Have you ever been in a yoga class and just can’t disconnect your mind from the surrounding noise? I don’t mean the instructor’s voice, I mean the cars passing outside, the vibration of a cell phone in someone’s purse, or even the sound of what’s going on in the room next door. My first yoga studio I attended was upstairs from a furniture store. In the evenings it was quiet. But then the store closed and a martial arts school moved in. Classes were mostly in the evening, and we were always bombarded with the shouts of the students. I didn’t know about re-directing my awareness back then, and sometimes it really got to me.
One of the places I teach now is at a fitness center. I wouldn’t normally want to teach yoga at a gym, but this particular fitness center is different. And what sold me on it was the fact that it had a Mind/Body room dedicated to yoga, pilates, and tai chi. Wow, these people are enlightened! It’s a great room—ceiling fans, adjustable lighting, stereo system, plenty of yoga blankets, straps, blocks, and bolsters (but I do wish they’d take all those mirrors out), and plenty of people who are eager to bend, stretch, breathe, sweat. But the one thing it doesn’t have is sound-proof walls. Just outside the room is where the personal trainers work with their clients. They do bench-pressing, floor work, ab work, and even have a large ball. Yes, that ubiquitous exercise ball that fitness fanatics find all sorts of uses for. I know about this ball because I sometimes hear it being bounced against the Mind/Body room wall while I’m teaching. And to make matters worse, the only time it gets used is when I have my students in Savasana. Or so it seems anyway. At first it bothered me. I even considered poking my head out the door and asking whoever was throwing the ball to please cease and desist until my class was done. But I knew that wouldn’t have been respectful of their time, so instead I thought about how this is a perfect time to practice pratyahara. Prata-what? Let me explain.
This word, pronounced “prat-yah-hara”, is found in the “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” and is the fifth element in the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga (not to be confused with the fast-paced, physically-challenging Ashtanga style of yoga developed by K. Pattabhi Jois). It literally means sense withdrawal, or gaining mastery over the senses. When you have a comfortable position (i.e., one that does not cause discomfort and distraction) and a steady inhale/exhale of the breath, you can “tune out” external stimuli and rest your awareness on your breath. This exercise brings you into a deep, quiet place inside that is free of thought, free of chasing the senses (sound and sight in particular), and most of all, peaceful. I thought of the few times in my life when preparing for a meditation, I would start with pratyahara. Once I was in the meditation, I would no longer feel my body. I didn’t feel my butt on the floor, nor my hands on my thighs. The only sound I heard was the echoing of my breath inside my head. It sounded like wind traveling deep in a tunnel. I had gone so very deep within that all sense of my immediate surroundings disappeared. This was pratyahara at its best.
So, could I teach my students to go there? Or at least, to become aware enough of only their breath that they could experience an inner quietness that literally “drowns out” the nearby noise? I can only hope, and teach, and teach some more. And have faith that over time and with continued practice, each one of us in that room can hear nothing but the sound of our breath inside our heads, and allow it to deliver us to that realm of inner lightness that feels oh so good.
Have you ever tried—again and again—to tune out the noise? Have you felt that it was just impossible? I’d love to hear your story, your comments, your thoughts. Until later, Om Shanti Shanti Shanti.