yoga teacher training rishikesh

What the hell am I doing here?

This was the first question I was asked on the first day at Tattvaa Yoga Teacher Training Certification (YTTC) course. It resonated very much with me and raised other questions within me: Who am I? Am I the corporate executive who just quit the job, a mother, a daughter or partner? These were the questions dwelling on my mind at the beginning of the course which we were encouraged to explore during the program.

I chose the YTTC because I wanted to do it sometime ago and never found the time. Now, that I have the time this was the first thing I scheduled in my calendar. I chose Tattvaa Yogashala Rishikesh India through extensive research and intuition and it turned out it was one of the best decisions in my life.

When I came to Rishikesh I wanted most of all to put some distance on my life events and time to reflect. I wanted clarity of mind and help with the major transformation in my life. What I found is 6 wonderful teachers and yogis whose lives were dedicated to us – the students.

The rigorous, disciplined boot camp type of schedule with asana classes starting at 6:30am and ending with meditation at 9pm didn’t allow much time for thinking. We were reminded all the time to be in the moment – ‘if you eat– you eat, if you sleep – you sleep that’s what a yogi does’ Kamalji, the founder of the school used to say. He also mentioned that Nike’s slogan ‘just do it’ doesn’t apply to yoga. We need to be mindful and aware of the mind, body and breath in all what we do.

So between struggling at asana practice, getting dizzy at pranayama, I found my favourite subjects – yoga philosophy and yoga nidra. Yoga philosophy taught by Swamiji and Sunilji was close to home. It dealt with questions humanity and I have been trying to understand: What is happiness? What is mind? How to still the monkey mind? Thru lively stories, references to Kung Fu Panda movies and Yoga Sutras texts I was captivated in the world of yoga. There I came to understand that Ashtanga stands for ‘Eight limbs of Yoga’ which correspond to eight steps to achieve enlightenment. Asanas, what most of the Western world know of are only one of the eight steps in achieving the final goal.

I was relieved when I understood that I am not totally doomed if I cannot wrap my legs around my head or do other posture. It is all about practice and awareness of NOW. Actually, all the asanas, meditation and pranayama have the end goal to still the mind and eventually transcend the mind. After day 4 when I actually wanted to quit and made a pact with my mind that I would go with the flow and give my best, I started to enjoy the morning practice and celebrated every small achievement and extra inch I was able to stretch.

One other thing that was emphasized during the month long program was to ‘mind our own business’ as Sunilji used to say. In other words, yoga is about self-awareness and internal discovery. It is a very good reminder as in reality most of the time we are externally oriented focused on what the others are saying or doing.

How about my thinking? I went there to think what is next in my life…Well, I’ve learned that the real thinking comes when the mind is quiet. Also, I was reminded that all things come according to their own time and order. No need to worry – the right things will come at the right time. So for now, I am enjoying my break, exploring new ways to enrich my life and those around me. I am passionate about inspiring and motivating people and helping them to reach their highest potential.

With the Tattvaa TTC I received the toolkit for rediscovering myself, my awesomeness and appreciation for the Universe life and force. I look forward going back spending more time in this oasis of spirituality where chants, ashrams and bells transcend time and space.

Here is mine :) May be a bit Random, but 100 % Authentic. Love and Light: Aila

What the hell am I doing here..?

That is the question I hear Sunil repeat time to time while giving us the philosophy lecture, and quite frankly, I have been asking that several times during the three weeks I have been in India. It started when I was at the New Delhi airport, waiting three hours for the guy who was supposed to pick me up, not really wanting to leave the safety of the airport which seemed like my final link to my comfort zone. But eight hours later I was in the room that was supposed to be my home for the next three weeks, feeling cold and alone. I didn´t know the wifi password so I didn´t have any connection to the world as I had known before.

But I had made a commitment, which I later realized was my sankalpa: I would have an open heart and an open mind and take whatever I was given with open arms. I would attend everything 100 % even when I didn´t feel like and my legs would be tired of sitting on the floor in a meditative posture and see where it would lead. I would let someone else decide when I wake up, what I eat, when I do my intestinal cleansing and even when I breath in and out. And now, sitting in the same room three weeks later I can reassure it has been all worth it.

The reason I came to India might be kind of a western cliché: I got burnt out at my job, rehabilitated myself with yoga and realized I want to do something more with my life than work for the Swedish state. I attended a TTC in Sweden which only raised more questions about the union which is supposed to happen in yoga. A union with what, and how do I reach that? Is it even possible? Can I really teach yoga if I don´t understand the meaning of yoga? So I decided to make an effort to go closer to the source and found myself chanting mantras, doing pranayama and practicing yoga nidra which I knew was ”yogic sleep”, but what the hell is that really?

A week later I found myself being content in a somewhat new way: I didn´t really miss anything. Chanting made me calm and I enjoyed walking to the shala 6 am to do the morning ashtanga and pranayama practice. I was constantly busy but I didn´t feel I needed more time, a washing machine, the internet or even coffee.

Today I have done the final exam and realized I was in a somewhat new situation: I don´t really have to spend every free moment studying the Baghvad Gita or the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (or memorizing asana names or practicing how to teach) and there is no evening meditation to attend.

So the next question is, what the hell am I going to do in Sweden? Will everything be the same? Am I going to stress to my job every morning, forget to breath, drink too much coffee and lose the feeling of contentment? Get caught up in all the so called demands of having a title, an apartment or as we say in Sweden: a Volvo, a dog and an house?

That is the real question. Sunil also says that during these three weeks we invest, our bodies are aching, we are confused of everything, we cleanse our body and our mind. We do pranayama and meditation, but we only get the effects of it all later. And there is no use of cleansing unless we keep our body and mind clean even afterwards. You don´t clean your home just in order to throw some dirt in it directly afterwards. So the real sadhana begins after India and it is not going to be easy. It is diffucult to combine our jobs with yoga, pranayama, meditation. It is hard to apply all of the yamas and niyamas in real life. But it would be stupid to do all of these things for a few weeks just so that I can go back to my old routines: after all I was I snowball that needed to be shaken so some of the snowflakes would fall of and I would reach closer to the core and see things for what they are.

I would advise anyone who needs to be shaken a bit to come here. But I would also say that you need two things: to know what the hell you are doing here and make it your sankalpa to be open to whatever you´re thrown at and take it with open arms. Give cleansing a chance and then you will know.

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.