During my first few months of taking yoga classes, we learned the classical
version of the sun salutation and were encouraged to bend backward deeply
during the first step of this twelve part series. Not only were we encouraged
to bend backward deeply, we were taught to take our head all the way back.
Occasionally someone would pass out in the middle of the movement. Luckily
no one was ever hurt during the fall to the floor. The fainting probably
occurred because one or both of the vertebral arteries in the neck were
momentarily occluded, thus reducing blood flow and oxygen to the brain.
What was interesting about this phenomenon was that this fainting was considered
by the other students in the class as some form of spiritual event. For
many years I have suspected that this sudden fainting and withdrawal from the world was not a spiritual event at all but a physiological one.
I still reflect however, on the confusion we all have about what it means
to withdraw from the senses and the world.
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the second chapter is filled with teachings
about the astanga or eight-limbed yoga system. The astanga system
is presented as a series of practices which begin with external limbs like
ethical precepts and move toward more internal limbs like meditation.
The fifth step or limb is called pratyahara and is defined as the
conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses. Almost without exception
yoga students are puzzled by this limb. We seem to inherently understand
the basic ethical teachings like satya which is the practice of
truthfulness, for example, or pranayama, the use of breath to effect
the mind, or the practice of conscious posture or asana. But for
most of us the practice of pratyahara remains elusive.
One way to begin to understand pratyahara on a experiential level is to
focus on a familiar yoga pose, savasana, the corpse pose. This pose is
done lying supine on the floor and is the practice of deeply relaxing.
The first stage of this asana is about physiological relaxation. In this
stage, as one becomes comfortable lying on the floor, there is first an
awareness of the muscles gradually relaxing, then the breathing slowing
and finally the body generally letting go of tension. While delicious,
this stage is only the beginning of the practice.
The next stage of savasana is different because it pertains to the mental sheath or
level. In the second stage of savasana there is a sense that one is withdrawing
from the external world without loosing contact with it. This is an experience
of pratyahara. Most of us know this state; when one is in this state it
feels like one is at the bottom of a well; the sounds that occur both in
and out of the room where one is lying are registered, for example, but
these sounds do not create disturbance in the body or mind. It is this
state of non-reaction that I am calling pratyahara. The actual registering
of input by the nervous system still occurs but there is virtually no interaction
with that input. There seems to be a space between stimulus and response.
In common parlance, one is in the world but not of it.
For years I interpreted the teachings I heard about pratyahara to mean
that I must physically and literally withdraw from the world in order to
be a true disciple of yoga. I would react with dismay at this teaching;
I was an engaged person, busy studying physical therapy in school to improve
my yoga teaching, additionally I was married and contemplating having several
children. I sometimes worried that unless I learned to separate myself
from the world I was a lesser or inferior yoga student.
Today I feel differently, I realized life is about interaction and that
many of those interactions are about conflict: conflict with those I love
and conflict with those I do not. In fact, I do not even need another person
to be in conflict. I can be, and occasionally am, in conflict within myself.
How am I to withdraw when I am so completely enmeshed in relationships,
in life, in the world as a whole?
I like to believe that Patanjali means something different from a simple
from life. Today the practice of pratyahara means to me that while I participate
in the task at hand, I remain separate from my reactions. In other words,
no matter how much meditation and postures and breathing I practice, I
still continue react to the people and situations around me. This reaction
in and of itself is not the problem; my attachment to the reaction is.
Where the practice of pratyahara is manifested is the space between the
stimulus that comes into my nervous system via the sense organs and my
reaction to that stimulus.
Practice gives me the choice about my reaction. I can choose to dance with
that stimulus or I can choose to step back and not add my conscious
participation with the stimulus. In other words, the variable is me and
how I choose to use my energy. If I physically retreat to a cave in the
mountains I can still agitate my nervous system; I can still generate thoughts
and re-live past reactions which are stimulating. To me the practice of
pratyahara is not about running away from stimulation which is basically
impossible anyway, but rather practicing pratyahara is about remaining
in the middle of a stimulating environment and consciously not-reacting
I can also incorporate the practice of pratyahara into my asana practice.
This occurs when I hold a pose; as I remain still I can and often do have
a myriad of thoughts about staying or coming up. I have thoughts of judgment
about whether I am doing the pose well or not so well. At
these times I can choose to withdraw my energy from my thoughts about the
pose and focus instead on the pose itself. Sometimes I remember to do this
and sometimes not. What is interesting about this process is my urge to
escape from the reality at hand. This is not pratyahara but is simply an
attempt to escape difficulty, in effect to escape by withdrawing into thought. I find I use this tactic all day long; I escape with my thoughts
during boring meetings, during unwanted phone calls, during repetitive
but necessary tasks. This is not the withdrawal of pratyahara and therefore
actually has the effect of taking me further from myself, the opposite
of spiritual practice.
Another way I have begun to practice pratyahara is to pay attention to
to seek out stimulation as an escape. I try to remain conscious and notice
when I want to escape from my life by finding highly stimulating
environments. For example, I sometimes want to go to a movie to escape;
sometimes I want to go to the mall. Please be clear, it is not the activity
of going to the mall or a movie that is in and of itself problematic. Rather,
it is using these stimulating activities to escape which is problematic
because it interferes with my intention of being present.
When I was a child I used to love to go on carnival rides; the stimulation
of the roller coaster would shut out all other awareness. Now that I am
a student of yoga I am more aware of the urge to drown out my conflicts
by over-stimulation. The process of noticing my paradoxical attempts to
withdraw by escaping into more stimulation is powerful way for me to incorporate
pratyahara into my daily life. It is at these moments that I begin to understand
the difference between withdrawing and escaping, between pratyahara and
forgetting my practice. Learning to incorporate my yoga practice into my
daily life in this way is a challenge but it is one that gives meaning
and direction to my life.