PRATYAHARA, KARMA YOGA, AND SUFFRAGETTES-
WHAT COULD THEY POSSIBLY HAVE IN COMMON?
The term “pratyahara” is composed of two Sanskrit words, prati and ahara. “Ahara” means “food”, or anything we take into ourselves from the outside. “Prati” is a preposition meaning “against” or “away”. “Pratyahara” means literally “control of ahara,” or “gaining mastery over external influences.” The term is usually translated as “withdrawal from the senses,” but much more is implied.* But more on that in a bit.
Recently I had the privilege of watching the New York Times digital theater performance of Finish the Fight, which celebrates 100 years of women’s right to vote. The author, Ming Pfiffer, showcases five women who tirelessly worked to further the cause of women in the 19th century United States. These are women who are unsung heroes, who’s stories may not be as prominent as Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but who, none the less, deserve to be acknowledged and remembered.
Mary McLeod Bethune 1875 to 1955
The first performer honors Mary McLeod Bethune who lived from 1875 to 1955. Mary was an African American daughter of South Carolina slaves who developed a passion for reading. From a one-room black schoolhouse, Mary made her way through Scotia Seminary and became a teacher. She went on to become a states’ woman, educator, civil rights activist. As a fearless advocate for negro’s women’s rights, she founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935, was the national advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Federal Council of Negro Affairs and founder of Bethune=Cookman College in Daytona Beach. She tirelessly fought for the rights of negro women in many areas including healthcare.
Frances Watkins Harper 1825- 1911
Second to be showcased is Frances Watkins Harper 1825- 1911. Frances was born free in Maryland. She became a civil rights activist, abolitionist and helped free slaves in the Underground Railroad. Speaking at the 1866 National Women’s Rights Convention, she demanded equal rights for all stating, “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul….you white women here speak of rights. I speak of wrongs.”
Mabel Ping-Hua Lee 1896-1966
Third on this honorable list is Mabel Ping-Hua Lee 1896-1966. Mabel was an ardent Chinese advocate for women’s suffrage in the United States. Born in Guangzhou China, she was raised in a missionary school and immigrated with her parents around 1905 and eventually majored in history and philosophy at Barnard College. Although Mabel was a suffragette and wrote extensively for the equality of women, when women were granted the right to vote in 1917, she could not vote even then due to the Chinese Exclusion Act which was not repealed until 1943.
Zitkala-Sa “Redbird” 1876-1938
And then there was Zitkala-Sa “Redbird”, a Yankton Native American Indian 1876-1938. Born on a reservation in South Dakota, Zitkala was recruited by missionaries and education at a Quaker school in Wabash, Indiana. Although forced to strip her Indian heritage she embraced reading and writing and music, learning piano and violin. In June 1895 she was awarded her diploma, and at the graduation ceremony Zitkala gave a speech on the inequality of women’s rights and subsequently founded the National Council of American Indians. An activist in the 1920’s women’s rights movement she was eventually chosen by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to aid in the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. She continued to work for civil rights for women and to improve health and education for Native Americans until her death.
Jovita Idar 1885-1946
Last on this esteemed list is Jovita Idar 1885-1946. Born in Laredo, Texas, Jovita was one of eight children to well-educated parents who strove to advance the civil rights of Mexican Americans. After graduating from the Holding Institute in Laredo, she became a teacher and was frustrated due to lack of basic student supplies. About 1920 Jovita turned from teaching to journalism as a means of working towards a meaningful and effective way of exposing the poor living conditions of Mexican=American workers. She became the first president of the League of Mexican Women, an organization that offered free education to Mexican children. It then developed into a social, political, and charitable organization for women. Jovita was a journalist, activist, and hospital interpreter.
These few sentences have only touched on the lives of these dedicated women. I encourage you to watch Finish the Fight and see their life’s stories that they may be an inspiration to you.
So, what do these awesome women, dedicated to suffrage and women’s rights have to do with yoga? I say everything!
One level of Pratyahara, or ahara, is our associations, the people we hold at heart level who serve to nourish the soul. As a twofold practice, it involves withdrawal from wrong food, wrong impressions, and wrong associations, while also opening to right food, right impressions, and right associations. We control our mental impressions with the right diet and right relationships, but its primary importance lies in withdrawal from sensory impressions, which frees the mind to move within and therefor to move forward.
This of course, turns to karma yoga, outer action or service—doing the actions necessary to life and avoiding those based on desire and self-gratification.
The practice of Karma-pratyahara manifests in surrendering personal rewards and doing everything as a service to God or to humanity.
Pratyahara involves much, much more
Here in this context, I feel that the women described in this text had to have gone “inside” at some point. They had to distance themselves from outside influences to allow the quietness of their mind to expand to enable them to explore the possibility of change, within themselves and their situation. I do not believe they acted (karma) out of personal gain or accolades. But instead acted out of a true desire to move the rights of women forward, freeing them of a bondage longer lasting than chains, and that is a voice to be heard around the world.