Pratyahara: Fully Exhausted


To consider pratyahara in spring can seem counter intuitive. Pratyahara syncs with the mood of fall or winter – the hibernating, inward times of the year. Yet, spring can perhaps be the best time to work with pratyahara practice.

Right in the midst of the warmer rays of the sun, the coloring of nature, and the rising call of birds drawing us out and out – can we balance? Can we do all of the things we’ve been waiting to do, for what might seem like a very long snowy cold time? AND can we cultivate being exhausted from our activities out of a fullness of experience, rather than a draining one?

We’ve all experienced both of those types of exhaustion – from fullness, and from being drained.  A single hour spent with a certain person can demonstrate this easily to us.  The end of a full day of activity hinges on this.  It also directly affects our willingness to repeat the activity.  Scientific studies  have shown that the closing of an activity most directly influences how we remember the entire event.

Pratyahara as an off-the-mat practice (fueled by focused on the mat sessions), is a tool that can leave us feeling balanced at the end of the day, and ready to continue our explorations all spring/year long.

The Flying World

Be aware of how you’re expending your energy.  And not in the take-a-child’s-pose-when-you-get-tired kind of way.  In the nuanced way of the senses – how are your senses being drawn out without you even being away?  Those of you who have ever walked down 34th Street, a mall, or 5th Avenue and found yourself at the end needing several items you hadn’t even thought of at the start, have experienced how easily we are drawn out by the world around us.  Our senses are designed to interact with the world in a finely tuned manner that coordinates our every thought, movement, and breath.

“The moving world flies toward this sensitive instrument from all directions.” Stephen Batchelor

And without us being aware of this – it flies off with us.  To remain grounded cultivate an awareness of how often your eyes move from object to object (at the ocean for example, try to either follow one wave the whole way in, or take in the entire panorama of ocean before you, instead of jumping from wave to wave), take note of how often smell dictates your eating or destination choices, be aware of how much temperature affects your mental activity and mood – and the energy expended to mediate it, can you choose what you listen to as carefully as you choose what to wear or how you decorate your home?  Really dig into how you are consciously using your senses.


Stephen Batchelor continues:

“As soon as it makes contact, it resonates inside you with an ineffable but distinctive tone. The experience of the world is colored with a rich range of feelings and moods which we cannot help having. Each experience registers somewhere along a spectrum between ecstasy and agony. Pay attention to this tonal quality, observing how it permeates both body and mind – but is singularly difficult to pin down.”

Buds-TreeWhat the trees know

Trees are excellent examples. They have stored energy all winter – remaining inward.  Then spring arrives and they bud, bloom, branch, root, and grow at phenomenal rates. They are drawing in sun and water with great vigor. They bloom for an entire season, but never wilt at the end of the day. Can we do that?

Pratyahara: Withdraw to Interact

In the first pratyahara blog, the traditional translation of “withdrawal of the senses” was discussed.  Like many yoga practices – it can seem as if we’re being led in, and consequently away, from the world.  Away from the lives we’re actually motivated to live more fully, more awake with the present moment. i-think-you-are-shirt

Michael Stone once encouraged students to “withdraw your idea of others and the self” – as opposed to withdrawing from society or the natural world. I love the practice of withdrawing my ideas of who someone is, especially those I am closest to.  A practice I invite you try out today, if you have yet to do so.

In the cyclical intertwined nature of the sutras, this practice of cultivating sensory equanimity, actually fuels our ability to more readily and adeptly interact with others and live into the preceding sutras.  The more we’re aware of the interaction between our sense organs and sense objects – the more we’re able to watch the thoughts, perceptions, and reactions that result.  From there, we’re able to see more clearly what is happening right now. Or as Bernie Glassman says, it’s “the ability to approach a situation without superimposing what you know.”

When you practice asana next be aware of the sense(s) you most dwell in – where are you most distracted? Can you use the breath to tune into all the senses equally, and so not be drawn out from the present moment by any one?

“How do we live a balanced life in an unbalanced time? How does our practice help us to maintain the sensory equanimity we need to participate effectively in our families and communites?” Michael Stone

“Only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.” Rilke

Pratyahara: A matter of sense (the 5th limb)

sva-viṣayāsamprayoge ćittasya sva-rūpānukāra ivendriyāṇāṁ pratyāhāraḥ

When consciousness interiorizes by uncoupling from external objects, the senses do likewise; this is called withdrawal of the senses. PYS II.54

Tatah parama vasyata indriyanam 

Then comes the spontaneous, complete and natural mastery over all the senses, that is to say, the natural self-discipline to hold on to I-AM. PYS II.55

turtle in shellWithdrawal of the senses is the traditional translation of pratyahara. Often described as a turtle withdrawing its limbs into its shell, pratyahara can seem a bit esoteric and unattainable outside of a sensory deprivation tank or sleep.

Added to that is science’s ever growing understanding that 1) Our senses are limited in perceiving the true nature of reality (think quantum mechanics and how the computer you’re reading this on is more space than solid) 2) Our senses are intrinsic and vital to our evolution and survival as humans – and therefore are automatic and embedded in the brain:

“The goal of every living brain, no matter what its level of neurological sophistication, from the tiny knots of nerve cells that govern insect behavior on up to the intricate complexity of the human neocortex, has been to enhance the organism’s chances of survival by reacting to raw sensory date and translating it into a negotiable rendition of a world…brain

None of [our] quintessentially human accomplishments would have been possible without the brain’s ability to generate rich, effective, and meaningful perceptions of the world.”
– Andrew Newberg, M.D. (Why God Won’t Go Away)

Yet yoga philosophy insists that pratyahara is not only attainable, but vastly possible.  Science philosophy suggests doing so might allow us to peer closer into the nature of reality. The good news is that both asana and meditation offer concrete ways to encourage* pratyahara.

1) Dristhi – Every yoga pose and transition has a corresponding gaze point (dristhi).  When the breath, dristhi, and intention are connected pratyahara arises.  The tendency and desire of the various senses to search off your yoga mat fade. You become located right in the center of your breath – as if you were looking out with breath, instead of your eyes. As if you were practicing in a breath body, instead of one of touch.  Key to the dristhi practice is an experience of dristhi as a field of vision, rather than a single point.  Dristhi uses a single focusing point to allow the gaze to actually widen – to take in the whole panorama before you.

2) Savasana strings – After your body settles into the pose, tune into your senses. Notice how the world has hundreds of invisible strings that pull at you, even lying still in a yoga studio. Mentally imagine scissors gently snipping the threads circling your body – and they just drop away.  No need to push or shut out or harden around “distractions”. There are no distractions, just strings that continue to exist, no longer tugging on you.

1) Body – Almost every meditation begins with the body. It’s important to set your seat as comfortable as possible, with as much attention to alignment as possible.  Creating ease in the body allows us to settle our minds around it. If you find your foot falling asleep every time you meditate, seek a teacher’s guidance to modify how you sit.  Fine tuning aspects such as relaxing the tongue in the jaw, and letting the eyes release deep in their sockets cue further release of the sense organs.

2) Focus – Sound meditation is one of the best ways to release the ears’ insistence on reaching out to the world.  There are several techniques such as playing intentionally vague sounds in order to “short circuit” the ear into letting go, or working intimately with mind and ear to release the constant chatter between the two that goes into instantaneous naming of sounds.


A few final tips:
*Practice asana without music every once in awhile
*If you live in a city, spend time outside of it. Even the quietest block is filled with over- stimulation.
*Spend an entire evening at home without the TV on, the computer on, or music on
*Walk slowly, fidget less – allow the body to settle more
*Refine all the input to your senses you have direct control over: what you listen to on the TV/computer/ipod/in relationship, what you see around your home, what you place on your body, what you buy and prepare to eat, and what you cultivate to smell.

*There are thought-camps around whether pratyahara is something that can be practiced, or if it just occurs when the conditions are right, like sleep. Whether the tips presented can be thought of as practices or setting up conditions is not the focus of this article.