Oh, My Little Toe – Pratyahara and Dhyana as Yoga

Pratyahara is the fifth of the eight limbs of yoga. It can be translated as withdrawal or control of the senses. When we engage the practice of pratyahara, we bring our focus from the world outside – the sights and sounds and smells around us – to that which is inside. Dhyana is the sixth limb; it is concentration, or the focusing of the mind on a single point.

We’ve all had experiences of engaging pratyahara and dhyana without consciously thinking about what we were doing. A great example can be found in memories of bath time as a child. If you were like me, there were times that you laid back in the bath, closing your eyes and submerging everything but your nose into the water. With eyes closed and ears filled with the warm water, sounds become muted and there is nothing to see. The water, at near body temperature and covering you all over reduces sensation of touch. With the nose resting just above the water and occupied only with breathing, smell recedes into the background. In this quiet cave of water, you could focus on one idea or one sensation easily. I loved doing this as a child. It made me feel so easy, happy, peaceful, and rested. I would probably do it now if I had a bigger bath and less cranky joints!

As adults, maybe you have fewer times when this happens naturally. The call of things outside is strong. There are phones ringing and emails binging. Every environment is full of visual stimulation. We feel a near constant pressure to respond to the individuals around us (even virtually around). The past and the future encroach upon the now with the memories of what has occurred (and assessments of each event) and the plans for future happenings. But, we can still engage these practices.

Withdrawal of the senses can be partly accomplished through manipulation of physical surroundings: turning off the phone and computer, finding a quiet place to be, using ear plug and/or an eye mask. This might then allow us the space to engage that single point of concentration. Or, sometimes, we can do both together, by focusing our mind on very simple things, such as a comfortable body part.

Rarely do most of us think about the parts of the body that feel comfortable. We know intimately the parts that hurt. We can describe pain clearly and with a multitude of fine degrees of difference. But, when a particular body part is just comfortable, just at ease, we tend to ignore it. We then miss the feeling of comfort and ease, and we deny ourselves a chance to calmly focus on a sensation that isn’t arousing, but calming.

Baby Toes

Image from Sabianmaggy on Flickr

In a recent class, I asked students sitting in guided meditation to think about a body part that was comfortable. As we sat with no shoes on, I suggested the little toe on the left foot (or the earlobe on the right ear). I asked my students to try to direct their minds to that toe, seeing what the body was feeling there. Later, when we were processing the meditation, everyone agreed that this way of focusing on a single, comfortable body part had helped them to draw in and to focus their minds.

So, perhaps the next time that you find your mind a whirl and feel that sensation of being drawn in a 1000 directions at once by the things in your environment calling to you, sit down and think about your little toe. Who knows where it might lead you…



To Make the Strange Familiar and the Familiar Strange

The German poet and philosopher, Novalis (Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg) once said:

To romanticize the world is to make us aware of the magic, mystery and wonder of the world; it is to educate the senses to see the ordinary as extraordinary, the familiar as strange, the mundane as sacred, the finite as infinite.”

I think of yoga in the same way.

After I started to study yoga as more than just asana, one of the things that drew me was the unification of opposites that I see in the philosophy of yoga (and then enacted in pranayama and asana):  the emphasis that to be separate is to be unified;  the idea that the positive requires the negative for existence; the grounding down to lift up; the pulling senses in to see that which is so much bigger than the self, and so on.  One of the fascinating ways that this dialectic of opposition is revealed to me through yoga is in making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.

As we practice  pranayama, breath control, we engage in this interplay between strange and familiar.  In observing the natural breath, and noticing its qualities, we make something that we do 24 hours a day 7 days a week into a new specimen to study.  When we learn new forms of breathing, such as ujjayi breath or dirga pranayama, they are strange to us, but over time they become something so familiar in a yoga practice that we are not surprised by their inclusion in a class.  Yet they maintain that element of extraordinary.  The very practice of pranayama makes the everyday nature of the breath something amazing.

In asana, as well, I can see this in operation.  When I watch a student new to the practice confront poses that, at this point, are very normal to me, it reminds me of how the familiar the strange has become.  As I learn a new pose, in which parts of the body are contorted in ways I didn’t see as possible, the ordinary of the body  becomes extraordinary.  Even very basic things about the body can take on the character of unknown in an asana practice.  I have written before about how, when in an inversion, I lose the sense of where parts of my body are and how they exist in space.  If the teacher asks me to flatten out my lower back or tuck my tailbone when I’m upside down, sometimes I have no idea how to make that happen.  Body parts that are pretty definitely “mine” almost feel dissociated in some shapes.  Last night, during a practice, I noticed this twice.  Once, while in a twisted bound pigeon pose, I noticed that the toe I was holding didn’t really “feel like my toe.”  Later, while doing prep work for urdvha danurasana, our teacher asked us to position the right arm for the pose, and then reach over with the left hand and take hold of the right elbow and upper arm and manipulate it.  As I did so, I was astonished.  The mental sense that I have of my arms, that normally goes unchallenged because it is so normal, was completely dislocated.  I thought to myself “Is THAT what my arm feels like?”  I actually found myself turning my head to look at my elbow and arm (did I think that someone had snuck a new one in there?) to double check that I was really holding it.  In my head, I’m relatively big boned and sturdy.  The elbow/arm that I had in my hand felt weirdly spindly and small.  That minor preparatory movement for a pose literally made my body strange to me in that moment.

On the other hand (get it?  it’s an arm joke), body positions that, not so long ago, would have seemed weird or impossible to me, are now completely familiar.  Going through the flow from caturanga to urdvha mukha savasana to adho mukha savasana is as reasonable as walking from my desk to the door.  Coming into headstand, which I initially thought was so unfamiliar as to be impossible, seems a perfectly reasonable – even enjoyable – option.

It’s a wonderful thing to see how the normal and extraordinary are one, and yoga helps me to do just that.  Finding this in my practice encourages me to see it all around me.  The web of a spider is amazing and everyday.  The fact that my dog and cat have a relationship and communicate with one another is awe-some and common.  The existence of a box that let’s me send this blog through the air to thousands of people around the world is miraculous and an accepted part of our world.  The dialectic of the strange and familiar is both astonishing and utterly regular.




Falling On Your Asana

It’s inevitable. If you do physical yoga, you are going to fall eventually. Probably more than once. You probably won’t hurt yourself seriously.  You probably won’t break a tooth. You probably will look a little ridiculous.  It’s ok.  It’s so ok.

When I first started yoga, I took it all so seriously.  I wouldn’t go to public classes for fear that I would look dumb because I couldn’t do the poses.  When I finally got up the nerve to take a class, I hid in the back, as far back as I could and tried hard not to make eye contact with anyone before, during, or after class.  Time passed and I got more comfortable with the idea of doing yoga with other people, but I was still afraid to screw up or fall.

It’s interesting, huh?  I mean, really, there are a lot of yoga poses that look kind of silly anyway if you think about them from the standpoint of typical body movements.   Seriously, tell me that halasana, kurmasana, and karnapidasana aren’t a little goofy looking.

Uh huh. I don’t think you can.  Try, if you will, to imagine anyone taking these body positions for anything besides a yoga class and what the reactions of observers would be.  Yoga asana is a little bit like sex in this way.  It’s beautiful to see because of what it represents, but from a body-only perspective sometimes it looks kind of (or much, depending) funny.

So, there I am in a yoga class and I’m contorting my body into these odd situations, but I’m worrying about falling over.  Hmm…  Over time, I just had to get over it.  I stopped trying to pretend like I didn’t just stumble or fall.  I stopped avoiding poses that I thought I might fall over in.  I embraced my inner Chevy Chase and got comfortable with the fall.  Now, when I fall over, sometimes quite spectacularly, I snort a little, reassure anyone who asks that I’m fine, and carry on.  This attitude lets me be a little bit less serious about my asana.  I try to have a little fun with it and enjoy the playtime.  Yes, it can be a time of meditation and it should be a time of mindfulness, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a time of joy, trying new things, and falling/failing with a grin.

It’s not quite fall yet, but you are, in fact, welcome to fall!