Withdrawing from the senses
“There is bondage when the mind craves, grieves or is unhappy over something. The mind becomes pure when all desires and fears are annihilated. Both the good and the pleasant present themselves to (people) and prompt them to action. The yogi prefers the good to the pleasant. Others driven by their desires, prefer the pleasant to the good and miss the very purpose of life.” Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar
The fifth limb of yoga is Pratyahara.
Ahara means nourishment. Pratya means withdraw.
Why would this journey of enlightenment and self realization include withdrawing from that nourishes us?
The senses are what feed our bodies information from the outside world. But the senses also connect our relationship to sensation and stimuli to our spirits and our minds and behaviors. Nothing like external information to stimulate desire or aversion. (TV, spouses, children, work, stiff back…)
Senses are nourishment because they feed us to keep us sustained, strong, and safe. Pain keeps us safe. Hunger keeps us fed. Bad flavors help us stay away from toxic things. Aroma can allure us to good things or warn us of bad. Sounds tell us when a threat is coming or the footsteps and voice of friends and loved ones.
Our higher development associates flavors with love and success and status. We tie pleasure and pleasing stimuli with purpose and pursue only that pleasure principal, detouring from a higher calling. (aka, we land a job with good money but it is killing our soul and our mind and it’s not our passion).
We tie aversion from pain with safety to extremes feeding into patterns that can be tough to unravel once we are caught in the cycles.
Beyond the senses – be in them but not identify as them
Withdrawing from the senses, or building awareness of our dependence on them and then finding moderation so we are not reacting to them, helps us on the journey toward a clear mind and harmony with spirit. (the ultimate yoga purpose)
Kaivalya – inner state of freedom
Intensify to withdraw
When we intensify one area, attention is drawn in a focused way away from other distractions.
There is a peace and serenity in this intensity of senses.
I recommend this as a way to start to learn and build awareness of levels, or as I say the “spectrum of sensation”, and our comfort or discomfort with them.
This helps blend sense awareness with focus. Have you ever wondered about people who walk across glass or hot coals. There’s an intensification of senses and a withdrawal that allows the focus and the non-reactivity. It’s our reactions that can be more harming than what is actually going on. Jumping from the glass will cause the piercing and the cutting. Walking calmly and smoothly becoming in harmony with the sensations will allow the flesh to form around the contours and cause no damage. Discomfort but not damage.
A sound. An aroma.
Bringing Pratyahara awareness into Asana practice
(just a few ideas/examples – not exhaustive by any measure)
Blindfolded – Do a practice with eyes completely closed. Paying attention to how we “see” our way through movement and sensation. Also over time observing what senses are not at the forefront – therefore we are withdrawn from them – and how that makes us feel in our contentment, tranquility and present awareness with truth.
Eyes Open – Never closing the eyes (except the blink). Notice throughout your practice how distracted your eyesight makes you. Perhaps learning how to relax the eyesight over time so as to be less and less distracted. And again, see above. We eventually observe how much we are withdrawn from other senses, or heightened.
Nude yoga – heighten/withdraw from sense of touch (see? A blessing of the pandemic with so much home/virtual practice!)
Silent practice – asana in silence and notice what you hear within and around you and notice your reaction and attachments to sounds.
Om/chanting practice – repeat non-stop chanting while moving.
Incense or non-scented – do both and notice your mind.
Taste is a hard one. It can go with smell. Or you can seriously clean your mouth and palate before doing practice.
I think you get the point about some ways to involve your awareness of your senses as you practice asana. Get creative. Journal. Be intentional. And connect!
Tratak – these are eye exercises that build the muscles in the eyes and brings awareness to sight in a different way.
Here is a good explainer from an Indian female yogini: https://www.esamskriti.com/e/Yoga/Therapy/What-is-TRATAK-and-how-to-do–1.aspx
Bhramari Pranayama – this is also called bumble bee. This can create an intense buzzing sensation in the face and head and in fact the entire body. It can be deafening or lulling. I recommend that you do not have to close the eyes at all if not being able to see is triggering for you.
White food fast – my Lama introduced me to a white food fast after a silent practice in my Buddhism lineage called a Nungye. The white food fast involves having only bland foods – white rice cooked in water no salt; white potatoes, no skin, no salt or anything; water or white tea (no sugars of course); white grapes with the skin peeled off… This isn’t a long-term fast. It’s what we used to break the silent practice. But it’s a great tool to use now and again for a meal or two and notice living in a bland taste world, still getting the carbohydrates without all the sensory stimuli of flavor.
Sound fasts – you can choose an amount of time and only have natural, ambient sound; or choose to turn volumes down on various devices for a period of time; or only listen to acoustic sound, no electronic sound. The point is to take time and step away from the noise of life and notice where it takes the mind and spirit and what we fight/resist inside of it.
Sightless walking the house – I do this at home. Choose to walk from one room to another with my eyes closed. Randomly throughout the day. It’s a great way to keep my practice in my day-to-day life and totally bring my mind and focus into the moment and my breath.
Barefoot – walk barefoot in the dirt and grass daily.