He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." Mark 6:31
In our efforts to be good, do we forget to be whole? Barbara Brown Taylor poses this question in her book Leaving Church, as she recounts the busy-ness that permeated her life as an Episcopal parish priest. But its a question that applies to all of us, not just overworked clergy. How many of us, in our effort to live a good life, pack our calendars full of activity, and end up feeling drained rather than fulfilled?
Pratyahara, the fifth yoga limb, is a set of tools that help us restore balance in our busy lives. It's the practice of dampening external distractions, including those of our own making, to increase our awareness of God's healing Presence. Pratyahara is often likened to a turtle withdrawing limbs inside of its shell, or of traveling metaphorically to the desert, as Jesus did, to pray and be restored. Pratyahara is arguably one of the most important yoga limbs to practice today in our overstimulated, over-scheduled, 24X7 smart phone dominated culture.
Pratyahara, has four main areas of control or withdrawal from externalities that teach us how to safe-guard the internal space needed to nourish our souls. They are:
• Indriya or sensory control
• Prana or life force control
• Mano or mind thoughts control
• Karma or action control
And while pratayahara is traditionally taught through some fairly "out there" practices, the wisdom of the practice is simple and straight forward: make more space in your life for right relationship. Here are a few examples. Sensory control? Turn off all devices at meal times and engage in undivided family time. Prana or life force control? Take a deep, slow breath and count to ten before speaking. Mind thought control? Make a daily gratitude list of your many blessings and just see how your thoughts lighten.
Action (karma) pratyahara is my favorite of the four types and the form of external control that I view as an essential first step to living a whole (holy) life. Control of external action might start as a scheduling exercise, to allot more "down time" in your calendar, but there is a wonderful parallel between action pratyahara and the commandment to “keep the Sabbath Holy” that I invite you to explore.
Be honest. How many of us truly practice Sabbath the way it was intended: a day set aside each week to withdraw from external demands on our time and turn our attention to rest, prayer, and our loved ones, honoring God? Sometimes I think we active church-people are the worst Sabbath practitioners as we schedule meetings and other activities on Sundays (the rationale being that since we are all together in the building for worship, Sundays are a good time to get other church stuff done).
Ironically, I often suffer from "Sabbath Envy" of my non church going neighbors as I sit in an after-service-scheduled committee meeting or participate in a youth service project, and imagine my neighbor sleeping in late and spending a leisurely morning over the bulky Sunday paper, having brunch with friends, or going for a walk with a loved one.
But perhaps in my Sunday envy I am unnecessarily limiting Sabbath. Rather than confining it to one day per week, perhaps Sabbath is better understood as a directive to regularly take time to reconnect body, mind, and spirit, whether its in a church building, out in nature, or on our yoga mats. Perhaps the commandment, in urging us to "remember" the Sabbath, is telling us that's its part of our job, as people of God, to set aside space in our busy lives to rest and invite the Holy Spirit in to refresh us, so that we have the strength to live as Jesus taught, in charity and love with our neighbor.
Wayne Muller in his beautiful book, Sabbath – Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives points out how Sabbath provides the “essential rhythm of rest” that we need to live a full life. Sabbath, as Muller describes, is ancient wisdom.
“Sabbath is more than the absence of work…It is a time consecrated with our attention, our mindfulness, honoring those quiet forces of grace or spirit that sustain and heal us.”
External stimuli may be out of our control but our response to it is ours to manage. The yoga limb of pratyahara, control of our senses, breath, thoughts, and actions, is not an esoteric discipline reserved for yogis covered in ash and mud, rather, it is the practice of withdrawing from the distractions that keep us from living into God's Presence. Pratyahara, like the commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it Holy, urges us to set aside protected space, Sabbath space, to reconnect with our heart-center, and the love of God within.