Early on in her students’ study of yoga, Dassa Oppenheimer teaches Pratyahara as an entry into Shavasana. Pratyahara is the yoga practice of ‘withdrawal of the senses’ from the body and from the environment . The practice facilitates the journey into the inner world where there are no loud noises, advertisement to buy, lists to do, and other things that might distraction us from our intelligent being. Dassa said, “If you don’t learn how to withdraw from your senses during Shavasana, you might as well sit in a chair and do something else.”
Here I will tell you how Dassa teaches us to use ‘withdraw our senses’ as the gateway into a surrendered Shavasana.
5 Five Steps to Pratyahara ( while in Shavasana)
1) Sight/Eyes. We begin with the most dominant sense. Lightly close your eyes and then lift the upper eyelid ever so slightly so that it does not press against the lower lid. This is difficult because when you lift the upper eyelid, you can easily tense the forehead. Do not tense the forehead. Slightly lift the outer edges of the eye toward the temple to avoid forehead tensing. Once the eyelids are in position and you are aware of a lightness around the eyes, roll the pupil downwards, as if looking towards the heart. No straining. Once in position, the eyes do not move.
2) Taste/Tongue. Relax the jaw. Let the tongue drop away from the palate. Do not hold the tongue back. The tongue tip nestles gently behind the lower teeth. Relax the corners of the mouth, letting the corners melt downwards toward the jawbone.
3) Nose/Smell. Bring your attention to the root of the nose. That’s the bridge of the nose. It doesn’t take long to relax here; just focusing attention at the nose’s root seems to relax the sense of smell. For help, image a dark warm circle—a black hole, if you like—sinking from the nose’s root into the brain.
4) Ears/Sound. Here we relax the inner ear. Bring your attention to the upper rims of your cheekbones. Allow the cheekbone to melt down toward the earlobe, which in Shavasana is the lowest part of your face. You will feel your inner ear let go of tension.
5) Skin/Touch. Skin is the largest sense organ. This step of Pratyahara teaches you to relax your face. ( Dassa says the results of practicing regular technique on the facial skin are better than botox). Imagine a line in the center of your face. It begins at your hairline and divides your forehead in half. Center of your nose. Center of your upper lip. Center of you lower lip. Center of your chin. Center of your neck. Now divide your face into upper and lower quadrants by drawing an imaginary line about 1/8 inch above your eyebrows. Softly move the skin of your forehead–the upper quadrants–from the center line to the temples. Allow the skin of the upper quadrants to pool at the temple. Bring your attention to the center line of the lower quadrants of your face. Move the skin from the center line to you lower earlobes. The skin is like warm wax; smooth.
Pratyahara is often compared to a turtle withdrawing its limbs into its shell– the turtle’s shell is the mind and the senses are the limbs. You can repeat the steps as many times as you like until your senses are withdrawn. With repeated practice, over the years the steps can often take less than a minute to complete.
In yoga there are no express trains, especially in Dassa’s classes. She constantly corrects our Shavasana and reviews Pratyahara.
The wisdom in the system of Iyengar yoga that Dassa teaches is that it prepares your body and mind for future steps. For example, for years—let’s say decades—we study Pranayama and rigorous asana in addition to Pratyahara. Now, finally, Dassa tells us it is time to lift our asana into a non-physical realm. (Not always, but sometimes.) The Pratyahara techniques, which we have been practicing in Shavasana are ready to kick in during Adho Mukha Shvanasana, Trikonasana, etc.
“Where do you feel the pose?” Dassa asks.Our breath and senses, which link the body and mind, have been developed properly for us to ‘feel’ the pose.
Pratyahara (the fifth of the eight limbs of yoga*) provides the foundation for the higher practices of yoga and is the basis for meditation. By linking the breathe of prana with the withdrawal of senses, it is possible to completely take our mind and breathe out of the sphere of the body.
*eight limbs of yoga:
- Yama : Universal morality
- Niyama : Personal observance
- Asanas : Body postures
- Pranayama : Breathing exercises, and control of prana
- Pratyahara : Control of the senses
- Dharana : Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness
- Dhyana : Devotion, Meditation on the Divine
- Samadhi : Union with the Divine