Pratyahara: the art of non-reaction

So much of what I am learning in this yoga teacher training is applicable to my daily life and to skills I am already attempting to improve. So today, I thought I would share a little bit of what I have been learning with y’all!

I am studying yoga at a school called PadmaKarma located on Kovalam Beach in Kerala, India. Though the focus of this course is hatha yoga, there is a whole bunch of other stuff all tied together in there and most of what you learn in yoga is not really restricted to just one single style, but each style does have different parts of yoga that they emphasize over the others.
Learning about yoga in India is great because there is so much culture and history tied into the practice and you get to hear really awesome stories from your teacher about how the god Ganesha was a little boy made out of clay or something whose head got chopped off and then replaced with an elephant’s head. This – my teacher tells us without a trace of sarcasm – was the world’s first organ transplant.

Anyway, in Hatha yoga (aka. Raja yoga, aka. Ashtanga yoga – everything in sanskrit has a million different names) there are eight steps (or limbs) to follow that will lead you towards enlightenment – woo hoo! The first four limbs have to do with guidelines for behavior as well as asanas (physical exercise) and pranayama (breathing techniques). These limbs focus on mastering the body and set the stage for the second four limbs, which are all about mastering the mind. Today I am going to talk about the fifth limb: Pratyahara.

Managing the senses

On a basic level, Pratyahara is all about managing the senses so that one is not controlled or distracted by them. Everything we experience in this world is taken in through the senses, whether it’s painful or pleasurable. Even emotions or thoughts are based on sensory input that we have received from external events.

While our various senses allow us to experience so many amazing things and are the basis for pretty much everything we do, the pleasure and pain we receive from them can become a dominating force in our lives. So many of our actions are based solely on either seeking out pleasure or avoiding pain and when we are not able to do these things, we feel very upset. We think the hurt we feel will last forever and we are disappointed when our joy is temporary.
We tend to forget that everything in life is impermanent, that change is the only constant, that both negative and positive events are inevitable in our lives. When we are ruled by our senses and the information we take in from them, we live on a very instinctual level going from one pleasure source to the next without ever pausing to think if these short-term pleasures are really fulfilling us or not. And when we constantly do whatever we can to avoid facing pain, we miss out on chances for introspection and a deeper understanding of our own self.

Obviously there are many types of pain that it is wise to avoid and it is also perfectly fine to seek out pleasurable experiences – in fact, I highly encourage seeking our pleasure on a daily basis! Treat yo’self! But obviously there needs to be a balance, as well as a realization that everything can’t be pleasurable and fun all the time. While there is obviously nothing wrong with feeling happy and enjoying yourself, it is an addiction to these sensations that ends up causing trouble. How do you act when those feelings go away? Are you content to just be and to rest in a sort of middle ground, or do you have the urge to find the next high right away, afraid of what might happen if you don’t?

So, bringing it back to Pratyahara, if you are able to learn to react less drastically to the information your senses bring in, you will be less distracted, less emotional, and more able to steady your focus on things like meditation, which will eventually bring you to ultimate enlightenment.

While it is not necessarily my goal in life to give up all my earthly possessions and attain absolute enlightenment, I would really love to work on becoming less affected by the many daily stimuli that I often give way too much importance to. This ties right in with what Mark Manson talked about in his book “The Subtle Art of not giving a Fuck”. We need to learn to be more discriminate about the things we give our attention and our energy to and stop giving a fuck about all the little things that don’t matter. (I’m not sure the yogis would really put it quite this way, but, you know, same basic sentiment).

External vs. Internal

Importantly, there is a big difference between joy that is caused by external circumstances and joy that is caused by your internal state. External circumstances are largely outside our own control. A friend gives you a nice compliment, you are stuck in traffic, someone gives you a gift, your house gets broken into, the weather is beautiful, a close friend dies, you finally get the recognition you’ve been waiting for. While there may be ways we can live our lives to increase or decrease the chances of some of these things happening, overall there are still going to be good times and bad times – it is unavoidable.
When we base our happiness on our outer circumstances, we live in a constant wild rollercoaster of emotions and that can be truly exhausting. All of our actions are based on whether or not we think they will lead to favorable outcomes that will make us happy and when we don’t get the outcome we expected, we lose our shit.

Again, the main idea behind Pratyahara is that of non-reaction. We gain control over our senses by not reacting strongly to whatever information comes in – this is much easier said than done! We are constantly bombarded by our various senses throughout the day: back pain, noisy traffic, weird smells, biting our cheek, etc. So many of these things are outside our immediate control, and yet we often end up reacting in such negative ways to whatever information we receive that isn’t deemed favorable.

Something that can really help improve your skills of non-reaction is meditation. Even if it’s only for five minutes each day, building a meditation habit really does train your brain to react less to external stimuli and helps create that sense of inner peace that is needed to do so.

When you meditate and focus your energy on a single point, such as the breath, you are practicing the art of not reacting to any other sensations that come up. If you think of a painful memory while meditating and you get upset, work on simply noticing that reaction, noticing the pain you feel, and then letting it go without judgement. Sometimes we even feel emotions in specific areas of the body – again, if these come up during meditation, notice where you feel them, examine them, observe the feelings, and then let them go.

It takes a lot of practice to get good at this, but if you keep up a constant routine, you will start to see improvements that will follow you throughout your day and help you become less reactive. When your peace and happiness comes from a deep sense of calm within, you are much less likely to ride a wild roller coaster of emotions each day as events that seem either favorable or unfavorable inevitably pop up.

Maintaining your inner peace

When things are going great, it’s easy to feel mindful and blissed out and calm, but often the real test comes when shit hits the fan. I often find that I can be loving and open and trust the universe when it seems like everything is working out perfectly, but when it starts to seem like every door is slamming in my face, I can easily become angry and think this whole mindfulness thing is total bullshit. Sigh…it’s a constant struggle!

But it is a struggle worth having, because the more you practice, the more often you surrender and accept what is, the more you will see that it really does all work out in the end. Even when really terrible things happen in your life, they are temporary and the pendulum will always end up swinging back the other way eventually. Of course, we can’t just sit around waiting for things to get better – it is up to us to take charge of our lives and work towards a better future for ourselves when things aren’t going well.

Tragic events will happen in all of our lives, they are inevitable, and those are the times when it is the hardest to maintain a sense of peace and calm and trust that it will all be ok. It is important to feel whatever emotions we are feeling, and to feel them deeply. To deny those emotions would simply be unhealthy and would not move us any closer to the healing we need. But it is also important to remind ourselves that the pain will not last forever, that we still have a life to live and nobody else is going to live it for us.

This is why it is so important to practice the art of Pratyahara when everything is going great, so that we have the skill to rely on when things get dark. By learning to become less reactive and by cultivating inner strength and joy, we are instead being proactive and building a strong foundation for ourselves so that our house does not crumble in on us in the future.

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