Have you ever gone grocery shopping when you’re really hungry? No matter how committed you are to a healthy eating plan going in, all bets are off when your nose catches a whiff of the freshly baked bread on the free sample table. If your senses take over, you reach for the bread, put a piece in your mouth, and stand there enjoying the yeasty, malty flavor and the soft, chewy texture. And, before you know it, you’ve thrown a whole loaf in your basket, completely forgetting that just yesterday you swore off gluten forever.
This not-so-far-fetched example demonstrates just how thoroughly taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing can govern our lives. We interact with the world through our senses all the time, and they exercise more control over our choices than we realize. Truth be told, there’s simply no avoiding them. But most of us need periodic retreats from this sensory onslaught in order to gain enough clarity to live according to our yogic principles—and our dietary plans.
Pratyahara entails cultivating our inner life through disciplined practice and periods of retreat--so we can participate with and through our senses more consciously and skillfully.
Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutra, gives us a way to accomplish that end: pratyahara, the fifth limb of Ashtanga yoga. Often referred to as the “withdrawal of the senses from outside objects,” this stage of practice conjures up esoteric images of yogis so absorbed in meditation that they don’t feel the sting of a scorpion or so adept at physical abnegation that they can lie comfortably on a bed of nails. And however much these “superhero” yogic feats may inspire, entertain, and interest us, most of us would prefer to apply the principles and practices of pratyahara in more ordinary ways. As typical practitioners—who sandwich yoga in between everything else we’ve got going on—we can’t possibly renounce the senses and cease to be aware of what’s happening around us. For us, pratyahara entails cultivating our inner life consistently and deliberately—through disciplined practice and periods of retreat—so we can participate with and through our senses more consciously and skillfully.
Pratyahara allows us to pull back from external activity and gather the force and focus we need to dive back into the fray. It helps us choose our responses to sensory stimulation, rather than reacting unintentionally. We can smell the bread baking in the store without reaching for it, because pratyahara affords us one or two extra moments during which we can remember our food plan and our health goals.
Most often this limb is experienced through a deeply restorative practice, but you can easily incorporate it into a more active asana practice. To do so, set an intention to move your attention away from the external world and focus on your own physical and emotional sensations. Do your regular practice, but incorporate more forward folds (standing or seated), which can help tune out external distractions and even internal judgments. Be aware of the rhythm of your breathing and how your body responds to each pose. You may notice that the more you practice withdrawing or going inward, the more fully you can be present, participate in, and appreciate the outside world.
"After completing this pose, one feels refreshed, as though one had woken up from a long undisturbed sleep." -B.K.S. Iyengar
I can’t think of a more apt symbol for pratyahara than a turtle withdrawing into its shell. Kurmasana (tortoise pose) is an intense forward fold that shuts out sensory distractions and quiets the nervous system. Kurmasana, according to B.K.S. Iyengar in Light on Yoga, “tones the spine, activates the abdominal organs, and keeps one energetic and healthy.” Additionally, the posture “soothes the nerves of the brain,” he says, “and after completing it one feels refreshed, as though one had woken up from a long undisturbed sleep.”
Of course, these great effects are possible only if you have enough flexibility in your hips, shoulders, and back to practice the pose safely. So proceed slowly and deliberately, paying attention to your breath and alignment. Notice how you feel as you move through each preparatory pose and be prepared to stop anywhere along the way. If you have any disk problems in your back, I would recommend abstaining from the final stages of this deep fold—the rounded shape in the spine can aggravate that condition.
Sit in vajrasana (thunderbolt pose), with your hips on your heels and your feet and knees touching. Inhale as you squeeze your knees together to tone your inner thighs and lift your chest. Place your right hand on the outside of your left knee and place your left hand on your sacrum behind you. Exhale and twist to your left. Maintaining this twist, bend forward and place your hands and your forehead on the floor. Draw your tailbone forward and into your body and tone your low belly to protect your spine. Straighten your arms in front of you to stretch your spine. In this twisted and forward-bended position, the right side of your back will be higher than your left side. With every exhale, lower your right breast more toward the floor to create a lateral stretch along the right side of your back. This stretch will loosen the muscles along the back of your body and begin to prepare your back for the deep stretch that comes with kurmasana. Hold for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Repeat on the other side.
From prasarita padottanasana (wide angle forward bend), turn your right foot in slightly and your left foot out 90 degrees. Bend your left knee so that it is directly over your front ankle. Stretch your hands and arms out to the left the same way you did in adho mukha parshva vajrasana. Straighten your arms. In this position your hips and thighs will naturally move back and apart. Make sure that your legs are toned in order to protect your hamstring attachments. Lift your right kneecap by engaging your quadriceps fully. Move your tailbone forward and into your body as you lift and tone your lower abdomen. Move your left sitting bone toward your right inner thigh in order to line your left leg up straight from your hip to your knee and to ensure that your butt is not sticking out.
Stand in tadasana (mountain pose). Step or jump your feet wide. Stretch your arms out to the sides, parallel with the floor. Place your feet directly underneath your wrists. Keep your right foot straight ahead and turn your left leg out to the left 90 degrees. Line your left heel up with the arch of your right foot. Inhale, engage your leg muscles and lift your chest. Exhale, bend your left knee until the top of your left thigh is parallel to the floor. Place your left hand on the floor on the inside of your left foot so that your torso is along the inside of your left thigh. Stretch your right arm up to the ceiling. This is stage one. If your shoulders or hips are tight, stay here.
Inhale and stretch up; exhale, bend your right arm at the elbow, aim your thumb toward the floor to internally rotate your arm and place your forearm along the back side of your waistline. Make sure you have your arm at your waist and not around your hip to make the clasp less stressful for your shoulder. Slide the left side of your torso along the inside of your left thigh to move a littler lower toward the floor and to open your hips more. Turn your left arm in and wrap it around your left thigh, and clasp your right hand or wrist behind you. If you cannot make the clasp, bend forward at your hips more and reach your thighs back like you had them in the first stage of the adho mukha shvanasana variation.
Once you have the clasp, take your tailbone in, lift your low belly up, and line your front leg up from your hip to your knee. These actions will help stabilize your hips. Hold for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Release and repeat on the other side.
Stand in tadasana. Place your hands behind your back in reverse prayer. Step or jump your feet wide. Turn your left foot in strongly and turn your right foot out 90 degrees. Line your right heel up with the arch of your left foot. Squeeze your legs together until you feel your inner thighs engage, your hips become more square to the front of your mat, and your chest lift. Engage your leg muscles and lift your kneecaps. Keep your legs strong as you exhale and bend forward over your right leg.
As you bend forward over your front leg, lift your kneecap and push through the ball of your right foot as though you were stepping on a gas pedal. This will help you move more weight into your back leg and help you avoid hyperextending your front leg. First bring your forehead, your nose, and then your chin to your shin. Hold the posture for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Inhale, return to standing. Repeat on the other side.
If you have tight shoulders, use one of the following variations: hands on the floor, interlaced hands behind the back, or clasped elbows behind the back.
Sit in dandasana (staff pose) with your legs straight out in front of you. Bend your right leg and place the inside of your right foot along the inside of your left thigh. Anchor both sitting bones to the floor or a blanket, inhale, and stretch your spine long. Maintaining the length of your torso, exhale and place your outer right armpit or shoulder against your inner right knee. The resistance powers the twist away from the bent leg and keeps the adductors toned and the pelvis stable.
Bend your right arm and point your fingers straight up to the ceiling. Place your left hand on the floor or a block behind your back. This may be intense enough for your body right now.
Turn your right arm in, bend your elbow, and wrap your right arm around your right leg. Bend your left arm in and place your left forearm along the back of your waistline, and clasp your hands or your left wrist behind your back. Create a very strong upper back backbend here and take your arm bones toward the back plane of your body to stabilize your shoulders. Hold for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Release and repeat on the other side.
Sit in dandasana with your legs straight out in front of you. Bend your right leg and place the inside of your right foot along the inside of your left thigh. Bring your knee out to the right slightly like you would in malasana (garland pose). As you inhale, stretch your right arm up toward the ceiling to stretch your spine. Exhaling, bend forward from your hips and reach your right arm out toward your left foot. Inhale again and make your spine as long as you can and, with your exhale, turn your right arm in, bend your elbow, and clasp your right arm around your right leg, as low toward the ankle as you can.
With your next inhale, turn your left arm in, wrap your forearm around the back of your waistline (not your hips), and clasp your fingers or your left wrist behind you. Bring your forehead, your nose, or your chin to the shin of your outstretched leg. Hold for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Release and repeat on the other side.
It is not necessary to clasp in this posture if your shoulders are not ready for such a deep stretch. Bending forward and placing your hands on either side of your outstretched leg makes for an effective modification.
Stand in tadasana with your feet and legs together. Bend forward and place your hands on the floor in front of you. Put some weight in your hands and come up onto the balls of your feet. Stay on the balls of your feet, keep weight into your hands to take pressure out of your knee joint, and bring your hips toward your heels. Once you have closed the knee joint, lower your heels to the floor. If you cannot bring your heels to the floor, place a blanket underneath your heels.
Keeping the soles of your feet on the floor, stretch your arms in front of you and reach your sitting bones back behind you to encourage a small curve to come into your lumbar spine. Having established this length along the back of your body, take your tailbone deeper into your body, lift your low belly up, bring your lower ribs closer to your hip bones to tone your abdominal muscles, place your arms on the floor behind you with your palms facing up, and lower your head toward or to the floor. Hold for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Move directly into uttanasana.
From malasana, keep your belly close to your thighs as you slowly straighten your legs and come into uttanasana. At the midpoint between bent legs and straight legs, take your hands to the backs of your heels making a C shape and pull your belly closer to your thighs as you straighten your legs. It is not essential to straighten your legs completely, but do keep your belly on your thighs to support your back in this deep forward flexion. Hold for 30 seconds and release.
Kurmasana is given here in three stages. Choose the one that makes the most sense for your body. For stage one, sit in dandasana with your legs straight in front of you. Place your heels on the outside edges of your sticky mat. Bend your legs slightly less than 90 degrees. With your thumb on the back of your right calf muscle, place your right shoulder underneath your right leg. Now place your left shoulder underneath your left leg. Stretch your arms out straight so that your arms and your legs form a 90-degree angle with one another. Squeeze your legs toward one another and stretch them as straight as you can. For stage two, move your arms back behind you with your palms up, the same way you had them in malasana.
For stage three, turn your arms in, bend your elbows, and clasp your hands around the back of your waistline.
The tendency in this posture is for the legs to spread too wide, which makes the clasp impossible. This posture is the symbol of retreat and drawing in, so counteract the common misalignment by positioning your shoulders as far under your legs as you can and squeezing your legs together with the strength of your upper inner thighs. The more you stretch your arms away from your body, the more easily you will be able to clasp them. Once you have the clasp, work your arm bones toward the back plane of the body as though you were doing a backbend in your shoulders. Hold kurmasana for 30 seconds to 1 minute and release.