The Self cannot be perceived with the senses that, disunited, scatter to and fro and are difficult to restrain for those whose self is not prepared. ~ Mahabharata XII. 194.58
Every yoga teacher has experienced students in Shavasana who simply cannot keep their eyes closed. Their eyes keep springing open, due to nerves, or restlessness; maybe even because of contrariness! Depending on what strategy we’re using, we either a)ignore/excuse this eyepopping; b) ‘correct’/’adjust’ the person with words; or c) clap an eyebag over their eyes if we can’t figure out how else to solve the problem.
It took me a while to realize how to explain Shavasana in a way that made it more than a sanctified kindergarten nap. Only after I considered it as a pratyahara practice was I able to teach it convincingly to students, or understand it myself.
Ah, pratyahara: most unglamorous of Patañjali’s limbs of Yoga! Most abstemious ascetic anga! What do I do with you? I am an addict of form and feeling, in photography and painting and drawing, dance and Yoga. Why shouldn’t I feed myself with beauty where I find it? Why would anyone cloister themselves away from that joy?
Pratyahara even sounds restrictive. Our first understanding, our original inheritance of pratyahara, comes from Patañjali: svavishaya asamprayoge cittasya svarupanukarah iva indriyaanaam pratyaahaarah; ‘Withdrawing the senses, mind, and consciousness from contact with external objects, and then drawing them inwards toward the seer, is pratyahara’ (Yogasutra II.54). Of all the Limbs of Yoga, this fifth limb implies the least gratification. It is a restraint, stately and classical. Even the breakdown of the word implies a negative: prati=counter, away from; a=intensive; hri=to pull. ‘Pulling away from.’ Apparently hard.
That’s a hard sell to modern, aesthetically sophisticated Western students, to be sure, but it is the basic ‘why’ of keeping your eyes closed, in Shavasana, or during meditation. I had to figure out that ‘why,’ though. It didn’t honor my students’ sense of reason simply to say, ‘It is tradition to close your eyes, or to deactivate your limbs in Shavasana.’ I found the real ‘Why,’ the jewel of pratyahara, in the second part of the sutra: the redirection. Pratyahara is both about energy and about self-knowledge.
Pratyahara is deeply positive. It refreshes us, bringing energy in that would otherwise be spent on the outside, moving limbs, absorbing and interpreting information. Our senses use a tremendous amount of energy, especially our eyes, which is why the first thing we do to go inside is close them. Osho calls our eye-orientation ‘Kodakomania,’ a fixation which pulls energy away not only from our deep inner life but from the keenness of our other senses as well: ’80 percent of your energy is devoted to your eyes. The other senses suffer very much, because there is only twenty percent left for them. You have lost the democracy of your senses.’ The mere act of pulling the blinds for a few moments gives our ears more wattage, more power to listen to our breath; refreshes our proprioception so that we may witness our responses to our position in space. That multidimensional interior awareness is a river we can then ride into meditation, if not the meditation itself.
Shavasana is a terrific pratyahara practice. Taking the energy that motivates the organs of sense and action, the jnanendriyas and the karmandriyas, and deliberately not activating it: all of that tremendous energy spent and expressed in relationship to the outer world suddenly has nowhere else to go, so it rebounds inside to feed and nourish our spirit, our presence, whatever mystery that is, our inner life, our heart. Like watering a garden, it is deep and necessary to do this.
I love things external to me that jar me into thinking beyond myself, awakening me to compassion and to other worlds outside my selfish conceptions. Pratyahara does not refuse those, but it replenishes me so that I can encounter them from a wiser, grounded place. Desikachar interprets aahaara as ‘nourishment’. I have an interior life that needs energy to develop. If I turn off the outer shine, I can experience it, and receive all that gorgeous lush luminous prana flowing inward.
Pratyahara transcends aesthetics. Think of the formidable sanmukhi mudra, although it might look severe. The practice of relaxing the limbs in Shavasana. All of the beautiful, mysterious poses like Kurmasana, like Karnapidasana, that introvert you, that claustrophobe you, are not about putting on a performance. They are not about about hot yoga pants, or pleasing anybody. They are independent and fiercely real. Iyengar says pratyahara frees us from the thralldom of the objects of desire. It is literally unglamourous because breaks the enchantment of things, de-glamourizes them. In so doing, it liberates us. In a world that scatters us, pratyahara pulls us together. In a world of desire, pratyahara helps us to measure our core so that we more than a reaction, we are a person.
Every time I hear the students in my class, the students whom I am so graced to teach, ‘drop in,’ there is a hush in the practice room like the hush of a holy church, or the feeling of being in a breathing undersea forest. I sit in awe of what they are doing, of the fact that I get to bear witness to it. It is thrilling. Quest in as much as out, for what you will find in there is treasure.
Blessings on your eyes and limbs, and on all the rest of you!
Photograph by Jeff Frazier, www.jefffrazier.com
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