In my studies on the 8 Limbs of Yoga detailed in the Yoga Sūtras, the 5th limb of yoga, pratyāhāra, has been the most difficult practice for me to grasp. Perhaps because it is a lesson I truly need to learn. Its precept is the withdrawing of the senses. At first, I only thought of this in a very literal manner: to tune out all stimuli and distractions. Don’t let the phone, email, social media, TV, radio, news, blah, blah, blah, consume you. I am actually pretty good at setting limits on each of these distractions and thought I “mastered” the practice of pratyāhāra.
However, as I started reading and studying more about pratyāhāra, I realized, like the other limbs of yoga, there is a deeper level of meaning and way to practice it. Pratyāhāra encourages us to be present in the now, and not react to what is going on around us.
Let’s take a closer look
For example, let’s image you are enjoying reading a book on the beach and you hear people gossiping, you feel the heat of the sun on your back, you smell the freshly made doughnuts from the shop on the boardwalk, but instead of thinking, worrying or planning about each of those experiences, you just let them go. You notice the sense you are experiencing, but you don’t engage, instead you acknowledge and release.
The benefits from letting go frees you from suffering: you don’t get angry by what those people are gossiping about, you don’t worrying that the heat is making you sweat a little, you don’t feel bad that you can’t have a doughnut because you’re on a diet. Instead you just enjoy the great book you are reading.
How I practice pratyāhāra
The easiest place for me to experience this “non-clinging” of the senses is when I’m in an āsana class. I am focused on the postures, my drishti (gaze) and linking breath to movement. Most of my fellow yogis are focused on the same things, making this environment conducive to practicing pratyāhāra.
But it gets a bit more challenging to practice it in daily life, off the mat. (Coincidentally, as I’m writing this section the landscapers just started mowing the lawn right outside my office window! Total distraction!) How do I not react? If it is a negative experience, my typical instinct is to withdraw, escape/avoid the situation. If it’s a positive experience, I tend to cling to it. Again, how do I not react?
Here is what wise teachers have instructed me to do:
Step 1 - stop and take a few long breaths.
Step 2 – mentally list a few things you’re grateful for.
These two steps help you to intercept your reaction, it settles you down which in turn helps you to refocus on the task at hand. It does work---I have forgotten about the landscapers!
This, like yoga in general, is something we have to practice every day—that is life. We are always practicing, we are always learning, and guiding ourselves to live a happier more meaningful life.
Written by OM Matters Founder, Tambra Wayne