Pratyahara Sense Withdrawal

yoga meditation

Pratyahara often seems to be the neglected and misunderstood limb of Patanjali’s eight limbed system of Ashtanga yoga. With the other limbs either being more tangible, easier to conceptualise, or so far off we don’t even bother, Patanjali’s vague fifth limb can be easily overlooked. Patanjali himself only dedicated two sutras to pratyahara in his Yoga Sutras. But, regardless of its obscurity, pratyahara is a very fundamental aspect of yoga.

Different yogic texts and different schools of yoga offer a variety of approaches to pratyahara, but its essential meaning remains consistent. Pratyahara is defined as the withdrawal of the senses or the independence from external stimuli. Focusing on Patanjali’s eight limbed system of aśtanga yoga, Patanjali places pratyahara as the fifth limb and the gatekeeper from the outer limbs to the inner limbs. Patanjali still considers sense withdrawal (pratyahara) to be an outer limb while listing concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and absorption (samadhi) as the inner limbs. Pratyahara is our bridge to higher practices of yoga. As long as we remain  dependent on external stimulus and our senses remain scattered rather than bound, our yoga practice shall remain externally oriented within the first four limbs: yama, niyama, asana and pranayama. Though with consistent and faithful yoga practice the limbs will eventually unfold themselves, pratyahara is so essential to our yogic development that it is deserving of more attention and practice than it typically is given.

Patanjali does not elaborate on how to practice or achieve pratyahara. In fact, the only limb he does describe in detail is samadhi. For the remaining seven limbs he only describes the results of these limbs once they have been achieved and does not give insight into technique or their practice. In Sutra 2.54 Patanjali states in Sanskrit sva vishaya asamprayoge chittasya svarupe anukarah iva indriyanam pratyaharah, which can be translated as “when the mind is withdrawn from the outside then the senses follow and disengage from the sense objects. This is pratyahara.” When we turn our attention inwards and detach from the stimulations and distractions of the external world then this is sense withdrawal. Patanjali continues in the next sutra 2.55: tatah parama vashyata indriyanam, or, “from that comes supreme command over the senses.” When we are no longer attached to or distracted by external gratification and stimulation, then we have achieved command over the senses and can focus the mind inwards. Therefore there are two aspects to pratyahara. The first aspect is the detachment from external aversions or desires by reigning in our wandering senses and withdrawing from the outer world. The second aspect is the going inside and realising that everything we need is already inside us.

As long as we believe we need external sensory stimulus the longer we continue to be a slave to our senses, our desires and the external world. This is not to advocate shutting out or negating the external world, as the world is our road to freedom. It is also not the say we shouldn’t enjoy the external world or sensory pleasure. Instead, it is to assert that the more we believe we need sensory stimulation and the more enslaved we are to external pleasures or aversions, the more difficult it will likely be to discover the inner world of consciousness and freedom. This is why we practice pratyahara.

Prana goes where the mind goes and it is no shock to say that the mind is generally unfocused. Therefore when our senses are unregulated, our mind follows our senses outwards, we attach to objects, and our prana becomes dispelled. When the senses reach out and we identify ourselves with the external world, we are pulled away and prana can not be accumulated and arrested inside the body. By pulling the senses inwards we begin to steady the mind fluctuations and retain prana. The accumulation and retention of prana is fundamental to practicing the higher limbs of yoga.

Seeing as pratyahara is quite important, as it leads us from the outside to the inside (which, as Yogi Sunil Sharma always emphasises, is a defining factor of yoga); how does one practice it? As mentioned above, Patanjali describes the effects of achieving the limbs but not their practice. As with most yogic traditions, practical technique is meant to be taught by a qualified teacher according to the capacity of the student. Even later more instructive texts, such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, are meant to be taken in conjunction with a guru’s teachings. Just as there are delineated techniques for the practice of asana, pranayama, and meditation, so there are also described techniques for the practice of pratyahara. Where asana works on a physical level, pranayama on an energetic level, and meditation on a mind level, pratyahara works on all three levels and thus is practiced in asana, pranayama, and meditation.

An important technique to withdrawing the senses is to bind them to something else. We do this in our daily ashtanga asana practice, sometimes without realising. As we breathe and move through our postures we remove our attention from the external world, beginning by focusing on our body alignment and movement. The sense of sight is bound by the practice of dristi, or, the prescribed focal point of the gaze. The sense of hearing is bound by listening to our ujjayi breath. The tactile sense is bound by our body in asana and by the consistent activation of bandha. As our asana practice becomes more advanced so does our capacity for pratyahara and we become more adept at disengaging from environmental stimulation.

There are also specific asanas that help to induce sense withdrawal. Supta kurmasana, or bound tortoise pose, is an excellent example of this. As a leg over head posture (and the first leg over head posture of the ashtanga vinyasa system), it functions as a very deep forward bend. Forward bends themselves function as the first steps on the path inwards. Supta kurmasana is compared to a tortoise  withdrawing its limbs into its shell from the outer world. The shell is our mind and the limbs are our senses. This asana is a direct practice of the faculties of sense withdrawal.

In many of his thorough and well researched books on yoga Gregor Maehle prescribes inversions (headstand, shoulder stand, etc.) as a direct practice of pratyahara. Citing many yogic texts and scriptures, Maehle states clearly that by accumulating and arresting amrita, the nectar of immortality, in the cavities of the skull associated with our highest chakras, then pratyahara will be achieved. This is done by the correct and responsible practice of inversions. He even suggests that in our daily asana practice we should extend our practice of inversions and  recommends that 60 minutes be spent on asana and 30 minutes be spent on inversions and closing postures. Maehle’s in depth and clearly explained research on inversions and pratyahara can be found in his book on yogic meditation.

The breath is a powerful vehicle that brings us from our outer world into our inner world. Through the consistent practice of breathing exercises and pranayama we are using our faculty of pratyahara by binding our attention to our breath. Assuming we have become sufficiently competent in the elementary practices of pratyahara from proficient asana practice, we can now practice binding our senses to the finer aspects of our breath and subtle bodies. By focusing on evening the force and length of the breath, counting the length and number of our inhalations and exhalations, using proper yogic breathing cycles and breath waves, and becoming aware of our breath and prana moving through our subtle body, we are practicing an intermediate level of pratyahara.

 The practice of Bhramari pranayama (humming bee breath) as outlined in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika can also be considered a direct practice of sense withdrawal. During the practice we use the fingers and hands to pull in and close our senses to the outside world. The fingers cover the eyes and close the ears to external awareness. By humming like a bumble bee we are aware only of the buzzing sound, bringing the agitated mind to a tranquil state and bringing the senses from the external to the internal.

A yogic meditation practice for pratyahara, though outside of the traditional ashtanga system, is yoga nidra meditation. Yoga nidra, meaning psychic sleep, is a practice that uses body awareness to withdraw from the external world and enter into the subconscious and unconscious realms of the psyche. Instructions are given during this guided meditation to bind the senses to various things such as sounds and points on the body. Through the process of binding the senses they are  automatically withdrawn, allowing the practitioner to completely relax and access the deepest parts of the internal world. Yoga Nidra meditation is a powerful practice that effectively trains and strengthens our capacity for pratyahara.

 As pratyahara is the gateway from the outer to the inner limbs, and dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) are the limbs that subsequently follow pratyahara, it is to be assumed at this point that as a yoga practitioner our capacity for withdrawing the senses is sufficiently developed as these practices are more advanced. Again, as with asana and pranayama practice, there are also systemised techniques in ashtanga system for the practice of meditation. Though many understand the practice of meditation to be simply sitting still and watching the breath, that method functions more as a practice in relaxation and self awareness rather than a meditation practice. While it is a good preparatory exercise for meditation and will fine tune the capacity for pratyahara, we are unlikely to get very far by just watching the breath. As we have learned to control our breath and have become more familiar with our energy body and our flow of prana, we can use pratyahara practice during meditation to begin to train the mind to bind. By removing our senses inwards, listening to our breath and feeling the sensation of prana  moving through the subtle body, we can begin to focus our attention on our shoshumna (central energy channel) and chakras (central energy centres). This is the beginning of learning to bind and suspend the mind, which is the beginning of yogic meditation.

The sixth and seventh limbs are when the ability to bind the senses transmutes into the ability to bind the mind. Once all the activity of the mind is bound during meditation, the mental fluctuations suspend, and the eighth limb samadhi (of which there are eight sub-limbs), or absorption, can be experienced and practiced. This is how the mastery of pratyahara will ultimately lead us from the outer limbs to the higher practices of yoga and internal exaltation. As is written in the Maitri Upanishad: “if the fuel of the senses is withheld, the mind is reabsorbed into the heart.” When the senses are withdrawn through the practice of pratyahara, the inner limbs of yoga begin to blossom and a whole other universe is placed at our fingertips.

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Ashtanga Yoga: Mysore, Teacher Training Courses, and Anatomy

Anatomy and physiology as western medicine understands it has not traditionally been apart of the Ashtanga Yoga system as it has been taught over many generations and centuries. But today as yoga related injuries are becoming more and more common and more people are interested in doing yoga, perhaps we need to reinvestigate the place that western science’s understanding of the musculoskeletal system has in the learning and practice of Ashtanga yoga today. This is not to say that Ashtanga teachers do not teach anatomy, as of course many do. It is instead to look at how anatomy can be a potent tool in making the increasingly popular traditional Ashtanga practice be safe and accessible to a modern and changing world. As Sri Pattabhi Jois so famously said, “Ashtanga yoga is for everyone.” Integrating anatomy into teaching will help to keep it that way.

Traditionally to learn and teach Ashtanga, one travels to Mysore for extended periods of time to practice with the living guru (the late Sri Pattabhi Jois or his grandson Sharath Jois) and learn directly from the source. When the guru sees that the student has sufficient understanding of the practice, they are then given the authorisation or, much more rarely, the certification to teach. This traditional way of learning yoga is called parampara in Sanskrit and describes the knowledge that is passed in succession directly from teacher to student. This is a wonderful, traditional and important way to learn any spiritual practice, under the direct and intimate guidance of the guru where information can be transmitted directly to the disciple.

This method of teaching yoga has worked in India for thousands of years. And it does work  very effectively if the student also conducts self-study (or svādhyāya in Sanskrit, one of Patanjali’s niyamas) outside of practice of important theory. Sri Pattabhi Jois always used to say Ashtanga is “99% practice and 1% theory”, as both will give us complete knowledge of the Ashtanga system. Most knowledge, or experiential knowledge, comes from simply doing the practice. But that 1% theoretical understanding of philosophy, scripture, and the anatomy of the body are just as important as they help to structure the knowledge derived from the practice.

This traditional and effective method of learning contrasts vastly from the modern methods of becoming a yoga teacher, i.e the yoga teacher training course. Within a short period of time, sometimes even in just a few weeks, students are eligible to teach yoga. Contrary to the Mysore method of becoming a teacher, this method requires a lot less practice but, conversely, it does often include a lot more theory. Yoga Alliance requires that teacher training programs include a set number of hours of philosophy and anatomy lecture. Therefore modern yogis aspiring to be teachers are forced to learn about bones, muscles, joints, and how it all works together.  Because of the general laxity of practice time requirement (Yoga Alliance’s requirement of 100 hours compared to Mysore’s standard of several years of practice), students in TTC courses (unless they have maintained regular practice for years prior) typically learn less experientially and more theoretically.

Personally, a combination of these two learning methods, the traditional Mysore way and the modern TTC way, would probably be ideal. Recently Sharath Jois has started conducting teacher training courses in Mysore for those who are already authorized to teach, and though I have not personally taken this course I can only assume that he will be teaching at least some anatomy in addition to other  theoretical knowledge. This, I believe, would be a nice balance between the two methods. But what does this have to do with anatomy and why is anatomy suddenly so important?

For five years I practiced Ashtanga yoga with many great teachers, none of which really mentioned anything about anatomy. I did a lot of self study from Gregor Maehle’s wonderful books on Ashtanga yoga to teach myself about anatomy, and every time something hurt I would turn to his books or the internet for answers. This is not to say that my traditional Mysore teachers didn’t know anatomy, but they probably were not taught to teach with anatomy as a regular reference. But understanding something so anatomically subtle and complex such a sacrum nutation will make or break (literally) your backbends. This is incredibly important, as such an injury can also break your practice. Learning anatomy can help with that!

It wasn’t until I began learning Ashtanga from Yogi Kamal Singh in Rishikesh, who places a strong emphasis on alignment and understanding the anatomy and physiology of what is happening to the body inside the postures, that I found a teacher who used anatomy as a strong teaching tool. Something as simple as the inner rotation of the thigh in most Primary Series asanas can prevent chronic  backspin down the line. And learning anatomy can teach us to prevent injury in the future. Yogi Kamal Singh always says that the injury begins the first time we do the wrong movement, even if the pain follows months or even years later. By teaching his students the intricacies but also the simplicities of anatomy it is undoubtable he has prevented and corrected many misalignment that would otherwise lead to pain or injury.

Anatomy is important because people are getting hurt while doing yoga. Particularly a yoga so dynamic as Ashtanga yoga. And though Ashtanga effectively brings us within and allows us to transcend our physical form in many ways, ultimately our body is our temple and it is our vehicle for that transcendence. In the same way that you would educate yourself on the mechanics of your car to ensure its functionally, we should also learn about and care for the vehicle that is our physical body.

Ashtanga yoga is so alluring often because it is so steeped in lineage and rarely veers away from tradition. But why isn’t anatomy included in this tradition? There are so many possible reasons why Ashtanga yoga or any traditional form of yoga was not often taught with the reference of anatomy. Aside from the obvious western versus eastern medicine view of the human organism, one hypothesis that an Indian teacher of mine explained that I really enjoyed was that firstly the Indian body is different from the Western body. And secondly that the average body from fifty years ago is different than the average body today. Up until relatively recently Indians lived similarly to how they have lived for centuries; eating local foods without preservatives or processing, sitting on the floor, working jobs that requires them to be relatively active, etc. This, unfortunately, has all begun to change as Westernisation has spread around the world, accounting for more intake of processed foods laden with chemicals, desk jobs, western illnesses, etc. The average Indian body of the time when Jois was teaching in Mysore was relatively flexible, strong, and limber  compared to the contemporary western body. Even the western body of fifty years ago, right around the time of industrialised food beginning to take over, was more lean and flexible. The contemporary western body is on average stiff, weak, toxic, heavy, and supported by an unhealthy spine. Today, in 2016, western bodies are typically unhealthier than the Asian body and even the Western body that Jois was teaching in the 1970’s. Food for thought.

So, how can we use Ashtanga yoga to heal an unhealthy body and spine without exasperating any imbalances or weaknesses? We can focus on anatomy and  structural realignment of the body. Krishnamacharya was a great example of this when he taught the Ashtanga system of yoga to a very ill and weak B.K.S. Iyengar in a way that healed and realigned his sick body. He did this by using props, focusing on alignment, and bringing awareness to anatomy and the dynamics of the body. This method is what is now known as Iyengar yoga. But perhaps Ashtanga yoga today can learn a little bit from this important example, otherwise our vehicles may not make it to their destination.

In the six years I have been practicing Ashtanga yoga I have learned from a variety of incredible teachers: authorised, certified, unauthorised, Iyengar based, etc. And though I have hardly practiced with every teacher out there, I did notice a pattern that those who had studied primarily in Mysore or under orthodox Ashtanga teachers discus anatomy relatively less than those who are unauthorised, have studied with first generation Mysore teachers (such as Tim Miller and David Swenson), or those who have an Iyengar background.

Sex, Drugs, and Yoga

In looking at the “yogi lifestyle” many of the questions that are raised surround the seemingly nebulous subjects of sex and drugs (referring to both alcohol and recreational drugs) and their relationships to yoga. Though lengthy pieces could easily be written on each subject independently and each individual yoga practitioner has their own personal view, what does yoga itself say about sex, drugs, and yoga?

Let us begin with sex. Many people assume that to be a yogi means to be celibate. And though some yogis do practice celibacy, many yogis also marry and have families, neither path being any less yogic than the other.

Generally there are two paths or directions that the modern yogi takes. One being the renunciate, meaning, the yogi chooses to renounce the comforts and  possessions of common life to pursue simplicity and austerity as a means of dedicating themselves fully to the spiritual path and connection to the Divine. The other path is referred to as that of the householder. The householder maintains yogic practices, but remains apart of society and cultivates a profession, a spousal relationship, a family, etc. while seeking to balance worldly pursuits with the pursuit of the Divine. Typically the renunciate is expected to renounce the act of sex as they are expected to renounce any distracting temptation or attachment to worldly pleasures. The householder, contrarily, is expected to be productive in the world, which includes procreation. To be a yogi, therefore, does not necessarily mean that celibacy is required.

People cite the yogic concept of brahmacharya as the necessary practice of celibacy for yogis. Brahmacharya is a Sanskrit word that is translated in a variety of ways, including: “celibacy” and “chastity”. Though brahmacharya can imply these things, this highly complex concept can be interpreted in many ways. The first part of the word, “Brahma” literally means Brahman, a Sanskrit word that represents the God phenomenon. The second part of the word, “charya”, means following or occupying one’s self with. Therefore brahmacharya can be directly read as “devoting oneself to Brahman”. This act functions as a means, not an end.

Though brahmacharya can imply different things in different Indian philosophies, in yoga is it described as an important fundamental to Patanjali’s ancient eight limbed Ashtanga yoga system. The first limb, or step, that Patanjali describes in the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras as the first fundamental to yoga is the yamas, which are general guidelines for cultivating personal growth and contributing positively to society. The fourth yama is brahmacharya, which Patanjali describes in sutra 2.38 as brahmacharya pratisthayam virya labhah, or, “when walking in the awareness of the highest reality (brahmacharya) is firmly established, then a great strength, capacity, or vitality (virya) is acquired.” The idea here does not necessarily imply abstaining from sex, though it can take that form, but rather it asks us to direct all our energy towards spiritual pursuit and thus transmute our sexual energy into devotion to God. When we recall dissipated energy and refocus it in the direction of spiritual growth and devotion, we then retain a state of vitality and strength. As Yogi Sunil Sharma of Tattvaa Yogashala in India describes in one of his lectures, brahmacharya is a conducive lifestyle for realising higher truth by restraining from multiplying our desires to waste energy elsewhere and instead retain energy for spiritual development.

Thus for the renunciate yogi brahmacharya can represent celibacy and complete redirection of sexual energy to pursuit of the divine. For the householder yogi, brahmacharya is practiced typically as remaining faithful and loving within a monogamous relationship and to not allow for sexual temptation to distract us from the studies and practices of yoga. For the householder yogi brahmacharya then becomes using the act of sex morally, responsibly and compassionately and allowing our sexuality to become a wider part of our yoga practice.

It is widely assumed that to be a yogi means to abstain from the use of stimulants (i.e. drugs, alcohol, marijuana). However, if we look around at most yogis we know today we might find that the majority of people who “do yoga” also enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, a joint before bed, or the occasional acid trip. But if the system of yoga at its core essence is to still the fluctuations of the mind and to bring us in union with our divine nature, how do mind altering substances affect this process?

There are many modern practitioners of yoga who use mind altering substances such as psychedelics and marijuana to calm the brain waves and to connect to the more subtle layers of reality. Many of these drugs and substances do have the capacity to calm our minds and to connect us to deeper layers of ourselves and reality, but, are they an end in themselves and ultimately can they function as a sustainable means?

Shamanistic traditions of South America use psychedelics such as ayahuasca and peyote to attain similar states that can be experienced in advanced practices of yoga pranayama and meditation. Many parallels have been drawn between Yoga and Shamanism by notable contemporary yoga teachers, such as Gregor Maehle and Danny Paradise; the conclusion being that Shamanism and Yoga both share the same goal of union with the divine reality though their traditions do have some systematic differences. But can psychedelics, a component of some Shamanistic spiritual paths, be beneficial to those on the Yogic path?

Patanjali vaguely mentions in the Yoga Sutras “herbs” that bring spiritual experiences. In sutra 4.1 he says janma osadhi mantra tapah samadhi jah siddhyayah, or “the subtler attainments come with birth or are attained through herbs, mantra, austerities or concentration.” This sutra is often cited by substance using yoga practitioners as validation that using mind altering substances is actually apart of the path to spiritual attainment. As spiritual paths throughout history have used herb based elixirs to transcend the barrier between the conscious and unconscious mind, it makes sense that here Patanjali does reference the spiritual use of magical herbs. However it is important to note that non-attachment is a key proponent of Patanjali’s yoga system and thus the use of herbal elixirs for spiritual experiences should be used only as a supplemental means in conjunction with the yoga practices, only to the capacity that it is helpful, without becoming  dependent, and certainly not as an end in itself. As with any part of the yoga practices, whenever we become attached to the practice it becomes detrimental in the long run rather than beneficial. And as with anything in our lives, when something no longer serves our higher interests we should allow it to fall away.

On the other hand, there are also substantial reasons as to why imbibing in mind altering substances can stack the odds against us and can ultimately retard our spiritual development. Something like mind altering herbs that are initially used for clarity can very quickly become sources of illusion and imbalance. Though these drugs have aspects that can be helpful, they also have proponents and effects that are detrimental.

The second and third limbs of Patanajali’s yoga, asana and pranayama, utilise movement and breathing practices to prepare the body and mind for higher yoga practices and spiritual experiences. When we practice consistent asana we effectively heal, strengthen, detoxify, purify and balance the body. With the consistent practice of pranayama we do the same to the energy body, opening and cleaning the subtle nadi channels and creating more space for prana to accumulate and flow. By using these practices we ultimately prepare ourselves to balance, strengthen and purify our minds through meditation practice, which leads to realisation and spiritual experiences.

The yogi works very hard with their asana and pranayama practices to literally “undo” and delete all of the physical, emotional, environment, karmic, and mental toxics that literally store and crystallise themselves in our physical and energetic bodies and are obstacles to stilling the mind and realising our true selves. Despite any positive intention or exalted experiences had, the reality is that by ingesting any substance that alters our mental state or leaves residue in our bodies, we are in fact creating more toxicity in our systems and are therefore limiting the space in our  bodies for prana. Thus much of our hard work with asana and pranayama becomes somewhat redundant, and in the long run makes sustained spiritual states less attainable.

The yogi is trying to attain and maintain a sattvic disposition in their being, and any rajastic or tasmic influences, such as drugs or alcohol, will create imbalance. Gregor Maehle describes the affects of drugs and alcohol on the yoga practice in many of his wonderful books on yoga. On page 124 in his book Pranayama the Breath of Yoga he writes: “Jayatarama, author of Jogapradipyaka, warns that consumption of alcohol, tobacco, hemp and opium will result in painful hell for unending periods. The warning appears grossly exaggerated, but the author means well. Of course people have managed to achieve great success even while consuming some of the above or even all of them. However it is again a question of stacking the odds against you. By using recreational drugs you will decrease the statistical probability of meaningfully and securely integrating spiritual exultation and bliss into your life… Alcohol simply mobilizes and expels prana. Pranayama tries to accumulate prana and increase the energy available for spiritual practice… Tobacco, hemp, and opium are neurotoxins that also make your mind tamasic [heavy, dull] and they block the nadis [subtle nervous system of energies], which you want to purify through pranayama.” Maehle does not judge that one way is right or wrong, but he very clearly states and continues to elaborate that attaining yogic bliss is difficult as it is, so why would we be interested in making more obstacles for ourselves that will make sustained spiritual states more elusive, if possible at all.

Drugs and alcohol, therefore, are not necessarily strictly forbidden and can be used for periods of time to help us along the way towards our goal, whether it be through induced relaxation or transcendent states. However, in the long run, they are impurities and function ultimately as an obstacle and a retardant to accessing higher states of consciousness and realisation.

It seems that sex and drugs do have their own moderate place within the yoga system, despite many polarised opinions. Yoga helps us to live a more harmonious and beneficial life, for ourselves and for the world. The building block to the yoga system is ahisma, non-violence. This implies to not cause harm to others and also to ourselves. We do not need to indulge in things like sex, drugs or even yoga, as indulgence implies violence. But we also do not need to judge ourselves or force ourselves, as that is inherently violent too. Do not force things out of your life, as this can create its own imbalances. But with awareness, compassion and the development of yoga practice, we can allow ourselves to let go of the habits and patterns in our lives that inhibit us rather than propel us towards our highest potential.

Views of Adam Binford About Yogi Kamal Singh

You so much for an amazing course Kamal.  I thoroughly believe i would not have gotten this same experience in another city or teacher.  I had a physically and emotionally draining month and would not change a thing, it was exactly what I needed ( and safe to say most others).  Below is a brief review you can use!

I attended the 200 hr Yoga Teacher Training Course at Tattvaa through the month of November in Rishikesh India.  There are many countries and cities to attend a TTC, but after my experience I could not recommend Rishikesh more.  There is a soul to the city that can be felt on arrival, and keeps your energy up till the end. Whether it be exploring the various markets, laying down by the Ganga River, or visiting the many ashrams, Rishikesh has a very unique spirituality that is perfect for practice.

Kamal offers a very intense course which teaches you or strengthens your previous work on the primary series.  Knowledge on the adjustments are second to none.  Kamal has surrounded himself and the students with amazing teachers to practice other areas of yoga outside the asana’s ie. philosophy, pranayama, yoga nidra which effected me as much as the practice on the mat.  I couldn’t recommend Tattvaa and Rishikesh more, a truly transformative experience.

A Poem as I arrive into Australia…Thank you India for such beautiful life lessons… by Jaz Bailey

Is your mind open or is it closed –

Where I want to be is to see people like you and me, taking control of our reality, as the current society, can seem to most a total conspiracy, there to protect the governing hierarchy, the illuminati, any political party, whatever the name, they are all the same…

Full of lunacy, jealousy, breaking our integrity, deviously controlling publicity, with fearful impurity, designed to distort our security, We are the majority & they are the minority!

The obscurity that surrounds, disparity is abound, we can join in sound, to bring this impound to the ground. We are not bound to this, continuous inhabitable abyss, find the inner bliss, and if you have reminisce through life’s loving kiss, and don’t be scared to take risks…

Do not overly consume, we must pause before we can fully resume, and just like a fresh flower before she blooms, or the fading sun with the welcoming moon, light up the music that plays inside you. So if you were to wear any crown, wear proudly the vibration of your own inner sound.

Is your mind open or is it close? Have you followed the same direction most of us go? Somebody showed me and they helped me grow, now life fully feels full of all the colours of the rainbow.

My mind is open because I chose to open it…

5 ways taking a yoga teacher training course transformed my practice

I remember my very first yoga class – I was working in an office job and once a week a yoga teacher came in to give a lesson during lunchtime. I remember how much I struggled; sweat pouring out of me, tight hamstrings screaming, and a dawning realization that my body strength was nonexistent… But, I was hooked! I just knew that I had to go back to the next class, and I felt like I was floating for the rest of the day. And the teacher was so incredible – her adjustments really helped me understand where my body should be in each asana.

Fast forward 3 years later and my love for yoga has grown and grown, and I have completed a 200 hour yoga teacher training course (TTC). Now I can look back and see the many ways in which it has transformed my asana practice. Here are just some of them:

  1. I have learned how to adjust myself during practice
    In learning about the correct alignment for each asana, and how to adjust others, I am now much more aware of where I should be working towards in each asana. Now, during the 5 breaths I spend in each pose, I’m not waiting for a teacher to adjust me – instead I can adjust myself. I’m consciously moving my body towards better alignment with each inhale and exhale.
  2. My practice is safer
    Learning about how to safely modify practice for beginners and different body types has made me reflect on my own practice and see that sometimes I was really damaging my body. Now my aim is not to improve my strength and flexibility as quickly as possible, but to safely work at my body’s pace.
  3. My motivation to practice has never been better
    There have been some periods in my life where the thought of rolling out my mat every morning seems stressful and unattainable. However, after consistently practicing everyday with a group of likeminded people and feeling the benefits in my mind and body, I’ve never been more excited to practice in the mornings.
  4. I have learned to have patience with myself
    After such an intense months training, I can look back and see that there really are some days when taking it easy is better. I have learned that I can’t push myself to new limits and asanas everyday and that’s fine. The most important thing is to show up on my mat and put in the effort that I can, and the rest will follow. Of course, there are days when I want to push myself, and that’s fine too; the important thing is that now I’m working in harmony with my body.
  5. I realised how little I know about yoga
    After taking the teacher training course I feel like I have a deeper understanding of my practice. But with yoga, the more I learn, the more I realise I have so much more to learn! It is a truly humbling experience to realise how little you understand.

I am so grateful for all of the support I received during my teacher training from the incredible teachers and students I was surrounded with, and can’t believe how much change I have felt in myself. For those people who are unsure if they wish to teach, but still wish to immerse themselves in their practice more, I would definitely recommend looking into taking a TTC as an option!

Ashtanga Yoga and The Hyper-Flexible Body

yogi kamal singh
rishikesh

In yoga we practice to develop and maintain balance in all aspects of our being, including in our physical bodies. Many people look at yoga as a way to become more flexible or as only for flexible people. While yoga can indeed help us to become more flexible and does tend to attract naturally flexible people, it is also important to use yoga as a means to develop stability and muscle strength as structure to support our flexibility.

In yoga asana we are not necessarily trying to be strong or flexible, we are trying to be an equal amount of both. Flexibility and strength are the two sides of the same asana coin. In asana practice we work to with our natural tendency (either strength or flexibility) to create and maintain a balance between the two. We use asana to equalise natural imbalance in our bodies. Everyone enters their first yoga class with either a stronger stiffer body or a weaker more open body. The stiffer practitioner typically has more strength and stability than the flexible practitioner, thus they need to work on developing their openness and flexibility. The more mobile practitioner is more open and can more easily access the deeper postures and parts of the body, yet they typically lack much of the stabilising strength that supports these complex dynamic postures and thus are required to work on developing their strength.

While the more flexible practitioner is often seen as blessed for their ability to access more advanced and deeper postures more quickly, the other edge of the sword is that often without the necessary stabilising foundations and alignment sufficiently developed to support the depth of these postures, over time the more flexible yogi is actually more prone to injury than the stiffer yogi. More dynamic practices such as Ashtanga and Vinyasa yoga can be particularly dangerous to the gumby body. Though a more flexible or hyper mobile yogi can do seemingly more advanced postures, in truth if they lack the muscle strength to safely maintain alignment and support, they are just as “unadvanced” as their stiffer peers who struggle to touch their toes.

So what is natural over flexibility and hyper mobility? Hyper mobility/hyper flexibility affects nearly 20% of the population, particularly women. There is a very distinct and important difference between a yogi who is hyper mobile and a yogi who has developed their flexibility with practice. Flexibility from practice (or stretching) means the muscles have been developed in a way over time that allows for extended elongation of the muscle tissues when stretched. Hyper mobility means there is a tendency for unusual laxity and elasticity in the muscles and, more importantly, in the joints. The connective tissues (tendons, ligaments, fascia) that hold the joints together and allow for joint mobility are also more elastic and thus are not as stable as the average “stiffer” body. Hyper mobility means there is a general laxity in connective tissue, which is fundamentally different to flexibility. Hyper mobility is about joints whereas developed flexibility is typically about muscle.

In reference to injury, the seemingly more “advanced” hyper mobile yogis who can easily enter deeper postures are in fact more at risk for injury than their seemingly “stiffer” colleagues. In an average body, injury more typically occurs from over stretching or overextending (or pulling) muscles. This means the fibres in the muscle tissue incur micro tears that cause pain, stiffness, and limitation in mobility. In a hyper mobile body where the muscle tissue is generally more lax, the joints have less support from muscle and therefore many of the injuries that incur are injuries of the joints. The connective tissues around the joints (tendons and ligaments) are more susceptible to wear and tear in the hyper mobile yogi than in the average yogi. This causes a bigger problem because whereas muscle gets a steady and abundant flow of fresh blood and healing oxygen, the cartilage, tendons and ligaments that structure the joints do not. The healing process therefore is  often much longer, more complex, and less thorough, leaving the yogi more susceptible to reoccurring injury.

The muscles in the hyper mobile body also have the capacity for stiffness and tightness because when we overextend our connective tissues the muscles contact to protect the joints, paradoxically creating stiffness in the excessively flexible body. This pattern becomes exacerbated when the muscles of the hyper mobile body are tight or tired, as flexibility (or the appearance of flexibility) is then literally “borrowed” from the laxity of the connective tissues around the joints, further overextending them.

In example, many practitioners of Ashtanga Yoga struggle for sometimes years to get their legs correctly around their head in postures such a supta kurmasana and ekapada sirsasana. If a hyper mobile yogi does not have the necessary capacity to elongate the muscles in the legs and surrounding the hips to allow for such an extreme hip rotation, they can still probably get their legs over their head (unlike the average body), because the leg muscles will borrow mobility from the tendons that hold the femur bone and sacrum in place. This “borrowing” of mobility from the joints puts dangerous and unnecessary stress on the hip joints and sacroiliac joints. This action will overtime create micro tears in the connective tissues of the joints, which even as they heal slowly, will heal as scar tissue. Scar tissue is even more tough and less elastic than regular tissue, making more prone to reoccurring injury and tearing in the future.

The hyper mobile yogi may have more access to deeper postures and may appear to be more “advanced”, but they generally lack the structural stability of sufficient muscle strength to safely support the joints and spine in these asanas. This is not only true of advanced asana but also in more foundational asanas such as trikonasana and downward dog, where hyper mobile yogis tend to overextend their knees and elbows. This drops the entire weight of the body in a few joints (in the knees or the elbows in the examples of trikonasana and downward dog) without the support of the muscles, placing the centre of gravity in a few vulnerable places rather than dividing it evenly and safely throughout the whole skeletal muscular structure. Overtime weight bearing hyper extension in joints degrades the joints and will lead to injury. The lack of muscle support in the hyper mobile yogi also makes dynamic movements such as vinyasa, transitions, and and drop backs more dangerous. Many apparently “advanced” yogis are leaning on their flexibility rather than developing their strength, further propagating the imbalance of strength and flexibility and leading to unnecessary injuries.

So, what to do? Rather than work on increasing flexibility, instead focus on building more stability via muscle strength and connecting to the centre line of the body in every asana (Yogi Kamal Singh of Rishikesh, India effectively integrates meridian lines into his teachings of the Ashtanga yoga system). Attention to building the correct supportive strength and to paying very close attention to alignment in all asanas and movements will help the hyper mobile yogi (and all yogis) develop a safe and sustainable practice with less vulnerability to injury. The naturally more flexible body requires more muscle strength to support the wobbly joints and spine, so do not feel discouraged if you have developed muscle strength but still cannot fully stabilise the body or spine. The hyper mobile body requires exponentially more strength than the average body to support its overly flexible tendencies.

As less people in the general population are hyper mobile and more people come to yoga class with a stiffer body, comparatively more adjustments and exercises are given to cultivate flexibility rather than stability. As a hyper mobile yogi in a yoga class, there should be a focus on develop stability and muscle strength rather than trying to increase flexibility. Naturally developed flexibility of the muscles are just as important for the hyper mobile practitioner as for anyone else, but be aware of any adjustments or exercises that will exasperate hyper mobility (and therefore increase possibility of injury). Basic knowledge of anatomy and physiology for any body type will also help to cultivate awareness and alignment and prevent injury for all yoga practitioners.

In cultivating our yoga practices we need to develop a balance between our strength capacity and our flexibility capacity. It does not matter if you are super strong or super flexible, or if you are not very strong or not flexible; what matters the most is that your flexibility and your strength are equal in capacity. Just as there is no point in being so muscular you can’t touch your toes, excessive flexibility is not an end in itself and we need to be sure that we are practicing and using our bodies with compassion, balance and awareness.

In the practice of Ashtanga yoga each posture requires us to balance the counter forces within the asanas (i.e. there is no inward rotation without a counter balancing outward force). Every asana is ideally approached with an equal degree of power and gentleness. When we find balance between these two opposing forces the asana becomes perfect, the dynamism neutralises to stillness, and we enact what Patanjali describes as his definition of asana, which is “stability and stillness”. To effectively find this balance, as asana practitioners we can first look to our  natomical level and seek to balance our strength and flexibility.

The system of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga in particular is comprised of various types of postures that require developed flexibility of the hips, spine, and hamstrings to accommodate the deep backbends, forward bends, hip openers and twists that are present in each of the series. Many stiffer practitioners, particularly men but also women, work for many months and even years in the Primary Series to develop the flexibility required to do forward bends and preliminary hips openers and backbends. Then there are the less common yoga practitioners who begin their yoga practice with hyper-flexible tendencies and very quickly have no trouble accessing the more advanced flexibility postures of the Ashtanga practice such as kapotasana and dwipada sirsasana. And while this looks prettier and more advanced on the outside than the relatively stiffer yogi with their knees bend and back curved in downward dog, what is actually happening on the inside?

Rishikesh is a washing machine.

Laxman Jhula Rishikesh

Living in Rishikesh for a few months is a bit like experiencing the inside of a washing machine. Yes. Honestly, I have been twisted, soaped and wrung out many times. My bag of dirty laundry and the bags of so many of my companions have been partially revealed to the public eye. Sometimes, cute little shread panty days, sometimes mismatched stinky old socks days – the kind you would have preferred to forget in a dark corner of your closet forever.Of course, not everyday is a spring cleaning day in the middle of December; in fact, most of my time here has been a succession of wonderment and surprises. From the great improvements in my asana practice or the joyful tabla and singing lessons to my gateways among the magnificence of the Himalayan trees and caves.

However, despite the richness of the natural landscapes and the thousands of buzzing activities in the city, I have found the greatest beauty lies in the people wandering here. Looking in the eyes of some strangers is sometimes like looking in the eyes of old lost friends. The immediate knowing you have met them before they even opened their mouth. A reflection of yourself in a different shape, colour and taste. The sensation of finding another part of you who was living in another corner of the world – during all that time! I am now sure I have reconnected – even for a few hours – with some companions that I have known so many times in so many places.

But then again, the cleansing water is poured and the washing machine starts spinning again. What was there vanishes in an instant. All that is left is a new smell on my refreshed clothes and the distant sound of the machine drum.

I rest a while, close my eyes and wait for the next round. For winter cleaning is coming again.

Yoga for Travellers in Rishikesh, India

rishikesh

There are a certain number of people who love travelling and exploring new places. Among them are people who also love to practice yoga while travelling. India is a popular destination for yoga tourism, yoga retreats and yoga vacations. Many ashrams and yoga schools in India offer short term yoga experiences at an affordable price for those who enjoy exploring yoga and new places all at the same time.

Rishikesh is located in northern India at the gateway to the Himalayas and as the “yoga capital of the world” functions as a wonderful place for those looking for both travel and yoga. Yoga is said to have been born in Rishikesh along the banks of the sacred Ganges river several thousand years ago and since then has been a haven for pilgrims, yogis and spiritual seekers. With its rich history, stunning surroundings, and shanti vibes Rishikesh has also in the last decades attracted many travellers and tourists eager to explore and experience the essence of India.

There are many places to visit, see and much to do while in Rishikesh. Some of the spiritual temples and ghats where devotees bathe in the holy Ganges are Triveni ghat, Hanuman Mandir, Durga Mandir, Tryambakeshwar Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, Neelkanth Mahadey Temple, Bharat Mandir, and the Vashisht Caves. Some other things to see are the traditional towns of Ram Jhula and Laxman Jhula, the world famous Beatles Ashram where the Beatles came and studied yoga, Neer Gaddu waterfall, Garud Chatti waterfall, the stunning national parks filled with jungles and wildlife, bungee jumping in the Himalayas, trekking and camping opportunities, white water rafting on the Ganges, and many many more things to see and explore.

Rishikesh also has no lack of yoga and ashrams where in between sightseeing and eating local cuisine one can explore traditional yogic practices as well as their own bodies and minds. Some of the older and more famous ashrams are Sivananda ashram, Parmarth Niketan, and Omkarananda ashram. These ashrams provide an authentic and peaceful environment as well as yoga and meditation classes for a very reasonable price. Many of these ashrams also offer affordable accommodation options and an array of other classes such as chanting and music classes. In addition to the ashrams, there is no lack of yoga

schools in Rishikesh. Many of these schools offer teacher training courses and intensive courses as well as regular drop in classes. It should be noted, however, that because of the recent popularity of yoga tourism there are many places that are inconsistent in their authenticity and quality of yoga. It is recommended to do some research or shop around before committing to a yoga school. One popular and reputable yoga school is Tattvaa Yogashala located in Ram Jhula. Here one can practice traditional Ashtanga yoga with Yogi Kamal Singh. Another highly respected and popular school is Patanjala Yoga Kendra where one can practice Iyengar yoga under yoga master Usha Devi.

Beyond the realm of Rishikesh there are many other spectacular experiences that one can easily reach from Rishikesh. Kunjadevi temple is a beautiful Hindu temple dedicated to goddess Durga and located only 25km from Rishikesh. The Valley of Flowers is a famous trek into a Himalayan valley filled with thousands of varieties of alpine flowers. In this area one will also find some of the most popular pilgrimages including Gangotri, Kedarnath, Yamunotri, and Badrinath. There is certainly no lack of adventure for the traveling yogi in and around Rishikesh.

 

Fitness Mantra For Your Mind Body And Soul Ashtanga Yoga

How are you maintaining a balance with the fast paced world? Do you sometimes feel tired of life? Do you want to strengthen your body so that it can withstand the daily pressures of life? Are you sick of the daily exercises which are boring and which actually you want to avoid every morning? If your answer is a ‘yes’, then read on. And if it is a ‘no’, then I must say, there is something special for you too.

Yoga Teacher TrainingOne of the biggest drawbacks of your regular exercises is that it can provide fitness to your body only; what about your mind and soul? One simple answer – Try the age-old practice of Yoga. Yes, whatever you call it, yoga, dance yoga, kickboxing yoga, yoga workout or anything else, the point is that it can certainly give you a solution.

What you need is to join a yoga class. You can go for a yoga centre or a yoga studio, whatever it is and start practicing. One advantage of joining such classes is that you can have the proper training from the yoga teachers. Once you have learnt Ashtanga Yoga you can easily practice it at your home. You just need to buy some equipment like a yoga DVD, a yoga bag and a mat to perform the exercise.

No matter where you practice, at home or at a class, doing the yoga correctly is very important for a positive outcome. Whereas a right posture can cure many diseases, a wrong one can create troubles too. Here are some types of yoga which are very popular nowadays.

Pilates Yoga- Developed by George Pilates, this type of exercise is very popular in the United States. Though it is referred as yoga, actually it is not. The only resemblance is that it also gives an exercise to the mind. It can be referred to as a yoga with movement or yoga with machines.

Bikram Yoga- Bikram yoga is a more aerobic and a physical type of yoga. It was founded by Bikram Choudhry. This type of yoga is not meant for everyone. It is carried out in a warm room with a temperature around 90 to 100 degrees and therefore it is also called as hot yoga.

Power Yoga- This is actually a modified version of Ashtanga yoga, which will be described later on. It is a practice of doing ‘yoga poses’ in a continuous series of exercises. This type of yoga helps you to enhance your inner power and to make a connection with your soul.

Ashtanga Yoga- In Sanskrit, Ashtanga means ‘eight limbs’ and it refers to the eight limbs of the Yoga Sutras. It was taken from Yoga Korunta, a very ancient text. A student has to progress through six different series in this type of yoga.

This method helps in the realignment of the spine, detoxification of the body, building strength and flexibility and also in the strengthening of the nervous system.

There are three different levels of Ashtanga yoga. The first level helps you to align the body and gets the toxins out of your body. The second level helps to clean and open the energy channels. The last level is for the advanced ones and it helps in measuring power and grace.

Ashtanga yoga is a very popular type of yoga. It is a very energetic and athletic form of practice. It has many benefits like relieving from sore muscle and joint pain. Along with these physical benefits, it does have some mental and emotional benefits also. If you practice this yoga, you gain the ability to focus mentally and release the negative energy. It will give you relief from unwanted tensions as well.

If you are searching for a perfect yoga fitness program, Ashtanga yoga can be a good choice for you. If you are a beginner in the field of yoga then this can be quite tough for you to start with. You can start with some other simple methods. After bringing yourself up to its level and gaining the required fitness level, you can surely give it a try and reap the benefits!