Pratyahara

April 6, 2012 § 14 Comments

Playdate Tree Pose

“Yoga is the practice of tolerating the consequences of being yourself.” – Bhagavad Gita

“Where can you run to escape from yourself?
Where you gonna go?
Where you gonna go?
Salvation is here.” – Switchfoot

A few weeks ago, on a cold, rainy, Saturday, I was cleaning the bathrooms and washing our wood floors. Much has been written lately about the virtues of cleaning, but I am not convinced that these aren’t written by people with maids. By the time I was halfway through I was cranky, and I stopped in front of the upstairs window that looks out into our steep backyard to see if it was still raining. I watched the drizzle for a minute and was about to pick up the paper towels again but noticed two bright blue jays perched on a bare branch below. It’s not that blue jays are rare, exactly, but still, I don’t see them very often, especially not two, their wings too bright for this day, their bodies too fat for the thin branch they were bobbing on. As I stood, I saw a third jay perched high up in the sapling, and then, while I was still marveling at my luck, another one landed, its square wings folding under him. Despite the day and the chore and the remaining bathroom, I felt delight flutter in my throat. It felt like more than I was allowed to have.

Winter always drives me a little bit crazy. There is something about the gray and the cold and the onerous task of putting on coats and scarves that makes me feel suffocated and a bit desperate at the same time. By the time the forsythias bloom, their brightness isn’t even a consolation. I want to hurry them along. I want to usher in the daffodils and the cherry blossoms and then the tulips. I want to bypass spring altogether and get to the fat, fleshy leaves of summer. If I had a mantra, it would be hurry up. It would be get here already.

I signed up for a cleanse a few weeks ago. At the time, I signed up just to feel better. I am a pretty sensitive person, but then I go and forget this. I drink too many mugs of coffee and glasses of wine because it seems like this is what you do when you’re an adult. It’s comforting to hold something in your hand like a talisman. Some mornings, I carry my coffee from room to room like a sword. “En garde,” I want to say to the tedious tasks of brushing two foamy mouths, getting two squirming boys into coats, listening to the gossip in the school parking lot.

For the first few days, I was terrified of The Cleanse. What would happen when I took away the coffee and the sugar and the alcohol? And more importantly, what if I didn’t like what remained? Because really, it’s not about the caffeine or the chocolate, and that’s why cleanses can be such a bitch. It’s never about what you’re giving up, but about what you’ve already lost.

For over a month now, I have been reading Maya Stein’s luminous poem, “you will know (for T)”. The line: “Listen. The birds will teach you everything you need to know about flight,” has been reverberating inside my head and heart. I have been trying to fly through the drizzle with my own winter body. I have been trying to soar but something keeps pulling me back. I went to yoga one night, when I was particularly exhausted, thinking it would help, even though I know that’s not the point. I usually love Bakasana (crow pose), but that night, during the jump-back, I fell flat on my face. In Garudasana (eagle pose), I felt dizzy and nauseous, and by the time we got to Vrksasana (tree pose) I gave up completely. I bent down into Balasana (child’s pose) and felt my racing heart beat against my mat. It occurred to me then that maybe the problem wasn’t that I didn’t know how to fly, but that I hadn’t yet learned how to land.

After a 3-day headache and bone-crushing exhaustion, what I discovered was that being on a cleanse was easier than my normal life. There was something about a weekly call and a payment sent, a secret Facebook group and a recipe for kitchari that gave me license to take care of myself, to take an extra five minutes to apply Ayurvedic oil and make lemon tea. During the first week, Laura sent us an email about Pratyahara, which is one of the limbs on the eight-limbed yogic path. Pratyahara literally means “to turn inward.” In her email, Laura wrote: “Pratyhara is an invitation to drop into your heart, to come home to yourself.”

I have been spending so much time trying to soar that I have forgotten to come back to earth. So much of my life has been spent trying to prove myself, trying to earn a seat at the table. I waste so much energy trying to be twice as good in order to be considered as good as. I have been so busy plumbing the depths of what is expected of me that I have forgotten to listen to what I already know to be true.

In my yoga teacher training, we studied the ways a yoga class sequence follows both the chakras and the eight-limb path of yoga. Vrksasana (tree pose) is the part of our practice that corresponds to both the heart chakra and Pratyahara. It is the moment we leave the oceanic flow of the Sun Salutations and turn inward. We engage our core in order to open our heart. We begin to surrender our will and listen to the rush of blood in our ears. We balance our bodies on a single ankle bone and trust that it will hold.

If the birds will teach us everything we need to know about flight, then surely they can also teach us how to land. And what is landing if not forgiveness? What is turning inward if not an act of trust? One morning after I started the cleanse, as I awoke before dawn to do my Sun Salutations, I thought of those plump blue jays, landing on that skinny branch. I inhaled my arms high in my dark living room and bent my creaky body over my knees. I felt my feet on the cold wood floor. “I forgive L,” I thought and felt a tidal wave of sadness sweep me under and catch in my chest. I stepped back into downward facing dog and looked back at my knees. “I forgive myself,” I thought and felt myself land – wobbling, haltingly, shakily – on the thin branch of a new tree, not entirely trusting that it would hold, but wanting it to, more than anything.

Maya Stein’s full poem is below:

you will know (for T) – by Maya Stein

It will be all right in the end, and maybe even in the middle. You will not suffer as long as you think you will. You are not fated to be unhappy. You are not destined for failure. Remember who you are. Let me say it again. Remember who you are. Be gentle. Practice exquisite acts of self-care. You don’t have to be as strong as you think you do. You don’t have to be wise and certain about your path. Your frailty is beautiful, and your innocence too. Getting lost is another exercise in navigation. You can’t fix everything you touch. You won’t break everything you touch. Don’t apologize if you’re tired. Don’t second-guess your stomach. Maintain eye contact with everything, especially yourself. Fall to your knees at least once a day. Say yes at least twice. Love daringly, wholly, unapologetically. Believe in magic. Befriend your fear. Look up. Listen. The birds will tell you everything you need to know about flight. Forgive yourself your great sadness. Unlock what hurts. Make a prayer for loss. Unpen your words. Get messier than anyone thinks you should. You’ll know when you’re ready. I’ll say it again. You’ll know when you’re ready.

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§ 14 Responses to Pratyahara

  • After you’ve sold your Xmillionth book, I will proudly say that I once ran with you around Mission Bay, way before your fame and fortune, and that we philosophized, we ruminated about the topics in our minds. I will be proud to say that I know Pamela Hunt, the exquisite writer, the fantastic college athlete, the wise teacher of the eight limbs of yoga, Ashtanga. This is an amazing piece within the great collection of writing you are sharing with the world. Thank you.

  • Hi Pamela, Some finches were perched on the tiniest of branches just outside my sister-in-laws kitchen window in her Victorian house up in what was once a gold rush town and now is quiet. More came, and one repeatedly perched upon the window sill, it’s tiny eyes peering into my own in the clear space below some stained glass.

    The moon is glowing full right now on Good Friday, this first night of Passover, this awesome and eternal time of dark rooting and seeds and buds contain the enveloped wings of sun-filled flight, of golden leaves and the freedom that is loving kindness.

    We’ve all been darkly tasting dirt, but wine and honey too.

    Sending All Good Wishes to you, yours and all of us and ours. Namaste

  • Laura Plumb says:

    So beautiful. I am always so touched by your writing. It wraps a warm blanket around my heart.

  • I love Maya’s work, too, and this is one of my very favorites. Thank you, thank you. xox

  • Kate says:

    I’ve been needing a cleanse for months now but putting it off, and putting it off again. Same sorts of reasons I guess…I’m not sure I can cope with withdrawal while juggling studying and a busy family… I love your description of a cup of coffee as a sword. I think mine is a shield, but you are so spot on! Can a cup of herbal tea ever work as well?

  • Holy moly, your post struck me right in my sternum and that poem made me cry. Pretty sure that means I need to go eat a hunk of chocolate and watch some mindless TV, right?
    :-)

    Thank you for this post. I smiled when I saw it in my reader and saved it so I could savor it, like I always do.

  • Wolf Pascoe says:

    I am content to follow to its source
    Every event in action or in thought;
    Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
    When such as I cast out remorse
    So great a sweetness flows into the breast
    We must laugh and we must sing,
    We are blest by everything,
    Everything we look upon is blest.

    W.B. Yeats, from A Dialogue of Self and Soul

  • Thekitchwitch says:

    Much has been written lately about the virtues of cleaning, but I am not convinced that these aren’t written by people with maids.
    ****
    This made me laugh so hard that my shiny new catheter almost came out.

    You always have words that stay with me all day.

  • When your blog pops up in my google reader as having a new post, I get so excited. I love this one, I love the poem, and I love that you have been reading it for a few weeks. You also crack me up saying, “Much has been written about the virtues of cleaning, but I’m not sure they weren’t written by people with maids.” Ha! The way you insert the daily grind into your incredible insights makes them twice as valueable to me…..” Thank you.

  • Luminous, as always, my dear.

    I deeply resonate to your idea of learning how to fly, but not knowing how to land. Yes! Yes, I know this. Why is it that the hardest poses for me in yoga are child’s poses and savasana? Thank you for helping me think about these questions today.

  • Kathy says:

    G. K. Chesterton said, “It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.” I wish for you lightness as you learn to land and fly.

  • Ari says:

    Lovely as always. Yes, I want to forgive myself and forgive others too. I need to come back and read this post again.
    I’ve just finished reading “Bread of Angels” by Stephanie Saldana. I think you will like that book.

  • Just last night I read an article in the May issue of Yoga Journal by Sally Kempton. I ripped it out to read over and over again. I just read some of its passages before I came here to read your always-intuitive, wonderful words. In this article, Kempton references the Bhagavad Gita. She refers to Gita’s words: “I am the Self hidden in the heart.” “He’s referring to one of the deepest pieces of wisdom in the yoga tradition: the teaching that in our own bodies, in the subtle center called the heart, we can tune in to our true Self, the part of us that isn’t confused about what life is all about.”

    I always leave here with something to think about. And today, I will think of your beautiful, brave story of how you learned to drop into your heart.

    Thank you, friend. xo

  • Debbie says:

    Hi Pamela…

    I’m new here, but have fallen in love. Beautiful writing, wonderful insights. I too am a yoga teacher (but have taken the last couple of years off to find ‘me’….if that makes sense.

    I could so relate to the blue jays landing outside your window and lifting you from desperate…to “saved” – the same thing happened to me a number of winters ago…only the bird was the cardinal (three of them) and the condition was seasonal affective disorder…and maybe some postpartum. Birds…the changed my life in that very moment. I could go on. It was a gift.

    Thank you for sharing this…I look forward to reading more.
    Namaste,
    Debbie

    ps – Read War yesterday and bawled and then shared it with everyone I know. The also cried. Very powerful. xo

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