Last week I wrote a researched and technical essay about Patanjali’s fifth limb of ashtanga yoga, pratyahara. As I wrote in the essay, simply called Pratyahara Sense Withdrawal, pratyahara is the somewhat elusive and overlooked limb of Patanjali’s yoga system, which many of us stumble across and experience without even realising it. Two years ago if I had read the essay I wrote last week I would have been appreciative of the theory and technique, but still not quite understanding the experience of withdrawing my senses. Yoga is an experiential practice, after all. As Sri Pattabhi Jois always famously said, 99% and 1% theory.
The following essay is the less academic and more experiential version of how I stumbled across my own baby understandings of pratyahara. The yogis who helped me in this realisation also made me realise how much of a baby (if not a fetus) I am and many of us are on the yogic path, scratching just the tip of the iceberg and having yet to dive into the water and explore the true depths of this system. (Hint: pratyahara is one sure way into the water!)
The yogis I speak of are those that are typically considered to be myths or legend. Or, at least, a calibre of yogi that in this modern age are all but extinct. But, they exist, hidden away in the caves of the high Himalayas where they can focus on their yoga practices and spiritual pursuits. When I say yoga practices I do not necessarily mean ten surya namaskara A and B followed by standing postures, seated, and finishing postures. These yogis have basically graduated, shall we say, from asana practice and spend most of their time (at least eight hours a day) sitting in samadhi, preparing for sitting in samadhi, or entertaining the occasional inquisitive baby yogi like me.
In reading this essay perhaps those who appreciate the technicality of my last essay but still can’t quite grasp the tangible and experiential aspects of pratyahara can discover a little something extra in the shared experience of another baby yogi.
I had been faithfully and consistently practicing and studying Patanjali’s eight limbed system of yoga and the subsequent Ashtanga Vinyasa system of yoga for five years. In my own study and practice of the Yoga Sutras and the eight limbs I found I was able to make the first four limbs (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama) comprehensive and practical enough to at least work on, but was always stumped by what Patanjali meant by learning to withdraw my senses.
Most teachers I had asked over the previous years usually regurgitated some commentary on the Yoga Sutras, but I never really got what withdrawing my senses was all about. Some told me that it would come, as all the limbs grow and blossom with practice. But, how would I know when it arrived? All this baby/fetus yogi confusion until one day the beginning of understanding pratyahara found me in the Indian Himalayas.
I had made my way to Rishikesh, India to study Ashtanga yoga with Yogi Kamal Singh. One month into practice we had a week off to rest. But, I didn’t feel like resting and something else seemed to be calling me. I was in Rishikesh, the yoga capital of the world and the gateway to the great Himalayas. It was the whisperings of these mountains that beckoned me to venture into their depths.
Early one morning instead of sleeping in I was riding in a bumpy collective jeep, squished between several Indians, winding up into the mountains on our way to the sacred village of Gangotri, where the great river Ganges begins. Eighteen hours in jeeps and one cold sleep in Uttarkashi later, I arrived in the little hamlet of Gangotri, a quiet and simple village lulled by the rushing jade waters of the baby mother Ganga and cradled by the snowy peaks of the high Himalayas.
My first evening I dined on noodle soup with my neighbour, Tomas, who happened to be the only other foreigner in town. While filling me in about the four hours of electricity a day, buckets of hot water for bathing available to purchase for 100 rupees, shockingly freezing nighttime temperatures, the one place to eat in town, and what I would need to trek the 18 kilometres to Gomukh (the glacier where at every moment the Ganges is born), he also mentioned to me something about hidden cave yogis. Hidden cave yogis!?
It was true. Spiritual practitioners who had renounced the world and receded to the caves of the Himalayas in this holy place to dedicate their lives to the study and practice of yoga. Who were they and where could I find them? As it turned out, Tomas had been in Gangotri for several months for the purpose of learning from and meditating with these yogis, and was thus the perfect man to direct me to them. (Or, at least, to the ones that would talk to us baby yogis, as there are apparently many adult yogis who won’t even come out of samadhi to talk to teenager yogis!)
The next day I set out on my mission to find and talk to these mythical cave yogis. Though I could write an entire book relaying my experiences and learnings from these brilliant human beings, for now I will focus on the subject of this essay, which is pratyahara. Though I asked each of these sadhakas to summarise for me each of Patanjali’s eight limbs, I emphasised pratyahara, as I felt I was on the precipice of stumbling upon pratyahara in a more tangible way than regurgitated yoga sutras.
Later one night, a wiry and thickly bearded yogi with oversized shoes and orange robes (see above photo) led Tomas and me through the darkness, along the humming river to meet one of his well spoken teachers. There was no moon, and the frigid night was pierced with stars like diamonds poured across the sky.
We entered into a cave like stone hut and sat down on folded wool in the dimly lit space. Our host, the well respected yogi, prepared hot chai for all of us as we sat silently in the near freezing darkness. “So,” he began while pouring steaming chai into small cups, “how may I help you?” Tomas asked his usual questions about meditation and I asked my usual interrogation about the eight limbs. The little wiry yogi sat and listened as his teacher and friend share his wisdom with us.
We spoke about many aspects of yoga; and I even thought I saw him smile when I sheepishly told this being who had been meditating in these caves for decades that I had been doing asana practice for five years. After lightly scolding me for not being able to recite the one yoga sutra about asana in Sanskrit off the top of my head (scold-able, even for baby yogis), he continued: “ah, asana,” he laughed and then sighed, “the limb that distracts so many from the complete experience of ashtanga yoga. Such an obsession you have in the west with the body and asana.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “and that is why I have come to talk to you. To learn about the other seven limbs of Patanjali’s yoga.”
“Each limb arises out of the others,” he said simply.
“Yes, so far that has been my understanding. Most of the limbs I can at least grasp the theory of, but I just can’t make any sense of what pratyahara is and how to practice it.”
“Can you feel your prana?” he asked.
“Sorry?” I was surprised by the seemingly unrelated interest in life force energy.
“Are you aware of your energy body?” he rephrased the question.
I thought for a moment before replying, and then answered that I was.
“Good. So you already practice pratyahara.” He smiled and offered more hot chai, which was the only elixir for our frozen limbs. I pondered his words and sipped the chai through its comforting steam. “You are not understanding,” he said.
“No, I’m afraid not.” I admitted, “I still don’t understand how one withdraws the senses.”
“Pratyahara. Sense withdrawal. It means to maintain the solidity of the connection with God within you, so that your attachment or aversion to that which you understand and cognate with your senses in the outer world does not disturb you. When you experience awareness of your pranic body, you already have the function of turning inwards. You see, the experience of the limbs all arise spontaneously with the practice of the preceding limbs. And sometimes without our intellectual knowing, we experience them.”
Suddenly, in a flash, I understood the beginnings of pratyahara. And this cave yogi was right, I had been practicing it without even realising. Even in simple ways in every day life. Every time I had stubbed my toe and not reacted to the pain shooting up from my foot, every time I had smelled something delicious cooking and had not let it distract me from whatever I was doing, or every time I remained undisturbed in the face of commotion on a busy street or in the metro. These are all very simple but real life manifestations of pratyahara. He must have seen the look of epiphany on my face because he started laughing and said “very good.”
He told me I could practice at any moment in time, beginning by closing my eyes, regulating my breath, and tapping into my pranic body. Prana is, after all, the life force or god force that moves inside and through us. This can be done through visualisation and by using visualisation as a tool for exploring the inner and subtle body. Also, via the tool of visualisation, we can visualise a membrane around us where any external distractions slide off of us and our internal world, and the solidity of our connection to god and ourselves, remain undisturbed. These are simple real life baby step practices for baby yogis to learn more about their capacity for pratyahara.
We continued to talk with the cave yogi until even my brain had gone numb with the mountain cold. I walked back to my guesthouse in the darkness, still buzzing with revelation.
Over the next days I trekked 40 kilometres into the high Himalayas to and from Gomukh, sleeping in a frozen goat cave like ashram where one evening I listened amusedly to a swami try to convince a geologist of the existence of God. The entire excursion, through all the discomforts of exhaustion, hunger, back pain, backpack straps rubbing the skin off my shoulders, sleeping on a stone floor, feeling the coldest I had ever felt in my life, losing toe nails, and destroying my feet, I maintained a connection to that solidity which is inside all of us. And in doing so none of these discomforts bothered me, allowing for my little adventure to be a rudimentary baby yogi practice of pratyahara, to be an unexpected experience of going inwards, and to be a humbling act of devotion.
In a funny way, my trek to the origin of the Ganges was basically a really great extended yoga practice, and one of the happiest experiences of my life.
Photos courtesy of my friend Tomas.