How do I practice withdrawal of the senses?

Q: How do I practice withdrawal of the senses?

A: Pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses, is the fifth limb of yoga, as defined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. In the sutras, it says,

Pratyahara is when the senses withdraw themselves from the objects and imitate, as it were, the nature of the mind. As a result of this withdrawal, there is supreme mastery of the sense organs. (2.54-2.55)

Sometimes withdrawal of the senses is restated as non-attachment to the senses. When practicing pratyahara, we notice sounds and sensations from our environment without letting them perturb us. For example, you may notice your nose itch during a meditation session. You let the sensation register, but instead of automatically scratching your noise, you distance yourself from the experience, observing it with curiosity as if it were happening to someone else. As Ludith Lasater writes in a Yoga Journal article on the subject:

To me, practicing pratyahara doesn’t mean running away from stimulation (which is basically impossible). Rather, practicing pratyahara means remaining in the middle of a stimulating environment and consciously not reacting, but instead choosing how to respond.

Here are some ways you can practice pratyahara in public classes or in your home practice:

  1. During breathing exercises, allow the sound and sensation of your breath to hold your awareness. Allow the length and depth of your breath to fill your awareness. When you’re really focusing on your breath, there isn’t room for much else in your perception.
  2. During balancing poses, direct the eyes and the mind to a drishti, a focal point, and allow all other sensory experience to melt away.
  3. Once you can balance with the eyes open, soften the gaze and direct your awareness to your third eye (the space between the eyebrows) as your drishti. Eventually you may be able to close the eyes, letting go of reliance on vision entirely.
  4. During savasana, the final resting posture, allow your breath or the beating of your heart to be your focal point. You may have moments of mental chatter, and you may have moments of distraction, but allow your breath or your heartbeat to seem so much more interesting than those things that they don’t hold your awareness. You keep returning to your drishti.

What do the Yoga Sutras say about asana?

Q: What do the Yoga Sutras say about asana (yoga poses)?

A: According to Putanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the highest stage of enlightenment is reached in seven stages, and asana (the practice of yoga poses) is the third stage. Putanjali describes asana in three sutras:

The posture should be steady, comfortable and grounded in joy. (2.46)

When I was younger my unconscious philosophy was something like, “exercise should be recklessly fast, numbingly intense, and fueled by anger.” Exercise worked as a great coping mechanism for me. When I roller-bladed as fast as a could, I was so focused on not falling that there wasn’t room to worry about anything else. The aching in my muscles during a long run superseded aching in my heart. Exercise was something I could channel uncomfortable emotions into instead of letting them eat away at me. It was also empowering to see my body getting strong and healthy. It was a great band-aid for a while, but eventually it stopped working.

In my early twenties, I was experiencing a deeper heartbreak than I’d felt before, and no matter how vigorously and desperately I exercised, I couldn’t block it out. Then, in the midst of my suffering I discovered vinyasa yoga, and it was transformational. Through the metaphor of asana (poses), my teachers taught me to be still and notice my emotions, even if I wanted nothing more than to resist them and block them out—steadiness. They taught me that whatever was going on in my head, it was okay to be feeling was I was feeling—comfortableness. Through time and practice, I learned that my worth was defined by more than getting having a boyfriend, getting into a challenging yoga pose, or even being strong and healthy; I found out I was more than all of those labels—joy.

Posture is mastered by relaxation of effort and meditation on the unlimited. (2.47)

I tell my students that practicing asana is practicing for life. If we are able to relax our gripping, gritting, or gnashing and maintain a meditative state during a challenging pose, we are more likely to connect to that mindfulness when someone cuts us off in traffic or when our hearts get broken. In San Francisco, I teach an intermediate vinyasa class in which we practice challenging postures that Putanjali (author of the Yoga Sutras), probably wouldn’t have dreamed recommending for meditation. I constantly remind students that it’s not about the pose itself; the pose is just a construct to test your ability to relax and be mindful. In this respect, sometimes the more advanced variation of a pose is the one that challenges your strength and flexibility; sometimes it’s the one that’s physically easier, but challenges you to let go of our ego.

When posture is mastered there is a cessation of disturbances caused by dualities. (2.48)

Our minds operate by identifying opposites. It’s built into our language and logic. We understand light because we can contrast it a lack of light (dark). We understand ourselves as entities different from our environment, different from others. Sometimes we even dissociate our own body, mind, and spirit. These aren’t bad things, we need them to survive. But, they create an illusion of separation which can be a source of deep suffering.

I’ve already mentioned that through my personal asana practice lines between things I thought were separate began to blur: as I learned to practice with physical grace, I began to cope with my emotions more gracefully too. As I relaxed in the face of intensity on the mat, I was more able to handle stress and conflict off the mat. As my practice of mindfulness developed, I began to notice my profound effect on my environment, and my environment’s fundamental effect on me. The labels that used to define me and set me apart from others started to drop off. I began to think that maybe my sense of self was more of a pragmatic, survival-based construct that a metaphysical (real) one. As the edges of my identity began to dissipate, I considered that maybe there is something that has no opposite. Something that is everything. Something unlimited that connects us all; that is us all.

What is the path to enlightenment?

Q: What is the path to enlightenment?

A: According to Putanjali’s Yoga Sutras, enlightenment is attained in seven stages. Including the final stage, these form the Eight Limbs of Yoga:

1. Yamas: Hindrances (Nonviolence, Truthfulness, Nonstealing, Moderation, Non-possessivenes)
2. Niyamas: Oberservances (Purity, Contentment, Self-discipline, Self-study, Surrender)
3. Asana: Poses
4. Pranayama: Control of life-force through breath
5. Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses
6. Dharana: Concentration
7. Dhyana: Meditation
8: Samadhi: Non-dualistic consciousness

The last three limbs are so similar and seamless that Putanjali groups them together as samyama (perfectly controlled). Still, they are distinct stages:

Concentration (dharana) is binding the attention of the mind to a single object, place, or idea. Meditation (dhyana) is the continuous flow of consciousness toward an object. Samadhi is deep absorpotion on the object without thought of the self. Then, the essential nature of the object shines forth. (3.1-3.3) Through mastery of samyamah, knowledge born of intuitive insight shines forth. (3.5)

Even in the workout-focused yoga classes of the West, breadcrumbs that lead you along the path are still there. In public yoga classes, the focus is often on asana, the poses, and sometimes pranayama, the breath, but if you listen carefully, the other limbs of yoga are often threaded through many teachers’ cues. When yoga teachers suggests you avoid pushing so hard that you’re gasping for breath, they are talking about non-violence, one of the yamas. When they remind you to be happy in your variation on the pose, rather than grasping for the variation the person beside you is taking, they are talking about contentment, one of the niyamas. When teachers tell you focus the eyes and the mind on a drishti, a focal point, during balancing poses, they are talking about pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses. When you hear cues about detaching yourself from mental chatter and keeping your focus on your breath during savasana, corpse pose, your teachers are talking about samayama, the last three limbs.

All of this said, Putanjali’s system is only one way to journey toward enlightenment. There are many other paths.