Practical Pratyahara for Inner Peace

(c) 2010 Margaret Ward.

(c) 2010 Margaret Ward.

You know how for years, pageant contestants used to say they really wanted world peace?  I gotta’ tell you, I think inner peace would be a pretty good start.

I say this as I’m en route to New York City, not the most peaceful place on the planet.  It is home to my lovely little “home yoga studio,” located on a loud, dirty, rambunctious Manhattan street, not exactly the model of serenity. Interestingly enough, though, that place taught me one of my most important yoga/life lessons about staying calm.  It all happened during one of my classes, when I was in downward facing dog.

I decided right there, upside down, that after years of great classes marred with street commotion, that I’d had enough.  Enough of the ambulance sirens.  Enough of the construction workers drilling during my savasana.  Enough of the random crazy person yelling at the top of his lungs.  Here I was paying good money to get calm, and all I got was noisy outside stress creeping into my Zen place.  I was totally annoyed, and then it happened.  As I felt my shoulders tighten and my breath speed up, my teacher’s voice drowned out the person outside on the sidewalk, and said:

“What a perfect place to practice.  What a perfect chance to work on going inside, on breathing through the external distractions in life.”

Whoa.

I won’t say that the noise instantly mutated into the voice of angels singing, but it was definitely a revelation.  All of the sudden, I felt more calm, more centered, more in control of my environment… my internal environment. This is what the yoga world calls “pratyahara” (prounounced praht-ya-har-uh), one of my favorite concepts.  It means “withdrawal of the senses,” and encourages the development of internal concentration to rise above the external distractions that enter our beings through sight, smell, sound, touch and taste.  It’s part of the “8 limbed path” to absolute bliss, described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, an ancient text. The basic idea is that if you follow the path – by practicing the “limbs” – you get to the end. Despite being taken from a text that is thousands of years old, pratyahara is one of the most valuable and applicable limbs in our world today.  I mean, just think about how many distractions you have every 24 hours.  Think about how many distractions you have at this very moment.

Stop right now and ask yourself:  aside from these words, what do I see, hear, smell, taste, feel that’s utilizing my energy?

Here’s another example: I recently taught a lunchtime yoga class at a private office space.  Unfortunately, though, not everyone got the memo:  about halfway through the class, some maintenance workers came in, set themselves up on the other side of the room, and began eating hamburgers and fries.  The talking and the aroma wafted into every practice of every yogi.  Talk about distracting.  But while it wasn’t an ideal environment for calm, it was an excellent opportunity to concentrate, to practice pratyahara.

When we do, we change that initial irritation into motivation to focus more deeply on the inside.  We inhale, and exhale. We let distractions drown out and become enmeshed into a multisensory white noise, resting there for a bit.  We bring our attention back to the breath, and start to relax into the moment.  We get in the driver’s seat.  The backseat passengers may yell, use a jackhammer, or eat McDonald’s in our presence, but we’ve still got the wheel.  We still decide where we’ll end up.  In other words, we create our own, immovable inner peaceful place that can’t be touched by the outside world.

Pretty awesome, right?

Even more awesome, of course, is that you don’t have to be in downward dog to use this stuff. Keep your pratyahara practice in your pocket, at your fingertips, and use it whenever the world saps your senses.  It works in traffic, at the grocery store line and at work; an insanely practical, modern day stress fix.

That Patanjali sure knew his stuff.

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2 Responses to Practical Pratyahara for Inner Peace

  1. Anna says:

    Just what I needed to read today. Thank you! I’m going to focus on this as I walk down that very same dirty street today. 😉

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