Friday, January 22, 2010

Pratyahara - sense withdrawal

Sense-withdrawal. Why would we want to withdraw our senses and what exactly does that mean. Pratyahara is the fifth limb and it acts as a sort of bridge between the first four limbs and the last three. We are observing and enhancing our awareness of our behavior, our habits, our physical condition and our breath in the first four limbs and now we need away to turn inward to examine the functioning of our mind, and to surpass the mind and its ego to reach God Consciousness. It is not as simple as just sitting down and counting your breath. If it were that simple, we would all be enlightened by now and could probably get rid of those little purple mats. When we do sit down to observe our breath we are distracted, over and over again. What distracts us? The sounds from outside, the sounds or smell of the person next to us, our grumbling tummy or our sore bottom. Then what? Our mind travels to our thoughts about the person next to us, or to what we may want to eat for lunch after this god-forsaken session is over. Or to whether or not we ought to adjust our sitting position. This is a chain reaction that could go on and on until we catch ourselves so far removed from what we were initially trying to do that we don't even know how we got there! Sense withdrawal begins when we finally become aware of our distractedness. When we are able to catch ourselves moving "outward" with our thoughts and re-direct them back "inward", we are beginning to actually practice sense withdrawal. My teacher likes to make the distinction between the first four limbs and the last four limbs this way: the first four are things we do, or practice; the second four are things that will happen spontaneously after much practice. Pratyahara is that bridge where we can try to practice withdrawing our senses from outside stimuli but which will only truly be mastered when that sense withdrawal begins to happen spontaneously each time we sit to practice pranayama or meditation. In fact, most of the meditation exercises you learn in a class or from a book are really just practicing turning inward so that eventually meditation will happen. We can't make ourselves meditate, we can only encourage the process by withdrawing our senses.
Again, why would we even want to do this? Studying the mind is a good way to learn what we actually give our attention to all day. It is a more advance practice of Yama and Niyama, in that we are taking ourselves further into the realm of the endless chatter of the mind to see what this is really all about and whether or not half of what distracts us is even necessary. We are attempting to become more efficient, to waste less fuel, so to speak. Distraction wastes energy. We want to be in control of what distracts us. Some distractions are necessary and even pleasant. Most are not. Who is in control? The practice of sense withdrawal puts us firmly in control. The spontaneous withdrawal of the senses suggests mastery of our senses while also taking us on a fascinating journey to the inner workings of our mind.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Because Yoga is practiced mostly as a form of fitness in this country, it is inevitable that the subject of food will arise. Fitness and Food always go together. On the other hand, when approaching yoga from a more spiritual perspective, the subject of food will also come up. How to nourish ourselves is deeply related to spirituality, especially when one considers the human body a vessel for the spiritual journey.
I've been thinking about food a lot this month since I began working with a personal trainer who has asked me to track everything I consume on a daily basis for a few weeks to see how my diet affects my energy levels. This has been an interesting experiment in Satya and Bramacharya, Truth and Moderation.
Picking up this month's issue of Yoga Journal, lo and behold, there is an article about this very topic! Funny how things work out that way. The author is writing from the perspective of having been an over-weight child and teen and learning to come to terms with food as nourishment for the body rather than medication for the mind. She talks about Satya and Bramacharya and how they play an enormous role in this transition.
Food is a hot topic and one that people are very passionate about, especially those (like myself) who are inclined toward health and fitness. So it is not uncommon for people to really duke it out, in a philosophical "food fight" of sorts, over the topic of what to eat, or what not to eat. This really gets dicey.
Full disclosure: I am a carnivore. This comes as a shock to some in the yoga world. A lot of yogis fervently believe you must be a vegetarian to really practice yoga. I was a vegetarian once. It made me fat and depressed. It has taken more than a decade for me to find a diet that truly suits my physiology. You may have noticed from my little "bio" above that I refer to myself as a "Food Fundamentalist". This is a term I lifted from somewhere off the internet, I don't remember where, from a raving individual who had had it up to here with "Liberal, Yuppie, Subaru-driving food fundamentalists from Vermont". I laughed so hard, recognizing myself immediately, that I have since come to describe myself that way every time I get the chance. A food fundamentalist is someone who only wants the highest quality of food available and has the income to purchase it. Think organic, farmer's markets, raw milk, and you get the picture. Well, that is me. I raise my own chicken for eggs, travel 40 minutes out of my way once a week for raw milk from traditional dairy cows (i.e. not Holsteins), and buy most of my meat, fruit and vegetables from local farmers. I spend a great deal of money on food. But I digress.
The point I am trying to make here is that the one truly yogic approach to food and nutrition is, you guessed it, paying attention. It is not up to others to tell you what you should or should not ingest. It is entirely up to you. It is, in fact, one of the greatest responsibilities you have to yourself. Your physiology is unique to you, and what I eat may not necessarily be good for you. What works wonders for you may be poison for me. Read, learn and experiment with your diet. How does it make you feel? Does your energy crash at some point? Are you holding on to too much body fat? These are issues we all must eventually confront if we want to nourish ourselves optimally. However, if we require a change, the prescription will most likely be different for each one of us.
My personal trainer asked me to limit my daily caloric intake to 1600 for a few weeks. She kept asking me, "how do you feel?" I kept thinking that she meant, "are you getting enough to eat at that level". Eventually I figured out that what she really was talking about was my day-long energy level. When I eliminated sugar and grain from my diet and kept as close to the 1600 calorie limit as possible, I started bouncing off the walls with energy. I finally got it. What my trainer was teaching me is that moderation done properly will give me sustained energy levels. She asked me just yesterday if I wanted to go another week counting calories and I said Yes. Not because I truly want to keep counting calories, which I think is a pain in the butt, but because it is an exercise in Satya and Bramacharya. It is a form of Tapas, or self-discipline which I feel I am greatly benefiting from at this point in my life.
Choosing the diet that is correct for your unique physiology can at times conflict with your practice of Yama and Niyama. As a carnivore, I have to reckon with ahimsa: non-violence. Yogis often choose vegetarianism for this very reason. On the other hand, a high-carbohydrate vegetarian diet is a form of violence to my own body, trapping me in a vicious cycle of blood-sugar swings and robbing me of vital energy. How then do I practice ahimsa with regard to other animals? First and foremost I travel and spend money looking for farmers who raise their animals on a proper diet (e.g. grass) and take great care of them, which in fact extends to the way they even choose to slaughter. When we choose to raise animals, for whatever reason, we bear the responsibility for their proper care. For that reason, where I purchase animal products becomes a very important decision that takes into consideration my values regarding not only my own health, but the health and welfare of the animals involved. That may not seem like an adequate "excuse" for meat-eating to some vegetarians, and that is okay. It is simply the way I reconcile caring for myself as well as for others according to my yogic value system. Caring for the vessel that carries us through our spiritual journey requires a form of Satya that we may not always be comfortable with. But then again, Ashtanga Yoga never promised the path would be easy.