Bright Shiny Object

Pratyahara, the fifth limb of Patanjali's eight-limbed system of Ashtanga Yoga, is the practice of controlling the senses, also commonly referred to as sense-withdrawal. Many individuals, when hearing the latter definition, understand this to mean no longer experiencing the senses, or in other words, no longer enjoying the experiential side of life. At that point they usually swear off yoga. And if that is what I understood it to mean, I would probably swear off yoga as well. 

Thankfully, feeling nothing is not at all what pratyahara is about. What this 'sense-withdrawal' means is that one is no longer controlled by his or her senses. Instead, the individual has control and can experience the senses free of attachment, and thus in a more enhanced way. In other words, this means being able to walk away from a plate of warm-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies rather than diving in, when you know fully well that those sweet suckers are neither gluten free nor vegan and that the momentary pleasure of consumption will soon be trumped by the guilt that sets in a la par with the forthcoming stomach ache. It means being able to be fully present with your friend as she tells you her troubles while you sit in a crowded coffee shop, undisturbed by the surrounding conversations and commotion. And it means that glaring distractions don't easily catapult you away from the task at hand.  


Yesterday I was reminded of just how far I am from mastering pratyahara. I had just invited students to settle into final savasana after a sweaty and challenging vinyasa class and was working my way through the space giving adjustments a la Jason Crandell. My husband has become a regular student of mine, which I am grateful for for many reasons, one of which being that I can practice new adjusting techniques on him without fear of getting sued. As I was manipulating his right scapula into a position better suited for relaxation, I spotted a student who, just as she had struggled through class, was now struggling in savasana.

The woman had placed a bolster (for non-yogis, a firm cushion about six inches thick) under her head, forcing her chin against her chest, the back of her head at nearly a 90-degree angle with the floor. To offset discomfort in her low back, no doubt because of the bolster pillow situation, she had shoved a four-inch block under her hips. Only her shoulders and heels were on the ground. Nothing about her position suggested comfort. Naturally, I went straight over to help. Once the neck injury was averted, I went on to adjust a few more students. 

A few minutes later, as I returned to the front of the room to guide students out of savasana, my husband's strange positioning caught my eye. His right arm lay out to his side at a 45-degree angle, palm facing up, just as I had left it. His left arm was against his body, palm facing in. I pondered for a fraction of a second before I realized what had happened. In that instant, he opened his eyes, sensing me standing over him, and whispered, "you left me." I almost managed to lead the class through our final OM without bursting out laughing. Almost. 


The fifth limb of the Eight-Limbed Path to Enlightenment is about learning to be the driver of the senses rather than the helpless passenger. It's about mastering the ability to do one thing at a time. But even though I mess up every single day, as with everything, it comes down to practice. To doing something 10,000 times until I get it right. Until I can overwrite the existing patterns in my brain with newly formed ones. Each day is a new beginning, an opportunity to start over again. 

I'm just grateful it was my husband and not another student that I forgot about when I caught sight of the bright, shiny object...