Going within

Continuing along in our discovery of Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga (we’re having fun, right?!), let’s explore the 5th limb, pratyahara. Although the 8 limbs don’t need to be practiced in any certain order, and it isn’t like you have to graduate from one limb to move on to the next, I do believe that developing some practice in the first 4 limbs definitely helps us as we move further along in our journey. And that is definitely true as we move into pratyahara.

Pratyahara is sometimes described as a withdrawal of the senses, or a withdrawal of our awareness away from the senses, a turning inward, or a focusing of our awareness inward, away from the outside world, away from our thinking mind, and toward our inner space, that place of peace, our true self, our higher self. We’ve mentioned the idea of yoga as an inner journey, or a work-in, and pratyahara is key to that exploration. Importantly, it isn’t a forceful stomping out of our thinking mind or our sense perceptions, but a gentle shift away from them and toward our inner space. I like to think of pratyahara as turning a bright spotlight from one direction to another, and as we develop the ability to consciously shift that light of awareness, we not only proceed along that path of inner exploration, but we also master the ability to shift our awareness at will. So that when old habitual behaviors or thought patterns begin to arise, we are able to quickly and easily pivot away from them and toward the healthier habits we are developing.

So why do we need pratyahara? Well, because it is so common, in modern culture, for us to be constantly fixated on the outside world, on our outer experience, driven by what we see in the news or on tv, what we hear on the radio, the things that we taste or smell, what is going on in social media, what the advertisers tell us we need, whatever activities we have to do with work or the other responsibilities that keep us busy. We are trained to constantly be thinking of and striving for that next experience, that next dinner out, that next career milestone, that next photo for instagram, that next pair of yoga pants (#attacked). And we spend very little time just being. Just sitting still with ourselves, exploring how we truly feel deep inside, considering what we truly want (not what our bosses, friends, or the media tell us we should want), taking in a beautiful sunset or really relishing that delicious cup of coffee. As you know, staying focused always on the outside world keeps us feeling anxious, worried, and inadequate. While turning our awareness inward and focusing more on our inner space cultivates peace, contentment, and joy.

As cancer survivors, not only do we have all of the normal things to be distracted by and worried about (will we get that next promotion, who went on a better vacation and posted it all over social media, whose kid is better at soccer or got a better scholarship than ours, what is happening to the economy, etc), but we also have a whole host of other pretty heavy concerns that can overwhelm our minds (will I live to see my kid get married, will my husband still be attracted to me, will I be able to get through this round of chemo, will I still be able to do my job so I can keep my health insurance, will the cancer come back?). So it is completely natural and expected that our minds can get swept away in a whirlwind of anxieties. Pratyahara can be a huge help, teaching us to bring our focus and attention away from all of those worries, and instead tuning in to our inner space, our inner peace, that sanctuary inside of us where everything actually is ok (even if it isn’t on the outside).

So back to the idea of how the first 4 limbs help us cultivate pratayahara. Practicing the yamas and the niyamas helps us to be better able to re-orient our minds, to notice those unhealthy thought patterns, and to see when we are getting swept away, or when we are focusing outside on things that truly aren’t important. Asana practice is a perfect training ground for focusing our awareness inward, on our bodies, our breath, and our inner energy. This is why I’m always saying thing like “stop and breathe a moment and just feel your body”. This is practice and training to be able to turn our awareness inward at will. When we practice it over and over on our mats, we get good at doing it, so it will happen more easily out in life when we are challenged. Pranayama, similarly, almost automatically leads us out of our thinking mind, by triggering that relaxation response deep in our nervous systems, setting us up to be able to easily slip into pratyahara.

So these 8 limbs of yoga truly are a masterful and methodical path that will lead us to a healthier, happier, more peaceful, and more joyful life. IF we just take the time to practice them. Do yourself a favor and give yourself the gift of yoga.


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