We use our senses all day long to be able to relate to the external world. But what happens if we bring our senses inwardly, to the world held inside of our skin? Doing so is what Patanjali named Pratyahara. This is the fifth limb of eight which make up a full yoga practice.
Through the day, we use our senses to be aware of, and interact with the external world. We don’t normally think about it, but we also have a whole universe so to speak, on the inside, of which we know very little. This lack of awareness, also minimizes our understanding of how profoundly what is going on inside, determines our experiences of the outside. It also minimizes our awareness of the intimate relationship between our minds and our bodies.
Do you like stillness? Do you like stillness and silence? Do you like stillness and silence when you’re all alone? Do you like stillness and silence when you’re all alone with your eyes closed?
Hhhmmm….maybe not so much…. This is the practice of pratyahara, and if it makes you scream NO WAY, either out loud or just in your mind, I want to first say that I empathize completely, but also encourage you to stay with me and keep reading.
Withdrawal of the senses is a beneficial thing to get used to doing. In the beginning it can feel like the LAST thing we want to do.
Here’s the thing, Pratyahara is not doing anything other than showing us the status quo. Mind is awareness itself. It can never be turned off. We are always aware of something from gross to subtle, from external to internal. If we remove the external stimuli, the mind will notice the internal world instead. It will notice the energetic holding patterns with which we are identifying in any given moment in time. On days when we feel comfortable, it can be a relatively easy thing to practise, but on other days, not so much.
Overtime though, if we do it on a regular basis, many beneficial things will begin to happen.
This practice can help us see how, things are always in flux. One day we notice an uncomfortable physical or emotional feeling, but then the next day it has completely disappeared. The phrase, “This too shall pass” takes on a very personal, reassuring meaning. We will know it’s just a temporary experience, that we can observe objectively, knowing it does not have to define us. We can stop buying into every single story and feeling, especially yucky ones, that normally make us develop aversion, freak out and run back to all the addictive habits we have, that do little more than distract or numb us.
Pratyahara can also give us a new way to use our senses and help us to develop a subtler view of phenomena and how things are interconnected.
Our human senses have limitations; there are certain sounds that the human ear misses, aspects of light we don’t see. The ways in which we relate to things, are often on very gross, solid physical levels. While these are practical and help us not bump into things, they are not very inspired ways of relating to our own potential.
In yoga we can kind of loosen things up a little bit. Getting still and learning how to enjoy just hanging out with ourselves, can help really spark whole new ways of relating to this astonishing energetic holding pattern that we call body and mind.
Let’s start with the body. We often relate to it in terms of its physical attributes because of what we see, hear and feel it do. More often than not, we also have a readily handy list of what we perceive to be its faults.
While I was starting my yoga practice in high school and university, I was studying a lot of math and science. I learned how we can look at the human body through different lenses.
If we look through the lens of biology, we understand how organs and tissues function and relate to one another. We mostly relate to the biological body on very superficial levels. More often than not, we generally relate just to the skin, which creates a kind of pretty package. If we open it up though, it’s all kind of a bit gross inside, but we don’t necessarily think about it very much. Biology can give us this level of understanding, but our senses are limited. Again, there are countless things our eyes cannot see and our ears cannot hear.
If we want to understand the body on a subtler or smaller level we need the lens of chemistry. Chemistry shows us the elements from which our bodies are made, and how these elements form all the molecules that make up our cells and that create all the chemical processes needed for our bodies to function. Elements and molecules are definitely missed by our eyes, ears and noses too. If we want to understand on an even subtler level, we need the lens of physics. Now I’m not pretending to be a physicist by any stretch of the imagination, but essentially, with this lens, the illusion of solidity comes and goes.
Again…. not the way we normally relate to our bodies.
It was a game-changing experience for me to be studying all this in university, while for the first time starting to really study yoga. In the yoga classes I heard about energy bodies, and other similar ideas for which I had no understanding from my upbringing. I had never heard people talk about my body in those ways. But from my physics and chemistry classes, I was starting to understand, that yes, I can relate to things in a very subtle way. Maybe the language is unique to each school of thought, but the message is essentially the same, and very encouraging.
Especially in the face of something about the body that feels uncomfortable or isn’t working quite the way in which we want it to, if we can loosen our minds up a bit and start to think of our bodies in subtler ways, we open up a whole new way for mind and body to relate to one another.
For example, for me up until that point, visualizations always seemed a bit hocus-pocus; I couldn’t understand how that worked. I didn’t appreciate deeply how what was going on in my mind truly impacted my body.
When I started to think about my body through these new lenses, and considered how it was not as solid as it seemed, then visualizing light or energy moving through the body seemed possible. The idea that positive thoughts, affirmations, prayer or mantra could improve my physical wellbeing made more sense. My mind felt more flexible to entertain these kinds of ideas.
We can also consider the idea that trillions of cells make up our bodies and that each one has the intention to move toward health and wellness. Right now, as you’re reading this, all of your cells are just chugging along, doing their cell jobs and you don’t have to stop and consciously think to make any of those things happen. Ever. Thank goodness, right?! We don’t ever have to stop and make metabolic processes happen, or tell our hearts to beat, or tell our lungs to breathe. We don’t have to coordinate all the countless neurological messages flying between our brains and our bodies. Contemplating these truths gives birth to an acceptance, that there is some kind of energetic intention or power, whatever you wish to call it, that is just working on our behalf all the time.
I like thinking about the body like this, especially when I do yoga, and especially when I come to stillness and meditation. It’s much more interesting and inspiring, and most importantly, it evokes an instant wish to make friends with and get in line with that life-force power and cellular momentum toward wellness. This perspective generates a wish to do whatever I can do in my life to step into that flow and support it.
My cells are going to try to thrive anyway, so why not work with my cells and make the obvious healthy choices?
Understanding healthy lifestyle choices is not rocket science: all of us know, relatively speaking, the check list: Eat whole colourful foods. Check. Exercise. Check. Enjoy community. Check. Create good sleep habits. Check. Drink water. Check. Enjoy beauty. Check.
One thing that is often at the bottom of the check list, if it’s even on it at all, is getting into the habit of developing positive mental habits. One of the most important practices is watching and listening to what my mind is getting up to, and training it in the habits that will support my body’s efforts to be healthy. This is an important piece.
Mental negativity, stress, anxiety, depression, profoundly hinder our bodies’ attempts to keep us healthy. All of those emotional experiences, especially when we don’t feel we have any control over them, move our bodies into states of emergency in which everything is effected and when those states are prolonged, often adversely so. We crave unhealthy foods and have trouble digesting what we do eat. We withdraw. We have no energy to exercise and this is exacerbated by how mental stress curtails rest and sleep. We can’t see beauty because of the veils negative thoughts place over all of our senses, so we experience the world in a distorted, untrue way.
For a lot of us, this is really something we deserve to consider. How do we bring the mind on board? Stillness and introspection can help us generate an understanding of cause and effect. We can notice how experiential patterns are interconnected between the mind and the body and between different parts of the body. With this understanding we can start to choose behaviours, mental verbal and physical, that bring us the comfort for which we are longing.
Pratyahara moves our bodies into states of rest and healing and allows us to offload mental and physical tension. During this time we can also observe how stories generate comfortable or uncomfortable experiences and start to choose to listen to and act upon the stories or beliefs that generate the former.
We indulge the negativity toward the body a lot in our culture. Sometimes, I think we even confuse it with humility. But our cells are listening, and whether negative thoughts are directed outwardly or inwardly they are still negative; the energy is still unproductive and harmful. Eventually if we want to be our healthiest, we deserve to create the causes for it on as many levels as possible.
We can’t have mental or physical comfort and indulge negative thinking; they are mutually exclusive.
The method by which we change our mental habits is meditation. It’s the tool that can help bring our minds under control. When our minds are balanced, all the systems of the body work better. We can feel this! We can observe it happen when we are still and our minds and senses are tuned into the inner world. For example, when our minds draw inwardly and we choose to develop concentration on the breath, then we feel muscle tension melt away, the knots in our stomachs dissolve, our breathing changes.
We want to relate to unplugging, getting still, drawing the senses inwardly and meditating like a way to spend time doing something that is soothing, and that gives us a chance to have a break. Avoiding doing this because we don’t like it when we notice something uncomfortable inside, does not mean the tension goes away because we choose not to pay attention to it. The moment life imposes this experience on us; when the power goes out, when our friends are unavailable and we have to spend time alone, or just simply when our heads finally hit our pillows at the end of the day so we can try to get to sleep, whatever internal experience we’ve avoided will be what we are forced to experience.
Alternatively, if we choose to consciously practice Pratyahara regularly, we start to develop confidence in our own capacity to comfort, relax, soothe and heal ourselves. Our cells rejoice and can more effectively strive to be healthy. Add this to all the other healthy choices we make then we have the best chance at being the most comfortable and the most healthy.
That is really what yoga is inviting us to do, to really look at what’s going on then to move toward comfort. How we define comfort can evolve, as it is a relative term. Given that the eighth limb of the path is enlightenment, we can understand that our experience of comfort can only get better and better.
There are aspects of human life that are uncomfortable; we can’t avoid them. The yoga practice of Pratyahara can help us transform how we think about them, and then our experiences of them changes.
Our senses are limited, and knowing this can help remind us to think about our bodies differently. If we choose a subtle view and get still and listen to, feel and look inwardly, naturally we will choose to keep our minds positive, and our relationship with our bodies loving. The more we choose to be positive, then when we get still, unplug, and close our eyes it will feel like a desirable way to spend time. We will use it to refresh, offload and reset and it will feel like relief and a refuge. Then, when we open our eyes and move into the world, it will look, feel, sound, taste and smell completely different. xo #WishpathYoga #WishpathHypnotherapy #Pratyahara
Meredith Brown BSc, RYT, CCH, CSP Registered Yoga Teacher