When I first showed up in a yoga class, I had very simple motivations: get out of the house, move my body so I might become more flexible, and make my mother happy (*shrug*). She and I drove to a nearby multigenerational center – where the yoga students’ average age was definitely 65+ – and set up our mats. After the first class, I felt like my body had gotten a good workout, my mother had an extremely satisfied air while asking (repeatedly) what I enjoyed about yoga, and my mid-20’s ego had been knocked down a few notches (have you ever been 40 years younger than everyone in a room? And the only one whose hands can’t reach past their knees in forward fold? It couldn’t have been bionic hip replacements that made everyone in that class more flexible than me, since they were stronger and more balanced, too. I swallowed a big ole dose of humility that day). I decided to keep showing up…for the physical benefits.
Can you guess what happened next? It’s a pretty relatable story, to the point that it’s almost cliché – the more I went to yoga (which was still humbling, physically), the more I started noticing a difference in my state of mind. I became hooked on feelings – feeling calm, quiet, “centered” when I left the room. I had, unbeknownst to me, discovered Yoga’s secret, addictive, bring-you-back-come-hell-or-high-water sauce: it’s actually about cultivating your state of mind; the body toning is a side benefit.
Had I been at all versed in Yoga philosophy before starting a class, this revelation would not have been surprising – in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, of the 8 limbs we cultivate on the path, literally half of them pertain to meditation. The other four can create some pretty amazing side effects out in the world, sure, but they’re mostly there to prepare us for a deeper meditation and, ultimately, that sought-after realization.
This month, in researching and studying the 5th limb of the Yoga Sutras, pratyahara, I learned that it’s actually inextricable from the 6th, 7th, and 8th limbs – the limbs that describe the meditative states. However, when practicing this philosophy, we’re cultivating all 8 aspects at the same time; this is why they are yoga “limbs” instead of yoga “steps.” (Just picture a tree growing one limb at a time before starting a new one. Weird, right? Another visual is having people grow one limb at a time, but that’s a slightly disturbing mental image for me, so I stick with the tree metaphor.) The reason pratyahara was presented first among the meditative limbs is because it is the most external of the four, since it has to do with the senses as well as the mind.
Pratyahara is translated as “withdrawal of the senses,” and refers to the experience of being so involved with something that our senses no longer distract us.
Remember, one big goal of yoga is to reconnect with unchanging pure awareness (purusha) in this ever-changing world we experience (prakriti). When the senses distract us, jumping from a beautiful sight – to a funny smell – to a startling sound – like we’re some kind of demented squirrel desperately trying to gather up a windblown nut smorgasboard – we are stuck in prakriti and disconnected from purusha. We also feel scattered to the wind, with the mind tumbling from one topic to another without being able to complete a task or thought…and it’s either disheartening, or, soberingly, our version of normal.
Experiencing pratyahara is resting in that state of total absorption, so that our senses don’t pull us every which way. This doesn’t mean they cease to exist; rather, they are either out of our awareness (i.e., “offline”) or completely in service to our focus. Pratyahara can occur in numerous settings; yes, it is sitting in stillness, resting with the breath, without snuffling after the delicious chocolate-chip-cookie smell wafting through our room; it is also reading a book so intently that we don’t realize we need to pee. It can even be discussing a topic so intently with another that the crying children and clattering plates of the restaurant fade out of our awareness. Despite what’s happening in the world around us, we’re able to stay focused and connected to the object we’re absorbed in.
As my examples show above, we don’t have to pigeonhole our thinking about what ‘meditation’ looks like. Sitting in stillness looking blissful af isn’t the only way to reach a clear state of mind, although it’s often a good starting point (alright, I admit, the “blissful af” look is optional). A seated meditation, especially with closed eyes, helps us to limit the number of outside distractions that can call our attention away – like the senses do. But you may have noticed, closing the eyes is an easy stop to sight, whereas closing the ears or ceasing to feel? Well, that’s extraordinarily difficult.
Here’s the other kicker – you can’t go out to your local yoga studio, unroll your mat, take a seat, and practice pratyahara. (Say what?!) You read that right. Can’t do it. Not in a studio, not on a prop (not on a horse that goes clippity-clop – ahem. Forgive me, Dr Suess). Pratyahara is not a verb; it’s not something you can do on command. Just like “goosebump-ing” or even “falling asleep” aren’t command-able actions – they, like pratyahara, are states that arise when we create the right conditions. As you practice directing the mind to an object and becoming absorbed with it, you’ll simply find yourself in a state where senses (some or all) are offline.
Now, though we can’t directly practice pratyahara, it doesn’t mean there isn’t something to strive for or grow towards here. Becoming fully absorbed by an object is part of the process of realization – of living in the world without being buffeted by it, with a calm, clear, stable, and sattvic mind. We absolutely want to practice creating the conditions for pratyahara to arise, and two of the best ways are (surprise, surprise) through asana (movement) and pranayama (breath work).
Imagine what it would feel like to have control over your perceptions. To have a tool available to you at any moment, in any location, to bring about more clarity and focus. That’s what we’re cultivating. Being fully involved in your life without being drawn and quartered by the senses’ impulses. So I invite you to start cultivating the conditions. Begin with noticing where in your life pratyahara occurs easily. Do you become fully absorbed in conversations? Beautiful sunsets? Music that moves your heart? Observe your mind’s habits.
Then, armed with observation, begin practicing the greater context – create a stability of focus that allows absorption to arise and pratyahara to occur. Next time you come to your mat, set an intention to be fully involved. Choose whether that means absorption in the breath, immersion in the sensations in each pose, or holding an image/idea/concept in your mind throughout your practice session. Let go of trying to ‘do’ anything specific, and instead keep focusing the attention on that area. Encourage awareness of this focus to expand and captivate you throughout the practice, and check in at the end. Did you stop hearing? Seeing? Smelling? Did ‘you’ go away at some point, leaving only the experience of the moment? Foster these conditions, and keep gently examining the result. Successful or no, you’ll find, over time, that same experience that hooked me – a calmer, clearer, centered mind.