Turn off and tune in: Pratyahara
Updated: Jan 1
Our world has endless ways to connect us to a stream of sensory stimulation … and it’s not slowing down. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and anxious. Are you in control or lost in the toxic sticky tape that takes us away from our inner balance, self-care and creative pursuits? Do you have a regular practice that helps you turn off and tune in?
Have you noticed how often we affirm to ourselves, even unconsciously, how busy we are? It seems the more we have to do, the less we make room to feel. Is there fear in feeling? I often get asked ‘have you been busy?’ I like to reply ‘busy and balanced’ (I live in hope!). For many people, it seems being busy has become a badge of honour. But it’s the moment of affirming a normal busy momentum that can leave us feeling stressed. Is it starving you from reflecting and digesting? Is it leaving you feeling tense?
React or respond: learning Pratyahara
I clearly remember the first time I experienced yoga. It wasn’t a practice full of physical postures and breathing, it was during a practice called Pratyahara at a Satyananda yoga ashram.
Pratyahara means to withdraw or retreat, and the word ‘ahara’ means nourishment.
Which sums up exactly why I was at the ashram. I knew that aspects of my life were unsatisfying and left me feeling disconnected and somewhat lost, even though I was meditating most days. I knew I was here to engage in life but needed a practice to reawaken clarity, calm and a sense of wholeness.
You may have heard of the Pratyahara practice called yoga nidra (or iRest). Originally mentioned in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, the most ancient and revered sourcebook for yoga practice, Pratyahara is the fifth limb of the 8 limbs of classical yoga and is defined as ‘the conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses’.
Yoga nidra is a powerful technique in which you learn to relax consciously. In yoga nidra, sleep is not regarded as relaxation. True relaxation is actually an experience far beyond sleep. For absolute relaxation you must remain aware. This is yoga nidra, the state of dynamic sleep. Swami Satyananda Saraswati
Yoga nidra can be thought of as a practice of sense withdrawal that prepares you for meditation. You begin by lying on your back with your arms away from your body, palms turned up, eyes closed. Feet are hip-width apart, with your toes falling outwards. Every yoga nidra practice is different, but your teacher (or voice on a CD) will generally ask you to turn your attention inward and bring your awareness to your breath, and then to bring awareness to each part of your body in turn.
From my personal experience, it’s a very deep awakening, yet relaxing, process where your consciousness shifts to a whole new level. I used this extensively during the sleep-deprived months of settling my newborn children. Rather than withdrawing from the world, it renews a sense of engagement in life. The practice of yoga nidra also reduced my level of anxiety around being a parent.
In yoga philosophy, where we reflect on ‘healthy living’, there is a guideline that reminds us to moderate our pull of cravings and sensory cravings and reduce the fluctuations of the mind: Brahmacharya. This is a timely reminder that we have limited resources and need to use them wisely.
Having practiced Pratyahara extensively on retreats and through stressful times, I have also noticed it makes meditating a lot easier.
My senses become sharper, yet respond not react. It’s a bit like the feeling of being in a closed room, where you can register the sounds that occur, but these sounds do not disturb your calm. There seems to be a beautiful space between the sensory stimulus and your response, where your choice is empowering.
Have you ever noticed that creativity flows when you’re relaxed in a shower or going for a walk? Many creative discoveries were made in arts and science when the inherent unconscious surfaced into the consciousness. Einstein increased his perception of relativity while visualising himself walking along a sunbeam. Newton’s revelations about gravity came to him under a tree. Mozart once composed an entirely new musical composition while dozing at the back of a carriage.
The world needs more creative thinkers, and as a student of yoga I have seen hundreds of people waking up into new levels of consciousness out of this very simple technique.
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