Returning to the Self: the practice of pratyahara

For years I interpreted the teachings I heard about pratyahara to mean that I must physically and literally withdraw from the world in order to be a true disciple of yoga. I would react with dismay at this teaching; I was an engaged person, busy studying physical therapy in school to improve my yoga teaching, additionally I was married and contemplating having several children. I sometimes worried that unless I learned to separate myself from the world I was a lesser or inferior yoga student.

Today I feel differently, I realized life is about interaction and that many of those interactions are about conflict: conflict with those I love and conflict with those I do not. In fact, I do not even need another person to be in conflict. I can be, and occasionally am, in conflict within myself. How am I to withdraw when I am so completely enmeshed in relationships, in life, in the world as a whole?

I like to believe that Patanjali means something different from a simple
withdrawal from life. Today the practice of pratyahara means to me that while I participate in the task at hand, I remain separate from my reactions. In other words, no matter how much meditation and postures and breathing I practice, I still continue react to the people and situations around me. This reaction in and of itself is not the problem; my attachment to the reaction is. Where the practice of pratyahara is manifested is the space between the stimulus that comes into my nervous system via the sense organs and my reaction to that stimulus.

Practice gives me the choice about my reaction. I can choose to dance with that stimulus or I can choose to step back and not add my conscious participation with the stimulus. In other words, the variable is me and how I choose to use my energy. If I physically retreat to a cave in the mountains I can still agitate my nervous system; I can still generate thoughts and re-live past reactions which are stimulating. To me the practice of pratyahara is not about running away from stimulation which is basically impossible anyway, but rather practicing pratyahara is about remaining in the middle of a stimulating environment and consciously not-reacting to it.

Pratya comes from the word pratyaya. Pratyaya are the internal seeds, the basic tendencies in our nature which are there from birth to death. They are the basis of our personality. The word ahara means food or nutrition. Normally in our day-to-day lives, we are concentrated and extroverted in the outside world, so the mind, the senses and the pratyaya, these internal tendencies and seeds of consciousness, are receiving nutrition from outside, from objects, events, situations and interactions in the external world. So, pratyahara means a practice which internalizes the senses and the mind so that the mind begins to receive its nutrition from within. The pratyaya begin to receive nutrition from within. This is said to be the first stage in mental training, when we can learn to internalize the senses and the mind at will. —Swami Satyadharma Saraswati