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Pratyahara Practice Over Pizza?

Yum Yum!

Even after years of practicing yoga, mindfulness, meditation, and studying The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (along with other texts), I would by no means say I have mastered ANY of it. Is this discouraging? Not in the least. There are moments of mastery that are worth all the practice. There’s an adage somewhere out there that goes something like: the glory is not in the trying, but in getting up every time you fall. That’s the truth with any yoga practice—physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. It is true in life—off the mat and no matter our age. This weekend on my return road trip from visiting family in Ann Arbor, MI, I had one of those moments of “mastery,” or maybe better referred to as “awareness.”

The second Yoga Sutra in Book One tells us this: Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah. That is translated as: “The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.” This sutra sort of sums up all the others, and is ultimately the goal of yoga. I’ll let you read various online translations of the meaning behind this or look it up in your favorite version of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I reference the translation by Swami Satchidananda most often. Let me sum it up in a few sentences to illustrate its relationship to this article. Basically, the modifications, fluctuations, or waves of our minds are what shape our view of the outside world. These modifications keep us from being at peace, like waves on an ocean. These waves can be our desires and efforts at fulfillment, they can be the source of the differences we see in the outside world, they can be what imprisons us, or what leads to liberation. “If you control your mind, you have controlled everything. Then there is nothing in this world to bind you” (Sutra 1.2). For me, the practice of this sutra was the first step to learning the practice of Pratyahara, which is the practice of sense-withdrawal or withdrawal from the nature of the mind-stuff (see Sutra ii.54-55).

Recently, my son and I made some diet changes, specifically going dairy and white or enriched flour free. This has NOT been easy for this bread and yogurt lovin’ family, and still, it could be much worse. For me, it has not felt like I’m being deprived, and really for Alden too. We have seen it as an opportunity to try new things and also to only eat foods that make us feel good and nourish our bodies. This weekend as we stopped at restaurant after restaurant trying to find somewhere we could eat, I watched as we didn’t become discouraged—but energized to press on to the next location! It was fun when it could have been an infuriating experience for some. Let me reiterate, I have in no way mastered my senses, but this experience reminded me of another sutra about Pratyahara: Sutra II.55. This one says, “Tatah parama vasyatendriyanam.” Translated as: “Then follows supreme mastery over the senses.” In other words, as Satchidananda says in his translation, “we shouldn’t think we lose anything by avoiding sensual pleasures” (Sutra II.55). We see this experience as a new freedom—from the ailments that plagued us because of diet, freedom to be more creative, and freedom to resist temptation. My poor husband has not taken this route (yet) and sees it as a struggle, a restriction, and a lack of freedom. It really is all about perspective.

The original instance that made me even think about my Pratyahara practice over pizza (which on this day was NOT completely in my diet and I paid for it), was one at the lunch table with regards to my surroundings. As I enjoyed the time with my little family at the table in this restaurant on a rainy yet beautiful day (to me), apparently there was a loud conversation going on at the table next to us. I didn’t even realize I wasn’t noticing it until Alden called my attention to their discussion in the form of a question about their conversation. It is rare for many of us in today’s world to be “present” in non-yoga settings. Sure some people come by it naturally, but in the world of multitasking, let’s face it, it’s hard work. Anyway, I redirected Alden by telling him I wasn’t here to listen to others’ conversations; I only wanted to focus on our food and the conversation our family was having. He said, “Why?” and I found myself explaining the practice of Pratyahara to my five-and-a-half-year-old, in simple terms. One of the perks of being a kids’ yoga teacher is knowing how to do this! In other words, I explained presence. After that, he seemed very pleased to only focus on his experience at our table, with his food, and with the words, we were sharing as a family. Quite beautiful if you ask me. So, as adults we can practice, gaining joy from those “moments of mastery” and even more joy when our children grasp it too.


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