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How to Find Stillness Using Your Breath

Inhale, exhale...

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In a culture devoted to sense pleasures—ah, the cashmere caressing your skin, the rosemary-seasoned flatbread enticing your tongue—it can be both difficult and delightful to practice pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses. Pratyahara is a Sanskrit word that means “to hold back,” and it denotes the fifth limb of Patanjali’s classical eight-limb system of yoga. Simply put, the practice requires you to detach your normal outwardly directed awareness from the world around you, retract it, and redirect it inward toward the self.

The result of such efforts is that the senses—your sight, hearing, taste, and the like, which trot along behind awareness like loyal dogs—naturally turn away from the world, too. This effectively cuts you off from distractions in your environment, collects your usually scattered awareness, and prepares you for the sixth and seventh limbs of classical practice, dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation). The process is traditionally likened to a tortoise pulling its head and limbs into its shell. Vyasa, Patanjali’s earliest commentator, aptly compares our senses to a swarm of bees, equating our awareness with their queen: “Just as bees follow the course of the queen bee and rest when the latter rests, so when the mind stops, the senses also stop their activity.”

Decoding Vayu Pratyahara, Wind Withdrawl

While this makes for some fine imagery, Patanjali and his commentators did little to clarify how exactly to practice pratyahara. Thankfully, there are a few concrete techniques. One of them is recorded in the Yoga-Yajnavalkya-Gita (“Yoga Song of Yajnavalkya”), which takes the form of a teaching dialogue between the sage Yajnavalkya and his wife, Gargi.

Yajnavalkya’s technique, called vayu pratyahara (wind withdrawal) or prana pratyahara (life force withdrawal), involves fixing your awareness and your breath sequentially on 18 vital points, called marmans, in your body. Varying sources highlight different points (traditional Ayurvedic sources name 107), but Yajnavalkya’s 18 marmans are the big toes, ankles, midcalves, “roots of the calves,” knees, midthighs, perineum, “center of the body,” generative organs, navel, heart center, “throat well,” root of the tongue, root of the nose, eyes, spot between the eyebrows, forehead, and crown of the head. Yajnavalkya suggests following the sequence from the crown to the toes, but many of my students prefer climbing from toes to crown.

See also Pratyahara: What It Means To “Withdraw”

You can use wind withdrawal as a preparation for pranayama or as a self-contained pranayama practice. It’s also possible to work therapeutically with the marmans, as each point is energetically attuned with a particular organ or system (nervous, circulatory, and the like) and can be massaged to affect that area; you can find further guidance in Ayurveda and Marma Therapy by David Frawley, Subhash Ranade, and Avinash Lele.

Focus on Each Energy Center

To experience vayu pratyahara, take any comfortable seated yoga pose or your favorite reclining position, such as Savasana (Corpse Pose). Start with a simplified version of the practice by limiting yourself to just a dozen points: the big toes, ankles, midcalves, knees, midthighs, perineum, navel, heart center, throat well, middle of the eyebrows, forehead, and crown. You can add more later.

If you like, touch each marman so that each energy center is clearly anchored in your awareness. You could even imaginatively invest each point with a favorite deity, teacher, or mantra, which is another traditional practice. Then pinpoint your awareness in your big toes for the ascending sequence (or the crown of your head if you’re descending) and imagine you are breathing into and out of them.

Consciously climb the 12-rung marman ladder to your crown. You can run through the points rapidly, spending just a breath or two at each one, or if you have the time and inclination, you can linger at each point for several breaths or longer. The former version of the practice challenges your ability to quickly and decisively direct both your awareness and breath; the latter challenges your ability to concentrate both awareness and breath over time.

You can play with this sequence in a number of ways; for example, you can run through it once, as a sort of warm-up for meditation, or you can climb and descend the marman ladder several times as a self-contained breathing-meditation practice. With the latter version, you’ll want to finish the practice with a short stay in Savasana. As you gain experience with the practice, you can gradually add points until you reach the traditional 18. Then too, you might experiment with nontraditional points: How about your thumbs, the base of your skull, or your ears?

If you’re on the fence about trying the practice, maybe this will convince you: Yajnavalkya says it prevents all disease, leads to self-liberation, and best of all, promotes a really long life—he claims the practitioner “will live as long as the moon and the stars exist.” Hopefully our Social Security will stretch that far.

Contributing Editor Richard Rosen teaches yoga classes in Northern California.