No Barking In the Downward Dog: The Philosophy of Pratyahara

Although I had done it so many times, the downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Savasana) was a position in class that provided for me a great source of stress and irritation, contrary to its supposed benefit of being a “relaxing” pose.   When Master Paalu would say, “relax in downward-facing dog for a few breaths” I would usually smirk and roll my eyes given that for me the pose was nothing relaxing at all.  

What was I doing wrong? Why do my legs feel bent?  Should I lock my knees more?  Where should my hands be?   Is my back straight or bent?   Where should my head hang?   Is my neck too tense?  Are my heels on the mat?   My breathing feels strained – how could this be right?   It’s almost as if I wanted to bark, not relax!   What should be a simple asana became a source of stress and irritation as I realized that perhaps I was doing it “wrong” and not engaging the right muscles and strength, and not gaining the benefits the pose should offer. How are people really hanging in this pose and breathing and relaxing?   Is this really a relaxing asana – even the name has “savasana” in it so it should be?  There was a constant dialogue going on.

Practicing it over and over again I realized that I was too busy thinking about the pose rather than actually focusing on being in the pose itself. I was not allowing myself to engage in one of the 8 limbs of Ashtanga philosophy, Pratyahara – the ability to disengage from the senses or withdrawal from what nourishes the senses. I was busy evaluating and judging myself and not experiencing the asana itself. In order to actually benefit and make it simple I just needed to withdraw from the senses in a way that I would still experience these senses but not react to them in a judgmental or otherwise critical way. Whether the pose was executed perfect or not should not be the question – maybe in 5 years, or 10 years, or never “perfect” (if such a thing exists) – but allowing my body to experience the pose and experiencing the various things it senses – but not reacting or otherwise thinking too much about them – should be the goal.  

In daily life this can be applied regularly as we experience and sense so many things in a day that we react to – sometimes in ways that are not helpful or beneficial to us – but we do not need to do so.   Amidst so much outer noise in life, engaging Pratyahara by removing the reaction to these sensed experiences – or at least deciding which reaction we will have, since it is under our control – is one way I can apply Ashtanga philosophy to my life both on the mat and off it.

Om Shanti

Tusita (200HR YTT April-June 2017)