The Guru Within: The Turtle Power of Self-Trust

“To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do, you will sink and drown. Instead, You relax, and float.”

~ Alan Watts


Most of us on the path of self-study encounter signposts along the way directing us to “Trust the Guru Within”. Most of us realize this is easier said than done.

Much as we try, when reality hits, self-doubt erupts. Those heart-felt words written from the safety of our cozy bed seem less brilliant when re-read in the morning. Our decision to “leap and trust that the net will appear” feels naive when we imagine telling our family & friends our new plan.

Self-trust gets even more elusive when we open our news feeds. Bombarded by beautiful people doing fabulous things, we wonder how we could ever  “compete” with all of that. Every societal yardstick makes us doubt we can measure up against the “competition”.

But therein lie the answer to discovering the Guru within. Self-trust isn’t a matter of  competition, it’s not a “survival of the fittest” mentality. In fact, it is about giving up fear and embracing our connection to others. Self-trust is honoring the basic fact that we are each “a unique specific expression of the life-force”. We are each necessary. Diversity is essential to the sustainability of anything! The “theory of evolution”, of survival,  is the ability of each life form to fearlessly trust in its own uniqueness. Thich Nhat Hanh  says, “Without fear, we are able to see more clearly our connections to others. Without fear, we have more room for understanding and compassion. Without fear, we are truly free.”

deb-snorkelingLast November, I led a yoga retreat with The Travel Yogi to the Galapagos where I saw this “theory” in  full expression. You could see how the diverse climates of each island encouraged adaptation which allowed sustainability of so many species. On one island, the finches were yellow with short legs, on another black with longer limbs. Vegetation, sea creatures, land animals….all were an expression of “self-trust”, the idea of living in a way that was uniquely appropriate for them. Of course this was a  process of thousands of years of development.

Tortugas (sea turtles and land tortoises) were especially interesting.  In the Galapagos, they can live well over a hundred years, in large part due to their ability to draw inward and literally, make any spot their sanctuary. Under their “exterior spine”, they are not only protected but also have the opportunity to refresh, rejuvenate, rest. I choose to think that in this state of “unplugging”, detaching, turning inward, the tortuga tap into their own inner guru and consider rather than merely react to external events. Perhaps this is one reason why they are some of the most ancient, adaptable creatures on this planet….and certainly most unique. To me they are the embodiment of  going inward, listening and daring to follow what they hear, self-trust.

galapagos-turtleSo what if you had the turtle’s power to turn inward and feel that sense of self-trust? Imagine that you were invincible like these ancient creatures, protected by a sanctuary you carried on your back. What would you choose? Where would you go? How would you dress? And, who would you choose to be with? What if you had the ability to go inward, “unplug” and retreat from the outside distractions? How would that change the decisions you make? What if you had the opportunity to turn inward whenever you wanted, to escape outside fear and pressure and just decide from your own perspective? My guess is you’d feel pretty fearless, liberated, empowered!

Pratyhara Power

Well, you do have that ability! It’s called “Pratyahara”, the fifth limb of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the pivotal step towards enlightenment. Pratyahara is like our own tortoise shell, it’s the practice of letting go of attachments to outside influences so that we can go more deeply inward. So we can not only check in to our own inner vision/guru but also refresh, unplug. 

What does Pratyahara look like?

You can find it in meditation practices, when you allow yourself to sit for awhile, close off the outside world by turning inward. Some find it in other activities that allow a retreat from the outside world. Examples might be listening to music, art, dance or other physical activities. The common denominator is that rather than being distracted by today’s technology or worries about how to pay the bills, you allow yourself a few moments to just be. You allow yourself to feel the pulse of life and your unique place in it. In the silence of your own shell, you might feel less “yanked around by life”, you might find answers to your questions, a vision of your own dharma, a reflection of your true nature. And then again, you might not. But you will find that your mind has cleared a bit, you will likely feel refreshed. As Anne Lamott says, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” With regular practice, you will find that you do have a sanctuary that you carry with you all the time. Not an outer shell like the turtle’s, but a strong inner protection that will allow you the freedom of fearless self-trust.

How do you practice Pratyahara?

Psychologists have shown that any behavior change requires baby steps. Erich Schiffmann, creator of Freedom Style Yoga, advises us to start with small, easy things first. For example, he’d say “Go into the grocery store and stand in front of the apples. Get rid of the grocery list that said “Buy the Gala!” and instead look at all the apples. Close your eyes for a moment and go inward and listen. Open your eyes and fearlessly DARE to choose the apple that “glows” for you at that moment.” Sure, you might get yelled at when you return home with wine sap rather than what your mate wanted to use for a pie. So to make it easy on yourself, buy both this time. He then advises to try this out in choosing what to wear. Let go of expectations and dare to fearlessly choose what you’re guided from within to wear. This is so exhilarating!

In Marie Kondo’s book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”, she suggests we practice this “progressive” self-trust in creating a more blissful home. She says start with the easy things. Pile all your clothes on the bed and choose only those that have meaning for you. Let go of your need to keep things because someone gave them to you or because you paid too much for them (guilt). Thank them for the lesson they taught you and let them be free to live a life with someone who might truly love them. The next step is to move to harder things, like books and mementos…..but the process is the same as  Erich’s. Go inward and ask “What do I want, think?” Let go of the attachment to outer expectations. Go into your turtle shell and as if only you mattered, DARE TO CHOOSE! DARE TO TRUST!

Practical steps on how you can begin.

  1. Schedule time each day to “settle in”. Make sure you have at least a few moments free from distractions. Set a timer so you don’t have to worry about “going over”.
  2. Go “under your shell” by tapping into your inner sensations. Ask yourself “What am I feeling? Experiencing? Always be compassionate but open and accepting to what you hear. Non-grasping (aparigraha), arriving without expectations is key. The idea is to just let yourself be present with yourself.
  3. Then, you might begin to ask yourself questions like “If I believed that everyone and everything was “on my side”, rooting for me, conspiring for me, what would I choose?


Kurmasana and other asana practices.                                                                        

kurmasana-iyengarMany believe Pratyahara is really the heart of yoga and the pose that embraces “Turtle Power” is Kurmasana. Kurma the tortoise, is the incarnation of Vishnu, the maintainer of the universe. In Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar points out that Kurma is also “the name of one of the subsidiary winds whose function is to control the eyelids to prevent foreign objects or too bright of a light to enter the eyes.” To learn more about this asana and how to progress into it safely, go to my webpage or check out Iyengar’s Light on Yoga. If this shape looks a little intense for you, remember any forward fold can give you the same opportunity to turn inward.

The idea is to just do it. As Joseph Campbell says, ““You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning…a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation.” This is turtle power!

Debbi Murphy
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By Debbi Murphy

Studying the Mind-Body connection is Debbi Murphy’s life work. She earned a masters in psychology and a doctorate in exercise science from the University of Missouri and was known as that community’s fitness expert. Seeking deeper meaning, she pursued the study of yoga. She worked with teachers such as John Friend, Richard Freeman, Shiva Rea, and Seane Corn and found her true home in Erich Schiffmann’s teacher training & philosophical approach to the yogic life. In 2001, Shanti Yoga Studio & School came to life. Shanti hosts weekly classes, monthly workshops & advanced training. The teacher training emerges out of hundreds of hours of study and practice and emphasizes the transformative power of yoga. Through more than 30 years of practice, Debbi embodies the personal empowerment of yoga as well as the evolving dynamic art and science of yoga. Debbi’s passion for teaching and modeling the yogic life has inspired Shanti’s expansion to several locations in Idaho and she leads teacher trainings and retreats throughout the US, Ecuador and Mexico. While she has studied with many master teachers, Debbi knows her greatest lessons are learned from her students. All her classes are grounded in sound biomechanics, mind-body-spirit integration, and her heart lies in the transitory nature of the beautiful flow in the vinyasa tradition. Debbi grounds herself in McCall and Boise Idaho with her husband Mike and she is currently enveloped in the love of her first grandbaby, Lily.