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Monday, May 23, 2022
The concept of pratyahara or sense withdrawal, the 5th limb of yoga, took a number of years for me to comprehend. I always thought that withdrawl of the senses required extreme measures like putting yourself into a floatation chamber, where quite literally there is nothing for you t0 focus on. But over the past few months, I have begun to recognize that pratyahara is much more subtle than that and is an action of our consciousness that can be accomplished anytime without any external means.
My access into pratyahara began to develop when it became a matter of necessity at a time that my attention was very unfocused. I began to discover this when I first opened a physical studio last summer and experienced a serious amount of confusion almost immediately. Up until this moment, I really didn't know any other methods of yoga besides Ashtanga because at that point, that's really all I had practiced. But when the studio opened, suddenly, I felt the pressure to make the studio popular by holding classes that "the people would like," so by popular opinion, I invited others teachers to the team who taught different things.
As an Ashtangi to the core, this created a great deal of confusion for me and for my teaching. My students were suddenly learning multiple methods at once. I would tell them to put the fingers together, another teacher would say it's ok to have them apart. Soon, Ashtanga felt "too hard" for some, and they just picked the easier classes. And almost immediately, I felt I had compromised in a way in which I wasn't comfortable. The studio was a reflection of the fact that my attention was all over the place. It was focused outward, toward the opinions of others and how to make money, not inward, toward my true alignment and my true purpose.
The solution? Withdrawal of the senses.
Focusing your attention on one thing requires withdrawing your attention from every other thing. In a room full of people, in order to focus on one person speaking, you must ignore everyone else's voice. In some ways, we practice pratyahara all the time, but we may not always have control over it. So how to you gain control?
First, you have to make a decision. What do I want to focus my attention on? If the answer to this is unclear, pratyahara becomes impossible. Most of the time, our indecision and lack of clarity on what we want is the problem. As long as you have no definite direction, you will just wander around from here to there. As long as the eyes have nothing to focus on, they will wander around, looking at whatever is shiny or interesting to us. As long as the mind has nothing to focus on, it will be a vast sea of chaos.
Second, once you decide what you want to focus on, comes commitment to your decision. It doesn't work to focus on one thing in this moment and another thing in the next moment. It must remain steady for some length of time. This commitment comes with the recognition that when distractions come that you will ignore them so that the attention can remain steady. If you allow the distractions to take your attention away, remembering your decision to focus your attention and bringing it back. As this requires less and less effort, this is pratyahara - total elimination of distractions that sets the foundation for concentration, the next limb of yoga.
Pratyahara can be life changing because it can help us to focus our creative energy, rather than allowing it to be diffuse. Most of us, I believe, have diffuse energy. This diffusion is what makes it difficult for us to finish our first novel or follow through on that business idea. With so many things flowing through our minds or many people and responsibilities pulling us in different directions, it becomes impossible to generate enough energy in one direction for it to gain momentum.
You cannot focus on everything just like you cannot please everyone. There has to be some level of choice made in order there to be enough energy for success. A truly healthy, successful person is also adept at saying no to things that are not in alignment and focusing on the things that are. With increasing levels of intention and focus on a dream or a change in our lives, for instance, it can appear almost magical when it begins to develop and grow.
Gaining the control over our lives that most of us desire, to me, comes down to deciding what we want, and focusing all of our energy in that direction, and focusing our attention away from what we don't want. This is deeply related to the Law of Attraction - what you focus on multiplies. This is how yoga practice can permeate your whole life and create the deep transformation many of us are seeking that is so much more than physical. It is observing our habits, where we have been giving our attention, deciding if we want to continue sending our energy in that direction or if we want something else, and changing our actions accordingly.
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