One of the eight limbs of yoga that doesn’t get a lot of attention is Pratyahara. TKV Desikachar in The Heart of Yoga defines Pratyahara: “to withdraw oneself from that which nourishes the senses.”
Our world is designed in complete opposition to Pratyahara. We are constantly bidden to indulge all of our senses. Media, books, food, sex, music, exercise constantly vie for our attention. To be sure they can all be useful in their proper proportion and place.
As we seek to progress along the yogic path, the path to super consciousness and the development our full human potential, it is essential to cease nourishing the senses in order to still the fluctuations of the mind that keep us captive to the illusion that our senses are all that there is to life. It is not a matter of trying to avoid the other interesting parts of life that can be so wonderful, rather the practice of Pratyahara takes place during meditation. We become absorbed in concentration on the breath and mantra so that mental distraction is eliminated.
We close our eyes. We sit still. We listen inwardly. These are simple, profound and not altogether easy acts to accomplish. The mind whirls with activity; the body may fidget or feel uncomfortable causing us to move which breaks our concentration.
Consistent asana practice will allow us to sit motionless. Motionless sitting helps to calm the “ripples” of mental fluctuation. Absolute command of the body in stillness is key to developing one-pointed concentration. We are able to lose our constant sense of the body. It feels sort of like levitation or suspension of physical being.
Ambient noise can be a challenge to withdrawing our sense of hearing. A technique I’ve used recently is the use of ear plugs. Household noise, barking dogs, traffic and other common sounds are easily muted with a pair of simple foam earplugs. If you want to get fancy you can use some noise cancelling headphones.
When I began using ear plugs I became aware of the pace and quality of my breath. With the ears closed I could hear the noise of my breathing. I realized how loud and unrefined my breath normally is. I could hear the friction of air against my nostrils and the vacuum of my expanding lungs. I began to soften and lengthen my breath so that I could no longer hear my breath. I started to watch the wave of the breath created by the filling of my belly and rising through my torso into my heart. I felt the lovely massage of each breath. I followed each measure of breath with acute awareness. I gently paused at the top of my inhale and bottom of my exhale to reestablish my awareness of being here now. This absorption in the breath without sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch helps the aspirant to develop a reliable, consistent, deep meditation.
I commend you to your practice of Pratyahara. It will yield great results. Your meditation will become deeper. You will develop an awareness of your very soul. As you do you will experience the growing strength and stability of your character. The fluctuations that so often carry us away will begin to lose some of their pull. You will learn how to cultivate peace at will.
With such a practice many wonders await to be explored. The fulfillment of who we can be is calling us. Our destiny lies in the mastery that Pratyahara can give us.