Here’s a quick refresher on the first four limbs of yoga:
- Yamas – avoidances (non-violence, non-stealing, truthfulness, non-excess, non-possessiveness)
- Niyamas – observances (purity, contentment, self-discipline, self-study, surrender)
- Asana – the physical poses of yoga
- Pranayama – harnessing the power of the breath
We’re now at the fifth limb, Pratyahara. As we progress along the eight limbs, the focus shifts from the external to the internal. Yoga is defined in the ancient texts as ‘the stilling of the movements of the mind’. So how do we get from the physical poses to a still mind? Pratyahara is like the bridge between the external and the internal. A bridge we must cross if we are to calm the turbulent waters of the mind.
Pratyahara means withdrawing the senses. I like to think of a turtle drawing its head and limbs into its shell. In its simplest form, pratyahara can be closing your eyes during your practice to reduce the sensory stimulation or tuning out the noises in and out of the room. Our breath and our five senses are what links our body and mind. Our five senses are how we experience the world around us. Our mind interprets the messages from our senses to give us our unique experience. Our senses are the input to our mind. So what if there is too much input? Too many messages to be interpreted by the mind? This is sensory overload and is something most of us suffer from. Our senses are constantly bombarded by TV, the internet, radio, newspapers etc and all of this is feeding directly into our mind – overstimulating it. Our mind’s job is to process the input from our senses and when there’s too much input our mind gets busier and busier trying to make sense of everything.
If we let them, our senses will dominate our mind – continuing to overload it. We’ve become so used to this constant stimulation that we don’t know how to keep our mind quiet. This can lead to stress, insomnia, anxiety and depression.
The ancient yogis recognised the importance of controlling the senses as a way of calming the mind. Pratyahara requires detaching from what’s going on in the external world and tuning in to your inner world. In our yoga practice, we often use the breath as a focal point to draw our attention inwards. Learning to pay less attention to the sounds, sights and smells in the room and more attention to what’s going on in our body and mind.
Pratyahara requires practice and discipline – it’s not that easy to switch the senses off. It is a foundation for an effective mediation practice, without which you will be constantly distracted by your senses.
Here’s some practical tips on developing pratyahara:
– Keep your gaze fixed on your drishti and resist the urge to glance all around the room
– Keep your gaze soft, looking with half-closed eyes
– Close your eyes as much as possible – in downward dog or child’ pose
– Focus on the sound and sensations of your own breath
– Focus on the feelings inside your body rather than outside
Become the turtle with your senses tucked safely inside your shell so that you can reduce the sensory burden on your mind.