In yoga class we are regularly asked to focus on our breath. We are asked to bring our attention from the external world towards the inside. Slowly through the practice, we tune into a place within us that exists beyond our senses.
Sometimes it's easier, sometimes harder. But this is actually a part of a very important path in the eight fold practice of yoga, namely pratyahara, or the withdrawal of the senses.
Pratyahara and the Eight Limbs of Yoga
Asana practice is often seen as the main element of yoga although it is only one part of it. The classical yoga system, as described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, has eight steps that can be divided into external and internal yoga.
The first four limbs are seen as the external yoga. Here we are focused on our ethical standards (yama), our self-discipline (niyama), our physical yoga practice (asana), and the control of our breath (pranayama).
The fifth limb of yoga, pratyahara, can be seen as the bridge between external and internal yoga. It moves the practitioner towards the more subtle art of concentration and meditation, and finally to samadhi (enlightenment). The word 'pratyahara' stems from the Sanskrit prati and ahara. Prati means "against or away," and ahara is anything we take into ourselves from the outside.
Pratyahara is about withdrawing ourselves from any external information so we can hear the sounds from within.
Why is it important to practice pratyahara?
We receive a constant stream of information through our five senses. Needless to say in today's digital age, the flow of stimuli can be overwhelming, and it starts to get harder and harder to take a moment of sensory rest.
When we instantly react to the information our senses feed us, we are being pulled away from our inner peace into the fluctuating external world. The senses can easily take over, and we end up running from one impulsive reaction to the other, forgetting our higher goals in life.
How can one practice Pratyahara?
Our senses are essential for daily life, so how can we cultivate a practice of pratyahara? Luckily the answer is relatively simple: Anything that takes your focus away from the external impressions and creates peaceful and positive inner impressions is pratyahara.
Detox from the media.
We can start by withdrawing from the things that work against us, such as unhealthy food and toxic relationships. The mind cannot be healthy and strong if we are surrounded by unhealthy things, and this includes the media we choose to intake.
What kind of impressions are you feeding yourself through TV or social media? Is it inspiring, or is it junk-food for the mind? To distance yourself from this sensory overload, spend some time without media. Even if just few hours every other day, switch off the mobile, TV, and laptop, and turn your focus inward.
Move yourself into peace.
During asana practice, we release physical tension. This is vital for the mind to become quiet and is perfect preparation for the next phases of yoga. Cultivate elements of pratyahara by leaving the external world behind, and being fully present on your mat. Be aware of your senses and observe your reactions to them.
We cannot change what we are not aware of, and asana practice provides the perfect platform for self discovery. ~Kaisa Kapanen
Focus the mind and the senses will follow.
The mind can only take in a certain amount of the sensory input, so the energy flows where the mind goes. We can use this in pratyahara, and intentionally direct the mind inward, away from external stimuli. If the mind is controlled, the senses are controlled also.
You can start by directing your mind to one sense only, such as hearing. Next time you are in Savasana, allow your mind to focus on all the different sounds around you, far away and close by. Try not to judge or label the sounds, just listen. Once the mind gets used to the sounds, it will naturally focus more on the inside.
Patience and practice
Yoga is a process of discovery and growth. Just as asana practice takes time, so does practicing the mind. We cannot jump into Crow Pose on our first day of asana practice, but this doesn't mean we can't eventually get there. We should allow our mind the same freedom to grow and develop. Be patient, practice, and take each day as it comes.