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Pratyahara and the Wisdom of the Turtle

I have a lot of warrior in me. I’m the type of person who gets outraged easily, and I get emotional when I witness acts of ignorance, or injustice, or plain short-sightedness. I’ve had to work very hard to balance this trait with more patience, more empathy and more compassion. I also live in dread of hurting people—intentionally or otherwise. I have plenty of buttons that are easy to push. My teacher always explained that this is why the test of our yoga achievements is not about how long we can sit on a cushion, or how impressive our poses look, but rather how we conduct ourselves in our relationships—that’s where the real yoga happens.

Sometimes I know what the right thing to do is. I remember seeing a man at Sauble Beach beating a garter snake with a stick and I just jumped in there and grabbed the snake and ran. Easy peasy. But what to do when it feels like the world has gone absolutely mad, the stick is an arsenal, and there’s nowhere to run?

yoga pratyahara

I’ve been pondering the limb of yoga called pratyahara. There are a number of practices that fall under the umbrella of pratyahara. Prati is a preposition meaning “against” and ahara means “anything we take into ourselves from the outside (David Frawley).” Sometimes the practice is described as being like a turtle withdrawing into its shell. Nothing in the outer world changes, but the practitioner is able to create a space that feels safe and steady.

There are at least four kinds of pratyahara that I know of: Control of sensory impressions (for example, being able to hear a sound without having emotions or opinions about it, or avoiding entertainment that is based on violence or gratuitous sex), control of food intake (limiting junk food and toxic substances), control of our associations (the people whom we let into our lives) and lastly, control of our actions.

Many yoga teachers advise that it is better not to watch the news because the senses and emotions become overwhelmed and lead to unskilful actions. I’ve always felt resistance to this, because I think that burying our heads in the sand can lead to even worse outcomes—genocides being a case in point. I believe John Stuart Mill’s assertion that “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”

But lately I am starting to see more wisdom in withdrawing my attention from the news. At least until I get a handle on how I’m going to respond to it. I came across a poem in A Book of Luminous Things that I dog-eared years ago. It starts: “And yet whiteness/can best be described by greyness/ a bird by a stone/ sunflowers/ in December…the most palpable/description of bread/ is that of hunger.” (A Sketch for a Modern Love Poem by Tadeusz Rozewicz).

I realized then that perhaps my time is better spent trying to come up with a better vision, seeking out the people who are doing great things in the world, and writing my own yoga manifesto. I’ll be sharing more about that as it takes shape. In the meantime I have many good things to hold on to: the cat purring on my lap, the sun shining in the window, and the students and friends who give me the motivation to keep looking forward.

With metta,



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Yoga and meditation teacher, writer, reader, cat-momma, environmental warrior, friend

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