PRATYAHARA: The Yoga of Putting Your Externally Focused Mind on Airplane Mode

We use our senses all day long to be able to relate to the external world.  But what happens if we bring our senses inwardly, to the world held inside of our skin?  Doing so is what Patanjali named Pratyahara.  This is the fifth limb of eight which make up a full yoga practice.

Through the day, we use our senses to be aware of, and interact with the external world.  We don’t normally think about it, but we also have a whole universe so to speak, on the inside, of which we know very little.  This lack of awareness, also minimizes our understanding of how profoundly what is going on inside, determines our experiences of the outside.  It also minimizes our awareness of the intimate relationship between our minds and our bodies.

Do you like stillness?  Do you like stillness and silence?  Do you like stillness and silence when you’re all alone?  Do you like stillness and silence when you’re all alone with your eyes closed?

Hhhmmm….maybe not so much….  This is the practice of pratyahara, and if it makes you scream NO WAY, either out loud or just in your mind, I want to first say that I empathize completely, but also encourage you to stay with me and keep reading.

Withdrawal of the senses is a beneficial thing to get used to doing. In the beginning it can feel like the LAST thing we want to do.

Here’s the thing, Pratyahara is not doing anything other than showing us the status quo.  Mind is awareness itself.  It can never be turned off.  We are always aware of something from gross to subtle, from external to internal.  If we remove the external stimuli, the mind will notice the internal world instead.  It will notice the energetic holding patterns with which we are identifying in any given moment in time.  On days when we feel comfortable, it can be a relatively easy thing to practise, but on other days, not so much.

Overtime though, if we do it on a regular basis, many beneficial things will begin to happen.

This practice can help us see how, things are always in flux.  One day we notice an uncomfortable physical or emotional feeling, but then the next day it has completely disappeared.  The phrase, “This too shall pass” takes on a very personal, reassuring meaning.  We will know it’s just a temporary experience, that we can observe objectively, knowing it does not have to define us.  We can stop buying into every single story and feeling, especially yucky ones, that normally make us develop aversion, freak out and run back to all the addictive habits we have, that do little more than distract or numb us.

Pratyahara can also give us a new way to use our senses and help us to develop a subtler view of phenomena and how things are interconnected.

Our human senses have limitations; there are certain sounds that the human ear misses, aspects of light we don’t see.  The ways in which we relate to things, are often on very gross, solid physical levels.  While these are practical and help us not bump into things, they are not very inspired ways of relating to our own potential.

In yoga we can kind of loosen things up a little bit.  Getting still and learning how to enjoy just hanging out with ourselves, can help really spark whole new ways of relating to this astonishing energetic holding pattern that we call body and mind.

Let’s start with the body.  We often relate to it in terms of its physical attributes because of what we see, hear and feel it do.  More often than not, we also have a readily handy list of what we perceive to be its faults.

While I was starting my yoga practice in high school and university, I was studying a lot of math and science.  I learned how we can look at the human body through different lenses.

If we look through the lens of biology, we understand how organs and tissues function and relate to one another.  We mostly relate to the biological body on very superficial levels.  More often than not, we generally relate just to the skin, which creates a kind of pretty package.  If we open it up though, it’s all kind of a bit gross inside, but we don’t necessarily think about it very much.  Biology can give us this level of understanding, but our senses are limited.  Again, there are countless things our eyes cannot see and our ears cannot hear.

If we want to understand the body on a subtler or smaller level we need the lens of chemistry. Chemistry shows us the elements from which our bodies are made, and how these elements form all the molecules that make up our cells and that create all the chemical processes needed for our bodies to function.  Elements and molecules are definitely missed by our eyes, ears and noses too.  If we want to understand on an even subtler level, we need the lens of physics.  Now I’m not pretending to be a physicist by any stretch of the imagination, but essentially, with this lens, the illusion of solidity comes and goes.

Again…. not the way we normally relate to our bodies.

It was a game-changing experience for me to be studying all this in university, while for the first time starting to really study yoga.  In the yoga classes I heard about energy bodies, and other similar ideas for which I had no understanding from my upbringing.  I had never heard people talk about my body in those ways. But from my physics and chemistry classes, I was starting to understand, that yes, I can relate to things in a very subtle way.  Maybe the language is unique to each school of thought, but the message is essentially the same, and very encouraging.

Especially in the face of something about the body that feels uncomfortable or isn’t working quite the way in which we want it to, if we can loosen our minds up a bit and start to think of our bodies in subtler ways, we open up a whole new way for mind and body to relate to one another.

For example, for me up until that point, visualizations always seemed a bit hocus-pocus; I couldn’t understand how that worked.  I didn’t appreciate deeply how what was going on in my mind truly impacted my body.

When I started to think about my body through these new lenses, and considered how it was not as solid as it seemed, then visualizing light or energy moving through the body seemed possible.  The idea that positive thoughts, affirmations, prayer or mantra could improve my physical wellbeing made more sense.  My mind felt more flexible to entertain these kinds of ideas.

We can also consider the idea that trillions of cells make up our bodies and that each one has the intention to move toward health and wellness.  Right now, as you’re reading this, all of your cells are just chugging along, doing their cell jobs and you don’t have to stop and consciously think to make any of those things happen.  Ever.  Thank goodness, right?!  We don’t ever have to stop and make metabolic processes happen, or tell our hearts to beat, or tell our lungs to breathe.  We don’t have to coordinate all the countless neurological messages flying between our brains and our bodies.   Contemplating these truths gives birth to an acceptance, that there is some kind of energetic intention or power, whatever you wish to call it, that is just working on our behalf all the time.

I like thinking about the body like this, especially when I do yoga, and especially when I come to stillness and meditation.  It’s much more interesting and inspiring, and most importantly, it evokes an instant wish to make friends with and get in line with that life-force power and cellular momentum toward wellness.  This perspective generates a wish to do whatever I can do in my life to step into that flow and support it.

My cells are going to try to thrive anyway, so why not work with my cells and make the obvious healthy choices?

Understanding healthy lifestyle choices is not rocket science: all of us know, relatively speaking, the check list: Eat whole colourful foods. Check. Exercise.  Check.  Enjoy community.  Check.  Create good sleep habits.  Check.  Drink water.  Check.  Enjoy beauty.  Check.

One thing that is often at the bottom of the check list, if it’s even on it at all, is getting into the habit of developing positive mental habits.  One of the most important practices is watching and listening to what my mind is getting up to, and training it in the habits that will support my body’s efforts to be healthy.  This is an important piece.

Mental negativity, stress, anxiety, depression, profoundly hinder our bodies’ attempts to keep us healthy.  All of those emotional experiences, especially when we don’t feel we have any control over them, move our bodies into states of emergency in which everything is effected and when those states are prolonged, often adversely so.  We crave unhealthy foods and have trouble digesting what we do eat.  We withdraw.  We have no energy to exercise and this is exacerbated by how mental stress curtails rest and sleep.  We can’t see beauty because of the veils negative thoughts place over all of our senses, so we experience the world in a distorted, untrue way.

For a lot of us, this is really something we deserve to consider.  How do we bring the mind on board?  Stillness and introspection can help us generate an understanding of cause and effect.  We can notice how experiential patterns are interconnected between the mind and the body and between different parts of the body.  With this understanding we can start to choose behaviours, mental verbal and physical, that bring us the comfort for which we are longing.

Pratyahara moves our bodies into states of rest and healing and allows us to offload mental and physical tension.  During this time we can also observe how stories generate comfortable or uncomfortable experiences and start to choose to listen to and act upon the stories or beliefs that generate the former.

We indulge the negativity toward the body a lot in our culture.  Sometimes, I think we even confuse it with humility.  But our cells are listening, and whether negative thoughts are directed outwardly or inwardly they are still negative; the energy is still unproductive and harmful.  Eventually if we want to be our healthiest, we deserve to create the causes for it on as many levels as possible.

We can’t have mental or physical comfort and indulge negative thinking; they are mutually exclusive.

The method by which we change our mental habits is meditation.  It’s the tool that can help bring our minds under control.  When our minds are balanced, all the systems of the body work better.  We can feel this! We can observe it happen when we are still and our minds and senses are tuned into the inner world.  For example, when our minds draw inwardly and we choose to develop concentration on the breath, then we feel muscle tension melt away, the knots in our stomachs dissolve, our breathing changes.

We want to relate to unplugging, getting still, drawing the senses inwardly and meditating like a way to spend time doing something that is soothing, and that gives us a chance to have a break.  Avoiding doing this because we don’t like it when we notice something uncomfortable inside,  does not mean the tension goes away because we choose not to pay attention to it.  The moment life imposes this experience on us; when the power goes out, when our friends are unavailable and we have to spend time alone, or just simply when our heads finally hit our pillows at the end of the day so we can try to get to sleep, whatever internal experience we’ve avoided will be what we are forced to experience.

Alternatively, if we choose to consciously practice Pratyahara regularly, we start to develop confidence in our own capacity to comfort, relax, soothe and heal ourselves.  Our cells rejoice and can more effectively strive to be healthy.  Add this to all the other healthy choices we make then we have the best chance at being the most comfortable and the most healthy.

That is really what yoga is inviting us to do, to really look at what’s going on then to move toward comfort.  How we define comfort can evolve, as it is a relative term.  Given that the eighth limb of the path is enlightenment, we can understand that our experience of comfort can only get better and better.

There are aspects of human life that are uncomfortable; we can’t avoid them.  The yoga practice of Pratyahara can help us transform how we think about them, and then our experiences of them changes.

Our senses are limited, and knowing this can help remind us to think about our bodies differently.  If we choose a subtle view and get still and listen to, feel and look inwardly, naturally we will choose to keep our minds positive, and our relationship with our bodies loving.  The more we choose to be positive, then when we get still, unplug, and close our eyes it will feel like a desirable way to spend time.  We will use it to refresh, offload and reset and it will feel like relief and a refuge.  Then, when we open our eyes and move into the world, it will look, feel, sound, taste and smell completely different.  xo  #WishpathYoga #WishpathHypnotherapy #Pratyahara

Meredith Brown BSc, RYT, CCH, CSP Registered Yoga Teacher

Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist
Certified Shiatsu Massage Practitioner 519.272.9679
Wishpath Healing Centre www.wishpath.com Yoga Collective www.yogacollective.com

Follow up…Semantics Are Everything.

As the saying goes, if I had a dollar for every time I said or thought, “I am terrible at meditation”, I might be rich, BUT I would still be locked in a story which would make the experience of a calm mind, ever elusive.  So despite monetary riches, I would not perhaps not be as happy as I could be. 

If we check, the way we think about things, especially ourselves, determines our experiences.   

The fulfilment of a lot of our wishes often remains obstructed, not so much because of external circumstances, but because the ways in which we mentally and verbally describe ourselves, prevent us from having success. 

Because our minds create our realities, it is imperative to stop identifying with statements that are the antithesis of that for which we are wishing, and to start identifying with statements that reflect what we want.  Every time we repeat new mental, verbal or physical behaviours, we create and then strengthen new neuropathways in our brains. 

Emotions, habits and creative thinking are part of the subconscious mind.  Stories and feelings go hand in hand, for better and for worse. We deserve to create a new inner narrative, but we deserve to be selective in how we do it. 

The subconscious mind does not “hear” negating words, words like NEVER, NOT, WON’T.

For example, the sentences “I won’t go to bed late”, and “I choose an early bed time”, essentially mean the same thing.  However, they each make very different impressions on the emotional, habitual mind.  The former repeats the current status; the latter creates an image of what is desired.  When shifting inner mantras, we want to consider this distinction. 

Back to my relationship with meditation, and specifically, to one of the obstructions to meditative experiences, I created for myself: I believed the thought that said, “My mind is too ordinary for meditation.”

Meditation has been around for thousands of years.  Given the fickleness of human nature, I believe if there was no merit or value in the teachings, they would have gone extinct long ago, rather than having been passed down through teacher-disciple lineages up to the present day. 

I am by no means an expert, but all the meditation traditions I’ve come across, seem to share  an underlying view of human consciousness or mind: The nature of the mind is peaceful, and the human mind has limitless capacity to evolve. 

I have heard this theory for a long time.  I have nodded my head with inspiration and shared the idea with others many times.  However, in the beginning, I did not truly believe this idea applied to ME, Meredith Brown, who grew up in Southwestern Ontario.  Growing up, no one held this mirror up; no one spoke these ideas at all.

Even after encountering these ideas reading yoga books in my bedroom in my teens, and even after a trip to India in my early twenties,  for a long time, I did not really identify with the idea that my mind had the basic potential to be peaceful, let alone the limitless potential to experience the ultimate peace of full enlightenment.  My story was one of obstruction rather than of possibility:  My mind IS distracted.  My mind IS dull.  My mind IS anxious, etc. 

Meditation is described as a method to enable us to identify with the actual peaceful nature of the mind.  Wherever we are on the spectrum of wishing to find peace, from wishing for basic stress reduction all the way to wishing for omniscience, meditation is the methodology we use to change the habits of our minds and achieve these goals. 

I once attended meditation talk, where the teacher held up a glass of water and began to swirl it in a way that made the water splash messily.  He asked the audience to imagine how ludicrous it would be to wish the splashing would stop while continuing to swirl the glass. He said if we really wished for the splashing to stop, all we would have to do would be to LET GO, set the glass down, and the water would return to its natural state of STILLNESS. 

He went on to say, (summing it up as best I can) we kind of relate to our minds in the same way. We wish to be peaceful, we wish to be confident, we wish to be happy, we wish to be calm (etc.) but we hang on to and keep identifying with STORIES that only serve to swirl up the gross levels of the mind, generating the feelings of stress, insecurity, sadness and anxiety from which we all long to have freedom. 

If we can just LET GO of the habit of believing in, focusing on (with single-pointed concentration, I might add), and identifying with, untruthful  thoughts that generate all the pain… the mind will return to its natural state, which is PEACEFUL. 

This demonstration made a profound impact on me.  THE PEACE IS ALREADY THERE.  It sunk in.  He’s talking about MY mind too.  YOUR mind too.  Everyone’s mind…

Flexibility of MIND is so important.  Way more important than anything to do with physical flexibility.  (Plus the former will improve the latter just naturally…)  We need it so we can mentally entertain the idea of a different way of thinking, and therefore a different way of experiencing ourselves, and ultimately what we perceive to be the external world.  We need flexibility to realize that just because a thought arises, does not mean it is true, or that we have to identify with it. 

Can we be flexible enough to entertain these idea for ourselves…so that we can actually experience something in meditation?  Can we be flexible enough to at least test out the theory and see if we can prove for ourselves that meditation reveals the naturally peaceful states of our minds?

For me, I just got bored of the status quo.  Did I really want to spend the rest of my life settling for unpredictable happiness and falling for the illusion that the quality of my experience was determined by external factors? No.  Not any more. 

Choosing to LET GO of the habit of identifying myself as an inherently anxious, terribly meditator became mandatory.   Choosing to LET GO of the habit of negative self-talk, has finally allowed me to take my teachers’ beautiful descriptions of meditation as personal advice, and experience the benefits for myself.  After all, I can’t be a calm, anxious person in the same moment.  I have to choose.  More and more often, I choose to LET GO. xo

I Used to Dread Meditation

Meditation and me. Not always the best of friends… to say the least. When I first encountered meditation, I could barely close my eyes without feeling instantly overwhelmed. It’s taken me, and I’m not kidding, almost two decades to crave it. I asked a beloved teacher once, “I wonder when all my crazy mental habits will subside, so I can really start a meditation practice?” She looked at me and said, “The mental stuff IS the practice.” If one felt peaceful all the time, one wouldn’t need meditation anymore. Meditation is THE tool to help us bring our minds back to their naturally peaceful states. Try this: 1. Sit comfortably 2. Close your eyes or rest your relaxed gaze at a spot nearby 3. Wish to take a break from focusing on all the stories that make your mind swirl 4. Instead, focus on the sensation of the air moving through your nostrils… it will feel cool during the inhale and warm during the exhale 5. Bring your mind back to the cool/warm when it wanders off into stories. Theory goes… the longer your attention is held by the breath, a natural peace arises from within. 6. Identify with any calm you discover. It will give you a new “normal” and a reference point for when stories swirl your mind again. You will feel confident in your capacity to return to calm by repeating steps one through five. 7. Dedicate the energy of your practice to the benefit of others 8. Repeat daily, with faith that if I can do it, you can too. Xo 🙏🏻💘 #SoGladIDidntGiveUp #WishpathYoga #Kadampa

#GesheKelsangGyatsoRinpoche #PSMayTheForceBeWithYou 

Your Mind Is Like Clear Blue Sky

In Buddhism, the mind is likened to clear blue sky, thoughts and feelings to clouds, and breath, to the wind. The blue sky is constant. Storms come and go. In the middle of storms, it is hard to remember the sky is still there. The sun too. But clouds and storms are always moving and transforming and eventually they dissipate completely. Xo #BeTheSky #ThisTooShallPass#CloudsClearingAndImStillHere💎☀️ 💨☁️ ☀️💎

The Light Always Returns

After difficult times, one can be left feeling a bit lost in the residual darkness. Seeing these tiny flowers beginning to emerge from the cold, winter soil, reminds me that the light always returns. Even though we are sometimes unaware of the how and the when, things are always still moving and transforming. Then the right conditions come together, and new beauty and opportunities manifest and blossom. May your heart be warm and light and open to all good things. Xo #Spring#NewBeginnings #Light

“Your New Life Is Going To Cost You Your Old One”

I love this. We die and are reborn in every moment. One identifies many times each moment with the ever changing basis of one’s body and mind. Nothing is permanent. Through the power of intention, we can start to direct the process of change toward what we actually want. We will hit forks in the road where we have to choose between the old and the new. Because they often are mutually exclusive experiences and therefore can not exist simultaneously, we have to choose. The strongest wishes will win out. And thus one’s life unfolds. Xo 💘🙏🏻 Repost from @turningofthetide

New Minute Resolutions

Personally, I prefer new day’s resolution, or new afternoon’s resolution, or for that matter, new hour’s resolution. It is an easier practice of mindfulness for me. Over a shorter span of time, I can accumulate small triumphs, that gradually grow into big ones. When I stumble, I know I can start afresh in the next hour, or minute, and not have to wait a whole year to begin anew. Xo#WishpathHypnotherapy#EverythingBeginsAsAWish 

Humanness

Being human is MESSY!! It is humbling to see one’s own shadow, but we can’t grow without knowing it intimately. Svadhyaya is the yoga Niyama of self-study. When we practice Satya, or truthfulness with ourselves, we can hold a more empathetic, loving and patient space for others. Xo 🙏🏻💘

Truths

Thoughts create our realities and are the causes of all the physical and verbal actions we take. Given that most of us aren’t totally sure what exactly thoughts even are…. It is always amazing to me how much authority we give the thoughts and beliefs that float through our own minds.  We assume they are correct without even knowing what they are. We use our minds to learn about everything, but understand very little about the mind itself.  If there was a reality separate from mind, it would be experienced the same way by everyone.  More than ever now, I take it as a great personal responsibility to watch my own mind for assumptions, prejudice and hate in all its gross to subtle aspects. It is the only thing over which I can have any control, and perhaps one of the ways I can improve the quality of my little corner of the universe. In general, if thoughts or beliefs drive actions motivated for the happiness of self and others, I think they are the closest ones to any sort of truth. Xo