Pratyhara is the 5th limb of the 8-limbed path of yoga. It means withdrawal of our five senses. Back in the day (or even today in some parts of the world), this looked like retreating to an ashram or cave and renouncing material goods and other sensory stimulators for some period of time. How can we get this sense of quietude in our crazy lives today? And as a preliminary matter, why should we?
We are all gifted with the fight or flight response. In times of danger, our nervous systems kick into high gear (with the help of adrenaline and cortisol pumping through our bodies) to help us make potentially life-saving decisions. But when activated too often, fight or flight can have seriously negative health effects. In our super busy world of always being connected to those around us, it can be a challenge to dissipate the cortisol in our systems and instead cultivate the release of feel-good chemicals like serotonin and oxytocin. Increased levels of cortisol in the body are associated with a whole host of problems – heart disease, cancer, insomnia, weight gain, to name a few. The way to combat this is to activate the body’s parasympathetic nervous system by slowing down the breath, taking some restorative yoga poses, getting enough sleep, and even sitting in stillness. That is where pratyhara comes in.
We need the downtime, though our minds might resist turning off the tv, pulling away from the latest Facebook status, or practicing yoga with no music. Such was my fate this morning, as I suddenly had to teach my 6 am class sans tunes (turns out the volume on the sound system was turned down). It was scary at first – no music, just the sound of my voice and the students’ breath for an hour? But then I realized that was what we all needed most. Quiet. Nothing to distract us from the sound of our breath and the sensations of the body. Simple, but not easy.
See if you can take some time of quiet, of being just with yourself. Put that phone away, even for just a few moments. And yes, as Simon and Garfunkel sang, bask in the “sound of silence.”