Pratyahara: Withdrawing the Senses

Originally written by Zara M on  29 November 2013

I may have mentioned in a previous blog about a kind of calm and meditative state that I happened to enter during a yoga class, which was similar to the kind of feeling that many of us also have the pleasure of experiencing when dancing Tango? Well, apparently in yoga there is a word for this – it is called the practice of Pratyahara. Unfortunately I was unable to attend the Yoga4Tango class last weekend in which the practice of Pratyahara was to be the theme, so I decided instead to do some practice at home by myself to explore the subject a little deeper. I didn’t have much luck with it though, and I will tell you why…

Pratyahara is often referred to in yoga as the fifth limb, and described as “the conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses”.  It refers to the possibility of a person being present in a particular environment (i.e. aware of activity), yet detached (in a responsive sense) from what is happening around them, and also from what is happening inside of their own head (i.e. thoughts).

You would think that it would be far easier to detach oneself from outward thoughts and observations, and funnel that energy inward in order to focus on the ‘self’, when in the privacy and quiet of one’s own bedsit; in my experience, this turned out not to be the case! Actually, I found that practicing yoga alone challenged my concentration, focus and the possibility of entering a meditative state more than usual, and left me feeling rather frustrated.

I was at home with no distractions, and I couldn’t seem to drift off into that peaceful state at all during my practice, because I was thinking about how awkward my downward dog was, how short my hamstrings are, and whether my landlady was about to knock on my door and demand rent. The funny thing is that I can lose myself in this wonderful mental state of conscious detachment during a tanda, in a dancehall full of couples interweaving on a dance floor; movement, conversation and movement happening all around me. So what is the secret? How do you actively turn your mind off to the point where your mind is aware, but does not respond to all of this mental and physical activity? Is it something you can control, or does it just happen sometimes, like magic?

Perhaps it is similar to the experience of taking one’s work to do whilst sitting in a busy coffee shop, which is where I am right now. I am sitting here; working and episodically staring at my laptop screen. Behind me is a group of rowdy students who feel the need to shout over each other in order to get any attention. Over there is a mother whose screaming child wants to get out of the buggy, but the mother isn’t having any of it. At the front of the shop the coffee machine is making such an unnecessary racket, and the guy behind the counter is barking each order back at the overworked Barista. I can’t concentrate on my work at all of course, but I do keep slipping off into a weird meditative state, whereby I am staring at my screen, not really thinking about anything at all; still totally aware of the chaos happening around me, but not taking any active part in it. Am I slipping in and out of a pratyahara state right now, without even realizing it? How annoying, when I struggle on the yoga mat at home, failing to focus when actually putting my mind to it! Or is that the key? Not to put your mind to it?

Maybe it is easier for a person like me to slip in and out of such a state of mind when in this buzzing sort of public environment, simply because I am so used to feeling quite separate from the world around me anyway. When I am alone however, at home, suddenly I find that I am not so alone after all because I have a head full of voices; an internal monologue that just won’t shut up, unless it is drowned out by a world happening around me.

Sometimes I sit on a busy bus during rush hour and I stare out of the window not really thinking about anything or looking at anyone, but conversation and life is happening; on the bus, outside of the bus, next to me, in front of me, behind me… and I am oblivious. Often I am just focusing, without really realizing it, on the feeling of the bus moving around my body; and yet I am on it, moving with it, we are moving together, the bus and I. Is pratyahara about merging with your environment? Sometimes when I am at a milonga I find myself not really taking part in one-to-one conversations properly, because my mind and body has already merged with the environment. I’m sure people must think I am rude, but I really can’t help it. Or perhaps I don’t want to.

I wonder if any of you have the opposite experience to my dilemma? Do you find it easier to enter a state of pratyahara when you are alone? Is that because you are more used to interacting with the world around you when you are in it? Is our experience of pratyahara in yoga affected by whether we are introverted or extroverted people? If so, then maybe we can use this self-knowledge to challenge ourselves and learn how to adapt and merge with the different environments in which we practice yoga?

Yoga is all about constant self-discovery, and taking what we learn about ourselves back out into the world. I want to learn to quiet down the incessant inner monologue that separates me from the world I inhabit. Perhaps through my exploration of pratyahara in my personal yoga practice I will learn how to clear my mind when I most need it, when I am at home by myself; and then when I am out in the world I will be awake, with less thought clouding my mind, and I will be ready to interact!

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