16 Nov Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
This piece was originally published in the OWY newsletter in January of 2014.
Previously I talked about pranayama. As a quick review the 8 limbs of yoga are:
- Yamas (external restraints)
- Niyamas (internal observances)
- Asana (postures)
- Pranayama (breath control)
- Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (meditation)
- Samadhi (absorption)
When I first heard pratyahara explained it was when reading the book The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar. He explains withdrawal of the senses as similar to when you are absorbed in doing something. His example was giving a talk to a group of people. While doing this his awareness would focus on the task of giving a lecture, so if someone was sitting to the side of him and, say, started making funny faces at him he would not readily notice because he was so intensely focused on what he was saying.
Most of my life I have drawn. From grade school on I would constantly sketch in the margins of homework and notes. So I could relate to this example. I would often lose hours drawing or painting, and while lately I haven’t spent as much time as I used to drawing, when I do time tends to disappear.
I think this is a good beginning in explaining pratyahara, but there are many activities that I lose time in where I don’t know if it would be considered pratyahara as much as going on auto pilot and being in my head fantasizing.
For instance, I love to walk in nature. When I was in the Seattle area over the past summer I took advantage of nice weather and regularly went on day hikes in the mountains. I truly lost time. Many times my destination was a mountain lake, and once I got there it did not seem like 1-3 hours had passed since I hit the trailhead. I walked with determination most of the time, losing track of information my senses were picking up, but not focused on walking. Sure there were times when I was like a laser beam, focused on hiking the switchbacks. But most of the time I was considering my work and life situations, having arguments or debates with people in my head that weren’t going to happen in real life, and generally trying to solve the world’s problems. Not really pratyahara. More like body on auto pilot while the mind goes and plays with itself and drags me along for the ride. Multi-tasking at it’s finest.
So while my attention may have been withdrawn from my senses for the most part, checking in with my senses to various degrees when the hill grade changed or my body was trying to tell me to take a break, I was really just a slave of my mind for most of the time that went by quickly.
Withdrawing the senses in yoga is about turning inward. My mind is always looking for a distraction. First it looks to the senses for something to play with and catch my attention. Then it starts making up it’s own stuff to draw me in. So we take that away from the mind. Not violently, but by doing things like paying attention to our breath. Or paying attention to one sense like our hearing as we do in practices like yoga nidra. We focus, or concentrate, moving further on in the eight limbs but not going on auto pilot as our minds to to catch us up with a song and dance.
So when do you lose time? What are the qualities of those activities that you lose time in? Are you truly focused on that thing, taking your attention away from the senses in any way that does not support the activity? Or is it an activity that you are doing on auto pilot while you get involved with your mind in various ways about other important things? What ways can you bring yourself more into every thing that you do?
Continues to the final three limbs, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi.