Pratyahara is the fifth of the eight limbs of yoga. It can be translated as withdrawal or control of the senses. When we engage the practice of pratyahara, we bring our focus from the world outside – the sights and sounds and smells around us – to that which is inside. Dhyana is the sixth limb; it is concentration, or the focusing of the mind on a single point.
We’ve all had experiences of engaging pratyahara and dhyana without consciously thinking about what we were doing. A great example can be found in memories of bath time as a child. If you were like me, there were times that you laid back in the bath, closing your eyes and submerging everything but your nose into the water. With eyes closed and ears filled with the warm water, sounds become muted and there is nothing to see. The water, at near body temperature and covering you all over reduces sensation of touch. With the nose resting just above the water and occupied only with breathing, smell recedes into the background. In this quiet cave of water, you could focus on one idea or one sensation easily. I loved doing this as a child. It made me feel so easy, happy, peaceful, and rested. I would probably do it now if I had a bigger bath and less cranky joints!
As adults, maybe you have fewer times when this happens naturally. The call of things outside is strong. There are phones ringing and emails binging. Every environment is full of visual stimulation. We feel a near constant pressure to respond to the individuals around us (even virtually around). The past and the future encroach upon the now with the memories of what has occurred (and assessments of each event) and the plans for future happenings. But, we can still engage these practices.
Withdrawal of the senses can be partly accomplished through manipulation of physical surroundings: turning off the phone and computer, finding a quiet place to be, using ear plug and/or an eye mask. This might then allow us the space to engage that single point of concentration. Or, sometimes, we can do both together, by focusing our mind on very simple things, such as a comfortable body part.
Rarely do most of us think about the parts of the body that feel comfortable. We know intimately the parts that hurt. We can describe pain clearly and with a multitude of fine degrees of difference. But, when a particular body part is just comfortable, just at ease, we tend to ignore it. We then miss the feeling of comfort and ease, and we deny ourselves a chance to calmly focus on a sensation that isn’t arousing, but calming.
In a recent class, I asked students sitting in guided meditation to think about a body part that was comfortable. As we sat with no shoes on, I suggested the little toe on the left foot (or the earlobe on the right ear). I asked my students to try to direct their minds to that toe, seeing what the body was feeling there. Later, when we were processing the meditation, everyone agreed that this way of focusing on a single, comfortable body part had helped them to draw in and to focus their minds.
So, perhaps the next time that you find your mind a whirl and feel that sensation of being drawn in a 1000 directions at once by the things in your environment calling to you, sit down and think about your little toe. Who knows where it might lead you…
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