When I ask yoga teachers what Ashtanga is, they almost always start describing the primary series of poses. But it goes so much deeper than that. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra—the most ancient and revered sourcebook for yoga practice— the eightfold path is called Ashtanga, which literally means “eight limbs” (ashta=eight, anga=limb).
In order of lesson:
1. Yamas-Attitudes toward our environment
2. Niyamas-Attitudes towards ourselves
3. Asana-Physical poses
4. Pranayama-Energy Control/Breathwork
5. Pratyahara-Withdrawal of senses
8. Samadhi-Total Self-Collectedness
The fifth branch of the 8 limbs is Pratyahara and my favorite limb to teach by far.
But what does Pratyahara mean?
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra he writes this:
YOGA SUTRA 2.54- PRATYAHARA IS THE WITHDRAWAL OF THE SENSES FROM THEIR OBJECTS BY FOLLOWING THE ESSENTIAL NATURE OF THE MIND.
YOGA SUTRA 2.55- FROM THIS COMES THE PERFECT MASTERY OVER THE SENSES.
Paramhansa Yogananda called this “shutting off the sense telephones.” It is the final preparatory stage before deep meditation. There are various ways to remove the distraction of the senses, such as remaining still, closing the eyes, and sitting in a quiet place or using earplugs. However, Nayaswami Jyotish, spiritual successor to Swami Kriyananda, emphasizes that true pratyahara occurs in the mind, not the body. It is the internalization of the life-force (pranayama) that results in the shutting down of the senses. An example of this is when we voluntarily fall asleep.
How do we actually do this in a world where our senses are subjected to constant bombardment?
My lack of Pratyahara.
With so much noise and distraction, sometimes it's hard to really hear myself. Sometimes it's hard to be aware of myself. As my notification sound plays its cute little melody, I look down at my phone. I have three texts. I also have 5 messages on my website to answer, not to mention notifications on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snap Chat. While I flow through the likes and hearts, I head to my desktop to work on programming for my athletes and I turn on Spotify. As a small business owner, my social media presence gets me jobs so I have to keep it updated. My husband is listening to a Joe Rogan Podcast in the living room while my grandbabies are watching Disney. I close my eyes and listen as my senses are lit up. Sometimes I feel like everywhere I go, there is something being put in front of my face. Something I just have to react to.
There is an over-saturation of noise and sights to take in. Most of us suffer from sensory overload, the result of constant bombardment from television, radio, computers, newspapers, magazines, books—you name it. Our commercial society functions by stimulating our interest through the senses. We are constantly confronted with bright colors, loud noises, and dramatic sensations. We have been raised on every sort of sensory indulgence—it is the main form of entertainment in our society. That's why the fifth limb of yoga -- sense withdrawal, or pratyahara is so important.
Total lack of Pratyahara.
Most of us suffer from sensory overload, the result of constant bombardment from television, radio, computers, newspapers, magazines, books—the list goes on. Society functions by stimulating our interest through the senses. We are constantly confronted with bright colors, loud noises, and dramatic sensations. We have been raised on every sort of sensory indulgence—it is the main form of entertainment in our society. Sensory overload happens when you’re getting more input from your five senses than your brain can sort through and process. Multiple conversations going on in one room, flashing overhead lights, or a loud party can all produce the symptoms of sensory overload. Anyone can experience sensory overload, and triggers are different for different people. Sensory overload is associated with several other health conditions, including autism, sensory processing disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and fibromyalgia.
Symptoms of sensory overload vary by case. Some common symptoms include:
difficulty focusing due to competing sensory input
restlessness and discomfort
urge to cover your ears or shield your eyes from sensory input
feeling overly excited or “wound up”
stress, fear, or anxiety about your surroundings
higher levels than usual of sensitivity to textures, fabrics, clothing tags, or other things that may rub against skin
Your senses relay information from your environment, and your brain interprets the information and tells you how to react. But when there’s competing sensory information, your brain can’t interpret it all at the same time. For some people, this feels like getting “stuck”; your brain can’t prioritize what sensory information it needs to focus on. Your brain feels trapped by all the input it’s getting, and your body starts to panic in a chain reaction. This is called the stress response, or fight/flight/freeze. This was an excellent skill to have when we were outrunning saber tooth cats or looking out for signs of flooding. It helped us stay alive.
Finding Your Pratyahara.
As an advanced trauma informed yoga teacher, I have lots of tools in my toolbox to help learn Pratyahara. My students often struggle with different aspects of trauma, stress, sensory overload or just plain mental exhaustion, so these tools are infinitely valuable for their sense of calm.
Here are my go-to favorites to remember Pratyahara and practice it.
Restorative yoga, made popular by BKS Iyengar, is a style of yoga that encourages physical, mental, and emotional relaxation. Appropriate for all levels, restorative yoga is practiced at a slow pace, focusing on long holds, stillness, and deep breathing. I like to call it active napping. This yoga style is known for its ability to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system that helps keep basic functions working as they should. As the name suggests, restorative yoga “restores” the body to its parasympathetic nervous system function, which, in turn, helps the body rest, heal, and restore balance. By allowing time for longer asanas (poses) and deeper breathing, restorative yoga helps elicit the relaxation response. This response can help slow breathing, reduce blood pressure, and produce a feeling of calm and increased well-being.
Listening to the sounds of nature is very healing. On a daily basis we process vast amounts of sensory input, which can lead to SENSORY OVERLOAD. Tuning into one sense at time gives our nervous system a chance to “catch up”. In combination with our breath we send a signal to our nervous system that we can rest in this moment.
Try this exercise:
#1: Stand outside. Feel your feet on the ground and the air on your skin.
#2: Listen to the sounds around you. What do you hear? In front of you and behind you.
#3: Identify the furthest sound away from you that you can hear and then the closest.
#4: Take 3 deep breaths.
#5: Repeat as often as needed to catch up.
It's very, very easy to judge and instantly react to all the over-stimulation around us. Although non-judgment and delayed reaction may be the simplest ways to turn inward, it's not the easiest. We are bombarded with pressure from friends, family, co-workers and followers on social media to judge and act accordingly. It all has to do with our brains. Our brain, specifically, the “lizard brain”, or primitive part of our brain, is really good at finding potential threats to our lives.
Our society has moved toward being so much more open and supportive of a diverse list of characteristics and traits. People can be gay, asexual, or pansexual, black, white, Asian, or mixed, thin, athletic, average, or overweight, monogamous, polyamorous, a gamer, a rock-climber, a musician, or an accountant, and they are ALL VALID in today’s society. Every single flavor of person out there is worthy of love, and we’re starting to realize that as a society! We don’t need to cast people out just to protect ourselves. Spread the power of love, not judgement.
Try this to practice Non-judgment:
#1: Observe Your Emotions- When we experience those negative emotions like anger, frustration, hatred, disappointment, or pain, it is because we’re in a place of judgment and feeling threatened. The first step is to notice whenever we feel those emotions.
#2: Recognize Judgment- After we recognize our “negative” emotions, it’s time to examine what exactly we were judging or feeling threatened by.
#3: Understand Your Judgment- Take a step back and try to objectively figure out what judgments you have toward others so that you can learn to practice non-judgment. When we’re able to understand those situations and let them go, we’re able to move into a place of non-judgment.
And finally, disconnect.
Although it’s really not a tip, more of a life choice. Disconnect. Even if it is just for a day. Commit to disconnect. As a follower of Sadhguru, he suggested to stop watching the news to reduce stress. “Have fear? He says, “Change the channel.” I did and I can’t tell you how happy I am for it. Trying to strike a balance between being informed by news media and not becoming overwhelmed by it is difficult—especially during a global crisis.
A constant stream of sensational or "disaster" reporting, whether you are exposed actively or passively, can elevate stress levels and trigger symptoms like anxiety and trouble sleeping. “It can be damaging to constantly be reading the news because constant exposure to negative information can impact our brain,” says Annie Miller, MSW, LCSW-C, LICSW. When we experience a threat, Miller says our brain activates the fight or flight response, and the systems in our body react accordingly. A recent study by the American Psychological Association 1 found that 66% of Americans are stressed out about the future of the country, and the constant consumption of news was pinpointed as a major contributor. Same goes for social media. Just take a break.
And if you can't, try these mindful practices to stay on track:
#1: Don’t Believe Everything You Read
“The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by questioning we may come upon the truth.” Sage words that were written in 1120 but ring true today from Pierre Abelard, a medieval French philosopher, teacher, and theologian.
#2: Confirm the Information
FactCheck.org, Snopes.com, and PolitiFact.com are some of the most respected. If you read something that you suspect may not be true, it’s likely that one of these organizations has verified the piece—just type the title of the article or a keyword from the article into the search bar to see if it has been reviewed.
#3: Check Your Biases
The next time you’re yelling in a room alone at some social media post about a politician you oppose, someone not agreeing with you on Covid masking or living their life unlike yours, take a moment to pause and question what you’ve read and why it upset you.
#4: Keep Your Sense of Humor
One of the most powerful and positive defense strategies we have is humor. Laughter is free medicine, so laugh a lot.
#5: Channel Strong Feelings
See above, practice non-judgement. And it is indeed a practice.
I found Pratyahara.
Before I started my yogic path, during times of stress I would go bonkers on stimulating myself so I didn’t have to tune into the issues. I’d scrub the house, over workout or overwork in the garden. Now I am more aware of the urge to drown out my conflicts with overstimulation. Whenever I
notice my attempt to escape into stimulation, I use pratyahara as a powerful tool to improve my daily life. Learning to incorporate my yoga practice into my daily life in this way is a challenge, but it’s a challenge that makes me a better human. Yoga is a process of discovery and growth. The yogic path is a practice. Keep evolving.