In my classes recently I’ve been offering the support of refuge. When we feel overwhelmed, or raw, or just exhausted, we need to be able to retreat, to pull back from ordinary life, in order to rest and heal.
I have three practices to share with you, to enhance the depth of relief you can experience.
A refuge is a place of protection.
Synonyms for refuge include
These all exist right here, in your own body.
The first practice is breathing, or rather, noticing your breath. You don’t have to do anything to the breath, just feel it. Notice just where it can be felt, right now. Pause before you read the next sentence to feel your breath, for a moment.
You just moved your mind from thinking to feeling. This transition creates a refuge for your mind. It is a sanctuary where your mind can rest, away from left-brain, logical/rational cognition, and into right-brain sensing and feeling. Both are valuable, but the left brain tends to hog up more of our time, especially when we’re experiencing stress.
Simply witnessing your breath is a fabulous way to take a break, over and over again, throughout the day.
To enhance the healing capacity of breath, try this simple prānayama practice:
Inhale as you usually do, then exhale a little longer than usual. Then, take a normal inhalation, and let the exhalation completely finish. Continue with your usual breath in, and let your mind follow the exhalation all the way to its completion. Let yourself rest in that quiet place at the end of your out breath. Just wait there, resting, until you feel the urge to inhale again. Continue this way, resting in that refuge between doing one thing (exhaling) and doing something else (inhaling).
This is another quiet place to let your mind rest, like that bench you sometimes find in the midst of a walk. Rest there. This longer exhalation is emptying out your lungs more completely than usual, preparing them for bigger inhalations. You may feel your belly soften when you inhale, drawing the diaphragm and the lungs downward, as they fill. Your nervous system switches from sympathetic to parasympathetic, and your whole body goes into healing mode.
The second refuge is the earth.
Let your body rest on the earth.
Wherever you are sitting, standing or lying right now, notice which parts of you that are touching the ground, or the furniture which is on the ground.
Try to feel into those parts of your body. Soften yourself any amount possible and relax into those contact points.
The earth is our home while we’re alive, and it continues to show up for us as a place to rest. When we start to rev up toward anxiety, we become more like dry leaves in the wind, unable to settle and gain stability. By feeling your contact with the earth, you can relax and lean into this refuge. You might even choose to lay your whole body on the floor to feel more contact and allow for more release into the earth.
Pratyāhāra is the fifth limb of the eight-limbed yogic path, and our third form of refuge. This is the practice of withdrawing the senses. As humans, we have evolved to scan continuously for danger. All of the senses (vision, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling) are attuned to prepare the body to respond to this danger quickly, and it can become a habit to remain vigilant all the time. This is the opposite of refuge and is more like living in a war zone. We become exhausted, depleted, and maybe even paranoid.
For relief, try this simple practice of pratyāhāra:
Close your eyes or look softly downward. Relax your eyes, eyelids, eyebrows. Soften your eyes so much they feel as if they’re floating. Let them rest.
Relax your ears and the faculty of hearing. Relax your nose and sinuses and your ability to smell.
Relax your lips, tongue and teeth. Soften any part of you that has to do with tasting, including your jaw and throat.
Now soften your skin, that largest sense organ. Feel all the places you have skin: between your toes, under your arms, behind your ears, and relax it all. Give this most sensitive part of your nervous system a refuge, a retreat, a chance to rest deeply.
Feel the way you’ve retreated into yourself. This practice of drawing away from the daily stresses is the pathway to meditation. BKS Iyengar cued his students to practice vigorous āsana while relaxing the senses. This helps quiet the ego and the tendency toward seeking outside approval.
We can practicing pratyāhāra even while doing difficult things.
You may already have your own forms of refuge, like a deity-centered practice. In Buddhism we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The Buddha is the original teacher and this lineage of teachings is unbroken over thousands of years. The Dharma is the body of teachings that continue to uphold and support our everyday life dilemmas. The Sangha is the community of practitioners, including those sturdy enough to carry the teachings to us today.
Your refuge may be your family, your home, your friends or coworkers. Maybe your refuge is your beloved pet or your garden. Take some time to cultivate your refuge. You need and deserve a place to rest and recover from life.
Life is not easy, and you are not alone. We all struggle and we all need support. Find your refuge and surrender to it regularly. You will return to everyday activities refreshed and relieved, even if only a little, from your previous burdens.
I hope this is helpful!