Did you know that the average American sees over 3,000 advertisements per day? Our lives are crammed full of constant stimulation: the sight or smell of rich food, the hum of traffic, the white noise of chatter around us. Mobile phones, Mp3 players, and laptops make it easier for us to bring noise and distraction almost everywhere.
Pratyahara, or sense deprivation, is the practice of distancing yourself from distraction and focusing on your inner awareness. It’s a practice of noticing your senses and turning them inward, so your senses provide strength instead of distraction. When you practice asana, you may notice that your muscles burn, or you may notice an adjustment you need in alignment. If thoughts about dinner or an important phone call intrude, but you bring focus back to your breath, that is the foundation of pratyahara. The food, the phone, and the outside world will still be there when class is over.
Sense and perception are two different things. Sight, smell, and so on are immediate and automatic functions. Perception is your interpretation of the senses: “That color is pretty” or “That smell is unpleasant.” Pratyahara is mindfully managing your perceptions so your senses don’t control you.
An important aspect of mindfulness is noticing without judging. To return to yoga class as an example: perhaps your instructor adjusts you in a posture. You can judge yourself and say “I did that pose incorrectly! I’m so bad at this!” or you can notice and appreciate the difference in alignment. Simply noticing these things will further your practice instead of distracting you from it. If you do find yourself making a judgment , don’t compound the problem by judging yourself for it! Just notice the judgment and bring your focus back to your breath. Noticing your own judgments and distractions, accepting, and refocusing will gradually create a habit of noticing instead of judging.
The limb of pratyahara doesn’t need to stay in the studio. It’s a way of life. This is part of bringing yoga “off the mat.” You can stay peaceful and serene during a presentation at the office, a quibble at the family table, a traffic jam, and so on, because you can detach perception from sense.