To experience the adventure of life is surely part of the reason we are each here on earth. And we interact with our lives and our environment through the senses – our innate curiosity attracted to the experience of sights, tastes, smells, sounds and things around us to touch.
Of course, it’s all about balance. Too much sensory stimulation can result in disharmony in body and mind, ultimately bringing about fatigue of the brain and nervous system, and causing stress and anxiety. For example, overstimulating the senses can actually cause the brain to become overwhelmed trying to interpret too many sensory inputs. Exposure to certain triggers like bright lights, continual loud noises, or certain textures can make you lose focus and feel irritable. The disruption of our routines and all the drastic changes in the way we live, work, and interact are major factors as well. Whether we are aware of it or not, advances in technology and the challenges of the pandemic mean that most of us experience sensory overstimulation on a daily basis.
It would appear therefore that more than ever before, Pratyahara, the fifth limb of Patanjali’s eightfold path of raja yoga (or the Royal Path) – thought to have been compiled between the 2nd and 4th century CE – is a tool that offers us some much-needed relief in these modern times.
Pratyahara has been translated as “sense withdrawal” or “detaching at will from the senses”. And the purpose of doing so in fact allows us to, ironically, “regain control of the senses to prevent them from dragging us in their wake” (Sutra II.29 in The Essence of Yoga by Bernard Bouanchaud 1997, 109).
Patanjali goes on further to explain that “[w]ithdrawal of the senses occurs when the sensory organs, independent of their particular objects, conform to the nature of mind.” (Sutra II.54 as translated in Bouanchaud 1997, 142).
According to Bouanchaud, the expression “sense organs” encompasses eleven elements or senses: the five senses of perception (hearing, touch, sight, taste and smell); the five senses of action (speech, sensory apprehension, locomotion, excretion and generation); and also that faculty which coordinates sensory impressions before they are presented to the consciousness (manas).
When the mind is no longer attached, or slave, to the sense organs and the sensory stimulation and impressions that they produce, then we are able to bring these instruments back into our control. We become more alert, we can focus and we feel calmer. This control, or mastering, of the senses does not mean ignoring them or shutting them off completely – to do so would, in some ways, be admonishing those incredibly intelligent faculties of the human body that allow us to partake in the exciting journey of being human and living.
The essence of pratyahara is, rather, to simply allow all our sensory impressions to be there, without attaching to them. From there, we can then mindfully filter what we experience in our outer world so that we can simultaneously connect with our inner environment – sometimes experienced as spacious and vast and unaffected by the external. We learn that we have choice over what we allow into our inner world and choice gives us power. Power and autonomy over how we experience our lives.
Being connected to our inner world whilst not being distracted by the outer world creates a sense of space between sensory input – which produces thoughts, feelings and emotions – so that we can acknowledge them for what they are – simply sensory input and not who we fundamentally are.
The more we practice pratyahara the less we identify with our senses and those related thoughts, feelings and emotions. The less we identify with them, the less our external environment impacts us and the less of a distraction it is, and the more we can focus on being more present in whatever we are doing (or being) in the moment. The less life simply passes us by.
Written by: Leigh Bosch | July 2021