The Limbs of Yoga: Turning In


Pratyahara is the continuation of turning inwards and starting to address the world outside of our constant sensory stimulus. This stage is always represented to me in the part of every yoga class where vigorous action slows, eyes are closed, and you are taken out of your exertions and into the gentle passage of pranayama then into savasana. It is no accident that even within the structure of a yoga asana class, we are replicating a microcosm of the yamas and niyamas in every posture and breath.

The practice of pratyahara provides us with an opportunity to step back into the role of observer or witness: to impartially and compassionately look at ourselves and really see who we are. In doing so, we can take the opportunity to catalogue the parts of ourselves that serve us, and the parts that don’t, without contributing to our own suffering with self-criticism and harsh words.

Silence, stillness and contemplation are not a big part of Western culture. We like noise and distractions. Consequently our minds have become the equivalent of having the TV blaring 24/7 on a shopping channel. We are so attached to external stimulus, to things and what we see as the permanent tangibles of life that define our experience of being that the idea of turning in (or away from the outside) is one that is often hard to grasp. Like letting go, it is a phrase that is maddeningly free of detailed instructions. The sense is that we can simply release and move on, but as everyone knows, this is far easier said than done.

The only way to get there is to turn in. Pratyahara is the limb when you are really committing to do the deep work, armed with the emerging dialogue of your own innate wisdom. This is the practice that leads to your divinity, and your dharma. The sirens of your attachments continue to call throughout each limb, this is the fundamental nature of distraction.

So how, why and when do we turn in? Pranayama, our breathing practice, is the precursor to pratyahara, both in the sequence of the eight limbs and in the action of turning focus to the breath. We bring the prana inside to build consciousness and energise our entire bodies. It is here we are already renouncing the outside world for the inky mystery of our internal realms. The breath straddles the cusp of our extroverted body, and our introverted inner world. This is where we find the mind, and the process of pratyahara takes us from a place of looking and seeing in our externally focused view, to listening to our inner voice, our inner wisdoms. On the inside, the ego seems to have less places to grip.

Without the familiar visual cues of the body and world to give us place and context, turning in gives us little to grasp, decoupling our familiar dualities and creating space for new ways of thinking and being. This is how we can work on change in ourselves. Switching down the lights and gently pushing ourselves into finding new ways of getting around, wearing new tracks in our minds. Once the disorientation of being effectively blindfolded from our primary senses occurs, there begins the sensation of freedom and potential, where our awareness is released into infinite space. This is the moment in meditation that I am most attached to, when I leave the wriggling and adjusting and mental cataloguing, and have the first sensation of emptiness and dropping down within. For those tiny moments it feels like freefall as the outer world is nullified and time takes on a new dimension.

It is in developing the discipline of asana and moving to a breathing practice that prepares us for the new senses and sensations of pratyahara. With our external senses we engage in an acquisition process—we see things, we judge them, we identify them, we relate them to us and attach labels like good or bad, want or don’t want, all the usual dualities that keep us busy, separate and miserable. Pratyahara takes that sense shopping away, and rather than the public cavalcade of desire, offers us up our internal catalogue, which is infinitely less desirable.

The discipline is to stay focused, stay present, simply observing as the raw and uncensored explosion of your mind pours forth. Yes, it is a visceral and often confronting experience. My attachment to the opening moments of entering in the space of internal contemplation are no doubt a response to the battle for me that is quick to follow of taming and controlling my thoughts. Without all of the sense pleasures to keep me distracted, in pratyahara I’m confronted by the spectre of mental torments and temptations.

If I want to focus on the breath, I can be sure that my mind wants me to focus on the itching on my face, the pins and needles in my foot, the delicious meal I yearn for, a deeply shameful thought I had relegated to the back of my mind, the piercing hurt of betrayal or rejection that brings instant pain to my being. These are the mind battles that happen to me and so many people every time they sit down and turn within. It’s no wonder that despite the known benefits of meditation, many of us choose to not run this gauntlet in the practice of taming our unruly minds.

The antidote to the cacophony of internal chatter in silent meditation is what amounts to a process of tag and release. Non-attachment lies here; it is where the practice of letting go and detaching from emotion and reaction begins. A thought arises, we note it, superficially examine its root cause and relation to previous thoughts, and then release it. Whatever it is, tag and release. Don’t hold on, deep dive, reiterate and resolve; simply note that a thought has come, you recognise it, and now it can go.

With practice in the practice, there is a pattern to what appears regularly in our thoughts, and with familiarity the process becomes quicker. The temptation to explore, to follow our thoughts down the rabbit holes of our mind, and to indulge the fictional narratives that accompany our version of life, is a constant struggle. The torment and busyness definitely lessens as we train ourselves to keep dismissing and coming back.  This week, become still, sit in the gentle discomfort of you mind and experience the sensation of turning in. You may have a sense of things getting worse, and a feeling that you will never get past the whirling dervishes of your mind. Don’t worry, you will.

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