In the movie Eat Pray Love, there's a scene at an Indian ashram in which Julia Roberts's character struggles to sit still during a group meditation. Her inability to quiet her thoughts and relax for more than a minute impels her to burst out of the room in frustration. Well, Roberts is one hell of an actress, because, unbeknownst to us, she's actually quite the yogi in real life. During a three-hour-long chat with the veteran actress for our September issue, our intrepid editor Ariel Foxman discussed everything from the star's storied career to her picture-perfect family life (her husband Danny Moder even dropped by to say hello). But in addition to a demanding work schedule and making home-cooked meals for her brood, another part of Roberts's routine may be contributing to her world-famous megawatt smiles as of late. "I've been working on one of the eight limbs of ethical yoga called Pratyahara," she divulged during the interview. "I could do it for years."
In the yoga community, the "eight limbs of yoga" to which Roberts is referring is termed Ashtanga: an ancient form of yoga based on eight principles that involves a rapid, intense succession of poses, with the ultimate goal of moving the practitioner from a physical to a meditative state. Pratyahara is the fifth "limb" in this process. According to Larissa Hall Carlson, Dean of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda, an educational center for holistic health located in the Berkshires area of Massachusetts, it's a crucial step between the physical and mental aspects of yoga. "Pratyahara means 'sense withdrawal,'" she told InStyle. "It's about letting go of all distractions and not paying attention to other people in the room or sounds or sights. The senses are given a fast so the mind has the opportunity to dive inward and scan the internal environment." In sum, it's the level that allows the practitioner to prepare for the final stages of meditation.
Roberts added, "It's supposed to become part of your natural composition: non-grasping, non-hoarding, non-clinging—in a spiritual sense and in a literal sense, like cleaning out your closet and letting go of things you know you're not going to wear anymore." Carlson agreed: "There's a non-grasping to external stimulation—it's about being at peace with what's inside." Practicing Pratyahara is simple: All you need to do is sit in a meditative posture (aka cross-legged) with your hands resting on your lap, close your eyes, and start noticing the "sensations of your body," says Carlson (think: breathing, tingling, pulsating etc.). But since it's viewed as a pit-stop on the pathway to meditation, it's recommended that practitioners prepare by first performing five to fifteen minutes of postures to loosen up and relax the body, as well as five to fifteen minutes of breathing exercises. Then, voilà! A free mind.
So what's the grand goal of Pratyahara? "An advanced practitioner is able to move through the world with more skillfulness and can remain peaceful in a chaotic or stressful environment," Carlson said. And while some, like Roberts, view it as a lifelong practice, Carlson insists newbies can see results just as quickly. "It can be profoundly stirring to sit peacefully and quietly and follow your breath and emotions—it allows for self-regulation and stress-reduction." We could all probably use a little bit of that.
For more of our interview with Roberts, pick up the September issue of InStyle, on newsstands and available for digital download now.
—Reporting by Ariel Foxman