On Mastering External Influences

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of pratyahara – or the withdrawal of the senses.

Pratyahara is one of Patanjali’s so called 8 limbs of yoga. I find it one of the most interesting, yet most overlooked limbs. While it is clear how to practice some of the other limbs – for instance, asana (the postures), the main limb practiced in contemporary Western yoga; or pranayama (breath work) – it is quite challenging, almost unimaginable, to think about how to practice pratyahara in our modern society. How do we withdraw from our senses – sight, taste, hearing, touch and smell? And why would we even want to do that? Aren’t our senses the ones enabling us to enjoy so many beautiful things in life? I agree, it is amazing to taste a good meal, to look at a sunrise, to listen to the sounds of the waves by the sea, and I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be able to enjoy this and much more in my life.

However, in our modern lives the problem arises when we are subject to a sensory overload through a constant information bombardment, and our lives become hostages of external influences that make their way to us through our senses. It becomes a problem when we go from one thing to the next without any awareness or when we “multitask” – something which somehow has been positively labelled in our productive society. In essence, when we are being led by our senses without consciously deciding what to pay attention to. How many times has it happened to us to open one of our social media accounts just to “check one quick thing” only to find ourselves sucked into a black hole of scrolling, jumping from one account to the other and checking out pictures of people we have never even met, avidly consuming instant information only to realise we just wasted two hours on social media, which we had not planned to spend that way? I’m sure most of us can relate to this. Responding to the world isn’t a problem in itself; it becomes a problem when I respond on autopilot mode rather than with actions I consciously choose.

Pic: sunroseyoga.com

Personally, I sometimes get overwhelmed by all of this external bombardment and feel the need to withdraw. Having always lived in cities and not being in close contact with nature doesn’t make it easier. Sometimes I feel the need to just sit on my own in a quiet room, close my eyes and just sink inside myself, withdrawing from everything else.

Sense withdrawal and relaxation doesn’t mean being passive, but being more controlled, trained and focused. It’s non-reaction to just anything that passes by. It’s conscious witnessing. Yoga teaches me to turn inwards and practice introspection. It teaches us to feel all of our feelings deeply and face our emotions, even if they are uncomfortable instead of being easily distracted by whatever pops up. Yoga teaches me to be more productive and focused in my everyday life and work, even though it looks like I am slower. I find that practicing pratyahara gives me a deeper conscious awareness and helps me in choosing what to act upon.

At the end of the day, practicing yoga in itself is practicing pratyahara

“Withdrawing the senses helps us come into the present moment without any filters. To come to a blank state where there is no projection, where we simply are.”

BKS Iyengar