Now that we’ve officially passed the halfway point in our exploration of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, this is where things start getting a little more…fuzzy. Until now, we’ve talked about things like physical postures, breathwork, and ethical guidelines. However, the remaining four limbs often seem less graspable to our Western minds. Let’s get into it, though!
The fifth limb is called Pratyahara, and it is most often translated as sensory withdrawal. Wait. What? How do we withdraw our senses and what does that even mean? While I can’t claim to be completely enlightened or any sort of spiritual guru, the experience that comes to mind for me when I think of sensory withdrawal is that feeling you get when you’re underwater. Now, I’m not talking about being pinned under a crashing wave or floundering about in some public swimming pool. If you’ve ever laid in a bathtub and let your whole body, head included, slide serenely down beneath the surface of the water and just rested there for a few moments, observing the warmth on your skin, the distant sounds drifting from some other room, you know what I’m talking about. Or perhaps you’ve had this same experience during Savasana at the end of a yoga class — your muscles were so relaxed and your mind so at ease, that it was almost like you could observe the sensations of the experience without reacting to them. Like you were there but at the same time not there.
This is Pratyahara.
Sensory withdrawal isn’t about withdrawing from life or from the world. It’s not about holing up and meditating all day or avoiding conflict or hard situations. It’s about withdrawing our senses enough to control our reactions and to observe the feelings, both physical and spiritual, that flow through us. This concept isn’t going to be crystal clear for most of us right away; it’s going to take some reflection and exploration to see just what this withdrawal means for own experience. In fact, I’m still learning, and I probably will be for many years to come!
So, how can we begin to practice Pratyahara on our own in everyday life? Because this kind of sensory withdrawal also requires that we get a handle on our senses and regulate what sort of stimuli we take in, start with your environment. Are you overstimulated? See if you can limit how many times you check your email every day. Are you in need of some stillness? Sneak a five-minute break for some conscious breathing. Are there toxic people in your life who are draining you of your energy? Try finding a way to interact with them less, even if it’s just visualizing a protective sheath of positivity around you. There are so many ways to practice Pratyahara, but if you start small and keep digging, you’ll stumble across your own path to this wonderful, intimate experience with yourself.