Understanding Pratyahara

In our yoga classes, we get a great workout, a lovely community experience, and, often, a little glimpse into the world of spirituality and yoga philosophy. Yoga attracts seekers; people who are looking for that little bit more than what’s on the surface. For yogis like us, food for thought is laid out like an all-you-can-eat buffet.

When wandering down the gilded path of yoga philosophy, it is incredibly easy to get lost. In our modern Western yoga classes, we incorporate elements of Buddhism, Tantra, Taoism, and Classical Hinduism, and it can be hard to know which branch of these many paths to follow. These modalities surfaced in a very different time, in some cases for yogis in the forest trying to escape their bodies to find oneness with the universe. Many of us in this world need to connect more deeply with our own bodies and stop trying to escape the skin we live in.

For example, an element from Patanjali’s classical yoga is pratyahara. It’s often translated as “withdrawal of the senses.” This translation implies isolation, cutting ourselves off from sensual experience so that we can remove all distractions from the plan to break free from the prison of maya, or the illusion of reality.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that many of us have already spent a lot of time trying to escape our bodies, and not always to the best of effects.

The etymology of the word comes from “prati” which means “to move away from” and “ahara” which means “food.” For a long time, I was anorexic. I got so good at withdrawing from food I almost didn’t survive. Yoga is what brought me back; yoga helped me heal my relationship with my body and stop trying so hard to escape. Withdrawing my senses doesn’t work for me anymore. I have no designs on being subsumed into the universe right at the moment.

Perhaps, though, pratyahara can remain an aspect of my healing and physical empowerment if I reinterpret it a bit. Rather than trying to cut off the senses, I think of slowly drawing them closer. I notice the room I am in, and then my yoga mat. Then my sitting bones on the mat, my skin, my blood beneath my skin, my breath, and then all the deeper and subtler aspects of drawing my senses close. I am not cutting off the outside world, but finding a doorway to the internal one. This internal world can teach us about our senses and provide an intimacy that we can then share with the people we care about when we are ready to open our eyes again.

Many of these classical forms of yoga included road maps, not only for the renunciant who wants to hole up in a Himalayan mountain to meditate and fast, leaving behind everything he’s ever loved, but also for what’s known as the householder, people like me, who want to love, experience the world, care for their homes and kids, and eat food for thought and food for the belly. Many branches of yoga are all about living better in this world, rather than trying to escape it. This is a yoga that understands that having a body and being able to experience joy and pain is a wonderful, temporary gift, and that this gift must be fed with good food.

I’ll leave you with a few lines from Anne Michael’s poem Skin Divers, which is how I’ve started to understand pratyahara

We’ll never achieve escape
velocity, might as well sink into wet
firmament, learn to stay under,
breathing through our skin.

Julie Peters has been practising yoga from the tender age of 12, and it’s gotten her through everything from the horrors of teenagedom to a Master’s degree in English Literature. She is a performance poet, freelance writer, and Vinyasa Flow and Yin yoga teacher. She brings a creative style, warm energy, and food for thought to every class. www.jcpeters.ca