Pratyahara is often defined as ‘withdrawal of the senses’. And most people read that, have some sort of reaction and think, “I could never do that”. It is this concept that can really freak people out when it comes to practicing yoga or meditation. I think that this is one of the most misunderstood ideas within Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It is also a concept that when truly understood and integrated can be the gateway into incredible freedom.
I am by no means a scholar of philosophy. I am simply a student of life, practice, commitment, curiosity and Self study. The insights I would like to share are from my personal contemplations with Pratyahara and experimentation with ‘withdrawal of the senses’ in different ways. Honestly, they could be completely wrong but they work for me!
There was a length of time when I took this verse very, very literally. Where I thought that I should not feel anything. I shouldn’t feel pain, sadness, even joy. It was somehow wrong of me to feel immense awes when gazing into the milky way on a clear night. I attempted to numb the amount that I could literally feel by attempting to not pay attention to sensations themselves. I did what most people are afraid of when they hear the term ‘withdrawal of senses’. And coming from a very small town in Vermont without the proper guidance, I was my own navigator. So I tried relentlessly to not feel and it was horrible. What was most horrible, was the immense aloneness and vast emptiness that I felt. I believe that the teachings of ancient traditions are guides to help us be better humans. To show up aligned and alive for ourselves, others and our communities. Numbing myself out to aloneness was not making me a better human. So I thought-there must be another way to look at this.
First let’s look at the nature of the senses. Very simply, the senses gather information from our environment, both external and internal, and give us feedback that we use to take action. They have the ability to be in many places at once and to keep us safe. Where the senses get a bad wrap are when we point the finger outside of ourselves and think that it is because of this thing outside of me, that I can not control that I am suffering. I am writing this while the ice cream cart plays it’s summer song on it’s journey through the neighborhood! If I were to blame the icecream carts song or the traffic outside for not allowing me to think then I would be victim to my senses. This causes suffering.
The question then is how do we not become victims of our senses? The invitation of Pratyahara is exactly that. What if our senses are here to serve pure awareness through the recognition that nothing in my experience is happening outside of me? It’s a bit of a riddle but just let it settle. NOTHING in your experience is happening OUTSIDE of you. I may hear the ice cream cart, but my response to it and relationship to that response, aka feeling, comes from inside of me and that IS my experience. This is withdrawal of the senses in its essence. Taking back your power from the external world of blame and turning the finger inside. Life as we experience it is a manifestation of our relationship to our reactions. And those reactions, responses, thoughts and feelings are ours and ours alone.
This could either really excite you or really piss you off. And either is perfect. But the only way you can know if this could be a gateway to freedom is to put yourself into the experiment. So what are some things that you can do to step into this idea of Pratyahara?
Mantra: I am the creator of my Reality. When things are great, when things are rough. When you are working, working out, or at the grocery store with the crying child in line in front of you. You are the creator of your reality.
Take a deep breath: Breath offers a sacred pause when there is a tendency to react. Even the second of reacting differently begins to change your brain and your inner sense of Being. We all have habitual patterns in the way we respond that are like superhighways within the mind. Changing these patterns all begin by choosing a pause, creating space between you and the reaction where you realize you are not the reaction or the feeling behind it.
Mindfulness breaks: Throughout the day set a timer for 1-3 minutes and simply focus on your breath. This simple break will remind you that you are not the never ending to-do list or the 50 emails that need responding to. Again, it is all about creating space for you to recognize you have the power to create your relationship with life.
Who does this belong to?: This is a great question that you can ask to any thought, feeling or emotion as it arises. Chances are that when you ask it, the sensation will lighten up as you viscerally realize it does not belong to you. Figuring out the source of the thought/feeling doesn't matter because we are like walking radio antennas that not only transmit but receive information all the time. Asking ‘who does it belong to?’ immediately lightens the load of what we are carrying and will help you differentiate between what you feel as being yours or of the world.
Unplug: Give yourself a break from your devices. I am sure that Patanjali would have never saw this coming as advice for establishing Pratyahara! Consciously limiting the amount of information coming in will help you experience life as it is. Pair this with the following suggestion for amazing results.
Get Outside: Nature is one of the most pure reflections that we have. Being in nature reminds us that we are made from the same elements that love so much when we lay in a grassy meadow and watch the puffy clouds. Or sit by a river or ocean and feel our own inner tides and rhythms. Nature helps us feel our essential truth. So get out there and hug yourself by hugging a tree!
There is such an incredible sense of freedom when you begin to work with this concept throughout each day. Each moment is an opportunity to really, truly claim your experience. All of the power is yours to author your life. Pratyahara is the gateway from external to internal. The golden archway that leads to the most brilliant treasure. You.