Most yoga students begin the practice of yoga to learn and benefit from its physical postures or asana.
It’s the way that I got started. As a former dancer, I was drawn to the slow movements and deep sense of alignment that the poses provided. At that time, I didn’t realize that I was simultaneously tuning into my breath.
My first teacher would gently remind the class to inhale and exhale as we stretched and contracted. It felt fluid and natural and my body felt aligned and peaceful at the end of each session. But we didn’t call it pranayama.
At the end of class, we took time to close our eyes and sit quietly. We were encouraged to focus on the simple pattern of our breath, the sounds within the space or a specific intention for ourselves. But we didn’t call it meditation.
For many, neither pranayama nor meditation are addressed in a typical yoga class. If you are fortunate, you will find a teacher that generates an awareness of the breath for you. Breath awareness is best understood when the body is relaxed and still.
A prime example of this is Savasana or the final relaxation pose that is usually done at the end of a practice.
Developing a connection to the breath takes repetition and time. Eventually, it will become easier and you will find it within many of the postures you perform. First, you will access breath within the simpler standing poses and forward bends. Eventually, it can assist you in the more difficult postures like backbends and balancing poses.
Once you can use the breath to bring more ease and depth into your asana practice, you are ready to explore the phases of meditation which are the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th limbs of yoga. Each progression allows you to hone and develop the skills to stay in a deeper and longer meditative state.
The first step on this ladder is the 5th limb or the practice of sense withdrawal called pratyahara.
Like a turtle that retracts inside of its shell, your practice of pratyahara will teach you to go inside yourself and retreat from the external “noises” that exist around you: the opinions, the interruptions, the distractions, the associations, the influences.
Once you detach from this commotion, you can be free to choose the sensations that you wish to bring into your field of awareness.
Some good ways to begin the practice of pratyahara are the following:
Take a Media Fast. Spend some time each day away from sensory input. Turn off the t.v, the computer, the phone, put aside music and books. Sit quietly and allow your mind to rest for 10, 20 or even 30 minutes.
Take a Real Savasana. Set a timer for 20 minutes. Wrap a blanket around your head to form a nest so that the ends of the blanket cover your ears. Use a washcloth or an eyebag to cover your eyes.
After either technique, find one thing to focus on: the blue sky, the distant trees, mountains or hillsides in your view or a field or garden of flowers if you have them. These simple and positive images will be a refreshing change for your mind and allow you to detach and begin to filter out distractions.
Once sense withdrawal is attainable, the 6th limb or concentration can be developed.
And the journey continues …
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