Christian Yogi’s Perspective on Yoga Philosophy: Pratyahara

Pratyahara is the fifth stage in Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga.  This word is a combination of two sanskrit words: Prati means “against” or “withdrawal,” and Ahara means “food” or any external thing that we allow into ourselves.  So Pratyahara is withdrawing of anything that we take in; in short, it is known as withdrawal of the senses.  This stage is where practicing Yoga starts to become a real challenge.  The four other limbs that precede Pratyahara are generally “easier” because they’re things that we can take action on.  Living in a world where we have so many things at our disposal, practicing pratyahara is a lot tougher but absolutely necessary.

The first thing I tend to do when I wake up in the morning is to check the time on my Fitbit or on my phone. (I usually wake up before my alarm goes off, so I like to check the time to see how long I have left before I need to get out of bed.)  Once I’m up, I get ready for the day and then go downstairs into the kitchen to make myself some tea.  While I’m drinking my tea, I read my Bible and pray.  Depending on whether or not I’m teaching that morning, I will either make breakfast or go into my home yoga studio and set up my equipment to teach virtually on Zoom.  From early afternoon until early evening, I either work on business-related tasks, exercise, run errands, or work on homeschool-related things.  In the early evenings, I have dinner with my family, teach evening classes, virtually meet with private clients, attend virtual midweek church services, or watch Netflix with my family.  By the end of the week, it’s easy to feel drained because of all the different things that were demanding attention of my senses: Sense of taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing.  I feel that we need to take time to practice Pratyahara more than ever before.

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”
Mark 1:35
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
1 Corinthians 9:24-27

I’m grateful for our senses.  I’m grateful that I can wake up every morning hearing the birds chirping in my yard, taste the warm cup of tea, smell the aroma of my scented candles, see the beautiful roses outside my window and feel the loving hugs from my family.  I’m also grateful for technology; if it weren’t for WiFi and my laptop, publishing my weekly blogs wouldn’t take place.  I’m grateful that I can keep in touch with my family and childhood friends through social media.  But it is so easy to become so attached to these things that we don’t stop to completely withdraw from all the physical, mental and emotional noises.  When I meditate, I use earplugs to block out all the noise and go into one of our walk-in closets and turn the light off.  I start with a pranayama practice and then sit still to just “Be.”

“Be still and know that I am God.”
Psalm 46:10

It’s amazing how deeply you can connect with God when you stop all the inner chatter and outer distractions.  This practice of Pratyahara isn’t something you will “master” right away.  In fact, I don’t know if there is such a thing as mastering complete sense withdrawal while you’re still alive because being physically alive requires us to engage in our senses; However, it is so essential for our well-being to routinely unplug and decompress so that we can be filled up with the goodness of God.  I encourage you to start with just 5 minutes of sitting still, create evenness in the breath (inhaling for the same length of time as exhaling), and just observe.  Be fully present in each moment, and see what God reveals to you.

 

With Gratitude,
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Christian Yogi’s Perspective on Yoga Philosophy: Pranayama

“Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”
Genesis 2:7

From the moment you woke up to the seconds before you started reading the scripture above, how many breaths have you taken?  If your answer is, “I don’t know,” then you and I are on the same boat!  In fact, we take take  on average approximately 20,000 breaths per day, so it makes sense that we’re not aware of every breath we take and the number of breaths we have taken since our eyes opened this morning.  God has breathed the breath of life in our nostrils the moment we took our very first breath at birth, and we have been continuing the tradition of breathing everyday for the most part (with the exception of traumatic events that you may have experienced that temporarily paused the breath of life — which in that case, I celebrate that you were able to resume breathing again).  God made breathing an essential part of sustaining life in our earthly bodies.  We experience various types of breathing in life: Deep breaths, shallow breaths, slow breaths, short breaths, erratic breaths (thanks to hiccups, sneezes, coughs, etc.), held breaths, and forced breaths.  The fourth limb in Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, Pranayama is sanskrit for controlling the breath/regulating the life force.

The state of the body changes depending on the way we breathe. Just with breath alone, we can induce and reduce anxiety, stress, aggression, and any other unfavorable emotion.  Believe it or not, you can actually increase and decrease your blood pressure by changing the way you breathe.  During one of my annual check-ups, my blood pressure was 130/80 which was higher than my normal.  Granted, I had just come from taking a cycling class 10 minutes ago, it was really hot outside, and I speed-walked across the parking lot because I thought I was going to be late for my appointment.  I asked her if she could take my blood pressure again at the end of my appointment “just for the fun of it.”  She looked puzzled but agreed to do so.  At the end of my check-up, I began taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths while I took longer exhales than I did inhales.  My blood pressure changed to 120/73 (which was still higher than my usual 115/68).  She was surprised at my new blood pressure reading until I told her I simply activated my parasympathetic nervous system through deep, slow breathing.

Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is our nervous system that is responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” response to homeostasis.  Unfortunately, most of us live with our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) — our “fight or flight” response to health — active.  When our SNS is active, our muscles and organs tighten up, stress hormones are released, and our digestion & elimination slows down.  This is a needed response if we’re in danger and need to get out of harm quickly, but if we live with an overabundance of SNS active, our bodies will not be able to relax, balance and heal.  One of the greatest ways we can balance and heal our bodies is through controlled breathing, aka Pranayama.

God has created our bodies to heal itself.  One of the ways our bodies heal itself is through the breath.  When the breath is balanced, the body, mind and soul become balanced.  Here is a pranayama called Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing) that I like to practice to create balance between my masculine and feminine qualities (we all have both), moving and stillness, self-control and surrender… faith and deeds:

  • Close your eyes and begin breathing in and out through your nose, moving toward matching the length of your inhales with your exhales (i.e. – if you’re inhaling for 4 counts, the exhale for 4 counts).
  • Bring your right hand up to your face and fold your index and middle fingers down.
  • Plug your right nostril with your thumb and inhale through the left nostril; hold your breath as you plug your left nostril with your right ring finger (simultaneously, unplug the right nostril).  Continue, imagining that each breath you’re taking in is coming from the breath of the Almighty (Job 33:4):

The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.
Job 33:4
“This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.”
Ezekiel 37:5

With Gratitude,
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Christian Yogi’s Perspective on Yoga Philosophy: Asana

Asana is Sanskrit for physical postures. Most people wouldn’t think of postures as something that would be significant as a Christian, and you may be curious to see how I’m going to relate yoga asanas — yoga poses — to Christianity… but postures are indeed significant in the Bible:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty[a]; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”  Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations.”
Genesis 17:1-3
Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;
Psalm 95:6
Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.  Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.
Ephesians 6:13-15
And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
Ephesians 2:6-7
I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
Psalm 121:1–2
Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in front of the whole assembly of Israel, spread out his hands toward heaven and said: “Lord, the God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below—you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way.
I Kings 8:22–23

Asanas in the Bible were more than just symbolic for one’s feelings; they were expressions of love, reverence, respect, humility, surrender, awe, security… It’s actually the way God created us.  He created us to be expressive beings with the ability to glorify Him heart, mind, soul, spirit… and body.  When we use postures to experience who God created us to be, we’re practicing yoga asanas.  Being that there are Christians who believe that Yoga is not of God, I would like to address the biggest misconceptions specifically when it comes to yoga asanas:

MISCONCEPTION: YOGA POSTURES ARE NAMED AFTER ANIMALS AND HINDU GODS, SO PRACTICING YOGA ASANAS IS LIKE WORSHIPPING ANIMALS AND GODS THAT THE POSES ARE NAMED AFTER.

It is true that some of the poses are named after Hindu gods and animals, but using these poses in your yoga practice does not mean you’re worshipping a Hindu deity.  According to Mark 7: 15, “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”  For me, when I practice yoga asanas, I focus on my breathing, being present in each moment and acknowledging the presence of the Holy Spirit.  But, if practicing yoga asanas causes you to go against your conscience, you should not practice it because, “I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.” (Romans 14:14)

I’m sure there are more misconceptions about yoga asanas, but the above misconception is the one I’ve been told numerous times.  So how should we practice the yoga asanas to glorify God?

1.  Start with a word of prayer.
Sit comfortably and relax your shoulders.  Take deep, diaphragmatic breaths, focusing only on your breath.  Once you feel settled physically and mentally, let God know that you are dedicating this practice to Him (or anything else you would like to tell him before you start).

 


2.  Warm Up
Do some gentle poses to warm up the spine and joints as well as to gently stretch any tight muscles.  Some great warm-up poses are Cat/Cow, Child’s Pose, and Downward Dog Pose.


3.  Salutation Flow

This is typically known as a Sun Salutation, but if this term bothers you, then you can use a different term such as “God Praise Flow,” or just simply, “Salutation” which is what I generally call it.  It can be the traditional Sun Salutations or a set of poses to flow in and out of.  Connecting each movement with breath, it will begin to energize your soul while increasing heat in your body.

 


4.  Standing Poses
Standing poses such as Tree and Mountain create stillness, balance, and connection to earth.  It reminds us that “being still” (Psalm 46:10 and Exodus 14:14) takes work.  We call yoga practice a “PRACTICE” because it really is that: A practice in being still.  A practice in balance.  A practice in strength.  A practice in being completely present.

 

 

 


5.  Seated/Kneeling/Arm Balancing/Prone/Supine Poses
This includes non-standing poses where you’re inverting (upside down) or creating backbends, twists, laterals (side bends), extensions (lengthening the spine), and forward bends.  Inversions include handstands and shoulder stands; Arm-balancing poses include Crow pose and Firefly pose; Kneeling poses include Gate pose and Camel Pose.  I generally keep prone (lying on belly) and supine (lying on back) poses towards the end for flowing easily (as opposed to standing up, lying down, sitting up, kneeling, lying down again, etc.).

Each pose has a different effect on the body, mind and soul, with backbends being extremely energizing and forward bends being very calming.


 

6.  Supine Cool-Downs
There is no strict rule about lying down on your back for cool-downs, but I personally prefer to cool down lying down on my back because it’s a peaceful transition to Savasana.  Any gentle movements that will release any leftover tension in the body is appropriate.


7.  Savasana
This is the final pose in an asanas practice.  This is where you lie still and surrender your body, mind and soul to God.  Completely.  Savasana is known to be the most challenging pose in yoga because you’re not only disciplining the body to be still but your mind as well.  Savasana can be in the form of a guided relaxation or complete silence.


I always like to finish my asana practice with a breathing exercise… which I will discuss next week!

 

 

With Gratitude,
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Christian Yogi’s Perspective on Niyamas, Pt. 5: Ishvara Pradihana

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.”  This is the beginning of the well-known Serenity Prayer which is used by many 12-Step Recovery programs.  Ishvara Pradnihana is sanskrit for surrender.

In March 2019, I completed a 3-day leadership workshop called Y12SR (Yoga of 12-Step Recovery) in Charlotte, NC.  I went into the training expecting to learn how to lead this program that’s available as a supplement to any 12-step recoveries in existence; however, what I quickly realized is that we’re all addicts to something because addiction is any urge that’s hard to control or stop.  One of the topics we discussed that weekend was the concept of co-dependency.  I would’ve never considered myself a co-dependent person, but my teacher Nikki Myers, explained that co-dependency is the most common addiction which is a belief of looking outside of ourselves – people, places, things, behaviors or experiences – to bring fulfillment and joy. This is also the base out of where all other addictions and compulsions begin.

When we become addicted to anything/anyone, we become unwilling to let go of the source of our addiction; What’s ironic is that we think this gives us more control, when in reality, our addictions end up consuming us.  The only way to let go of this destructive cycle is to practice Ishvara Pradnihana.  When we surrender our lives to God, we are waving our white flag and asking for Him to take complete control of our lives.  In the scripture below, the king with ten thousand army of men represents me and the one with twenty thousand represents God:

“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.”
Luke 14:31-32

Personally, I think control is overrated.  Before I became a Christian, I tried to control everything in my life: I tried to control how close my best friends were to each other so that I can make sure none of them were closer to each other than they were to me.  I tried to control my weight by starving myself and then purging out any amount of food I ate as well as exercising for 3 hours almost everyday.  I so badly wanted to control every aspect of my life only to be sobered to the truth that I had no one to guide, direct or mentor me towards the life that I was meant to live.  I lived a very fast life until I became a Christian at age 19.  When I became a Christian, I felt so relieved that I could let God not only fix my life but take control of what my life was going to look like from that point on.  Carrie Underwood sang it best when she sang:

Jesus, take the wheel.  Take it from my hands,
‘Cause I can’t do this on my own.
I’m letting go, so give me one more chance.
And save me from this road I’m on…
Jesus, take the wheel.

There’s a sense of relief when we don’t have to be the Controller of everything.  Surrender doesn’t mean that you do nothing; it means that you control only the things you can based on God’s Word — The Bible — and anything outside of your circle of control, you give it to God.

I live by three things when it comes to surrender:  Resolve, Dissolve and Release.  If I can resolve an issue biblically, I do it.  Second, whether or not I was able to resolve it, I move on to dissolving it out of my heart through prayer and meditation so that I don’t hold onto to the stress and the toxic energy of bitterness.  Finally, I release it by giving it to God.  I say, “God, take it please.  It’s now yours.”

I would like to leave you with the full version of the Serenity Prayer written by the Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.

 

With Gratitude,
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