The word pratyahara is composed of two Sanskrit words, prati and ahara. Ahara means “food” or “anything we take into ourselves from the outside”; prati means away or against. Therefore, pratyahara can be translated to mean, “the removal or withdrawal from anything that we are placing inside of us” and is translated as “withdrawing the senses (tanmatras) away from external influences”.
“Withdrawing the senses, mind and consciousness from contact with external objects, and drawing the senses inwards towards the seer, is pratyahara.” (Sutra 2.54)
The Yoga Sutras were compiled around 322-185 B.C.E and were written as guidelines to help us live a more meaningful and balanced life. We have been born into a world where we are consistently inundated with frivolous distractions that pervade every moment of our lives. It is up to us to step in, grab onto the steering wheel and reclaim control over the pace and substance of our lives.
Pratyahara is the antidote for the crazy, busy pace of our lives; it offers us the opportunity to disconnect from all the toxic impressions we are bombarded with in every moment. It suggests that we step back and put ourselves on a stimulation diet, in order simplify and control what we allow into our mind-field.
The bottom line is that at some level we all need to occasionally subtract ourselves from all the busy-ness and learn to control the sensory input that we allow to define our walk through life. “Withdrawing away from external influences” in a modern-day approach can simply mean turning off the television and computer or going for a walk in nature, without your cell phone. In its truest sense, it means doing one thing at a time and being present while you do it.
Human Being or Human Do-ing?
For many of us, our life is in a constant state of over-stimulation. Often, we hear the word multi-tasking mentioned as a badge of honor; something that grants us a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. We have our “To Do” lists on our phones, computers and refrigerators and they are long lists. These constant reminders of “what we should be doing”, create a sense of urgency as we move through our day. Our relaxation in the evening may be a bit of television, while folding laundry and straightening up the house. Smartphones close by so we can check in once in a while on social media.
We live at a frantic pace, on this spinning merry-go–round, all the while promising ourselves that something has to give; something has to change. I recently heard someone say, that we are no longer Human Beings, we are Human Doings; I like that because although it sounds silly, it’s true.
We are always dwelling on yesterday, worrying about tomorrow and continuously skipping right past the very moments that define our lives. Our ability to exist in this state has become the new norm; living in a hypnotizing cacophony that we have learned to accept and embrace. We have become somewhat complacent, and yet we often fantasize about what it would be like to take a step back and slow the down the pace of our lives.
What We Feed Ourselves Each Day
The word food or ahara, in this context, doesn’t just mean the “food” we ingest and feed into our digestive system. It also means all that we are feeding ourselves as we walk through life. This includes our relationships, the way we view ourselves, as well as our perception of how others view us- which is often either irrelevant or distorted.
How we see life, and the impressions we formulate based on our interpretations, are all sources of “food”. The way in which we react rather than respond to our problems, how we allow others words to affect us, and mostly how we speak to ourselves, can weaken us if we allow it to. By not permitting negative interpretations to permeate of lives as absolute truth, we begin to alter the way we process our life.
The goal is to stop allowing the mind to drag us through the sludge of endless rumination, self-judgment and negativity. As you walk through your day, be mindful of what you are “feeding yourself”. Be kind to yourself ~ Be kind to others. Feed yourself words of love, appreciation and acceptance; you deserve it.
Softening the Senses
Our senses monopolize our energy as we are continuously fed information that must be interpreted and categorized. Have you ever closed your eyes in order to truly absorb an emotion or experience? We close our eyes when we pray, when we meditate, when we kiss. We close our eyes when we are trying to focus, or hear the words to our favorite song or remember a detail or past experience. How often have you closed your eyes while tasting something delicious to appreciate the flavor?
The simple act of pulling the blinds closed, opens up our mind and sharpens the other senses. When we temporarily subtract our awareness from the external distraction, what remains is a sense of clarity and focus. This allows us to turn inward and experience the power and sweetness of a moment without any internal or external interference. If allowed to do so, our mind will drag us through life convincing us that all that is relevant is what we perceive in the external world. There is a piece of us that is waiting to experience life in a less complicated and harmonious way. One that will allow us to walk through our days more softly.
When we practice pratyahara, we steal ourselves away from the relentless over-stimulation of our social conditioning.
Learning to Disconnect and Listen
Take the time to unplug. Choose one day a week and minimize the time you spend with your phone in your hand. Avoid unnecessary communication. Don’t speak unless you are spoken to and listen more than you speak. Don’t call or text unless you must; disconnect as much as possible. Explore the art of witnessing your day unfold without any interference. Choosing to disengage from constant stimulation and interaction allows us to step into a state of glorious present-moment awareness.
Follow Your Breath
Meditating and meeting yourself in a place of stillness will also offer you a space to detach and connect. The simple act of closing your eyes and following your breath will effortlessly offer you the opportunity to step away from the details. Pranayama, or breath awareness trains our mind to momentarily sever our contact with the thoughts that are flowing, and the events that are unfolding. As we consciously follow the rhythm of our life force, we are guided into a place of harmony and peace. Sit comfortably, softly close your eyes and begin thinking the words, I am breathing in, I am breathing out as you witness the flow.
Ground Yourself in Nature
Stepping outside and connecting with each sense individually can deliver a soothing effect on the nervous system. Find a comfortable spot, close your eyes and ask yourself, “What do I hear?” and then just listen. Engage your sense of touch and ask yourself, “What do I feel?” Perhaps a soft breeze moving across your face, or the warmth of the sun touching your skin. Then ask, “What do I smell?” Fresh cut grass, morning dew, the scent of impending rainfall. Finally, open your eyes and ask yourself, “What do I see?” Witness the world around you with the innocence of a child.
Begin Your Day in a Place of Simplicity
The single most powerful gift you can give yourself is to voluntarily shut out the distractions that continually pervade the pace of your life. This is especially powerful first thing in the morning. When you wake up, don’t reach for your phone. Instead, close your eyes, place your hand on your heart and ask yourself, “What am I grateful for?” Linger there for a moment. The world can wait.
Give yourself an hour or more before you check your emails, scroll Facebook, or send your first text or tweet. Allow yourself to slip into your day in a place of stillness and peace.
How we step into our day sets the pace of our life. Begin in a place of gratitude and calm and then carry that into your day. Never allow your morning to be hectic. Even if it means getting up a bit earlier. Eat sitting down, in silence. Create a sense of calm control.
Look for opportunities in your day where you can experience moments of simplicity and self-awareness. Create your peace.
One step at a time, one day at a time, one moment at a time. Take it back. Own your day. Own your life.
You need not leave your room,
Remain sitting at your table and listen
You need not even listen, simply wait; you need not even wait
just learn to be quiet, and still, and solitary.
The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked.
It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet ~ Kafka