise. They say yoga is this complete stillness in which one enters the unitive state, never to become separate again.” –The Katha Upanishads