One of the branches on yoga’s 8-limbed path is called pratyahara, or “withdrawal of the senses.” It is turning inward and beginning to release attempts to exercise control over the external forces.
The past week and a half has weighed heavy. The light of an actor I respected and admired went out, my sister-in-law’s father went to peace after his battle with cancer, and then a friend was taken from the world in an accident so sudden I don’t know that I’ve actually wrapped my head around it. I still expect that the next time I visit where we once worked together, I will see my friend with her red coffee cup and mischievous smirk, giving me a half-annoyed grin because I didn’t bring cookies for the visit.
What is most difficult about the latter loss is that many of my friends and acquaintances also loved her. To watch so many people you care for grieving a loss is hard.
The grief I felt kept catching me off-guard. Out in Crystal City on Saturday morning, I saw within a crowd of shoppers a dark-haired woman wearing an orange sweater and did a double-take. There was a mistake! It wasn’t you. Or waiting for a receipt for parking and finding myself suddenly thinking about everyone from her supervisor, her fiancé, her family, the people she had coffee with every day, even her dog.
To ignore sadness and push it away so that I could go through the motions of teaching felt disingenuous. I turned to practice for healing and thought of pratyahara.
Pratyahara is the moment in yoga when we let go of attention to physical technique and turn inward. The senses are calmed down, no longer seeking to break down the constant flood of information. What we hear, smell, taste, touch, and see fall away, and we enter a place of tranquility. This does not happen overnight, and it is often incomplete. Some days I am able to close my eyes and let go of all that my vision is taking in, but it is not so easy to simply notice sounds and let them pass by. The curious mind wonders, What is that? Where is it coming from? Oh, that reminds me! I need to…
No. I don’t need to do anything. Let go.
In practicing pratyahara, we often return to pranayama (breath control), the limb that comes just before pratyahara. If you’ve been in a yoga class, perhaps a teacher has said to you, “If thoughts become intrusive, just listen to your breathing.” The breath is a tool, even a guide, for accessing this internal space.
I realized that while highly inappropriate to my pass the grief I felt along to my students, this experience of pratyahara might help them access the places within their own selves that were in need of healing. I came across a passage from Rolf Gates’ Meditations from the Mat that pinpointed it eloquently:
“Letting go of our pain is not an overnight affair, but the process quickly gains momentum. It’s a little like water moving through a hole in a dam. First, there is just a trickle, then a small flow, then before you know it there is a torrent. The most miraculous part of this process is in the trickle stage. This is when you see the dramatic courage, the thrilling movement and change. It is the addict’s first few months of sobriety, the battered woman leaving home for good, the forty-something businessperson leaving a job and going to medical school. It’s picking up the pieces after a great loss. It’s trying again after bitter failure. This is the time when you find out who your friends are and what a friend really is. Later, once the flow has become established, the work changes. Now the challenge is in staying green and fresh, remaining established in a beginner’s mind. Pratyahara is right down there at ground zero, in the field where heroes are made. It is our first steps into the light. The remaining limbs on the eight-limb path are about maintenance and growth. Pratyahara is about beginnings.”
I am a firm believer that the universe sends us what we need, and it is no mistake that my book fell open to that page when I sought comfort. I put my trust in the honesty of that message and read it to a room of students meditating in a supported heart-opening posture. Throughout the rest of our practice together, I challenged them to close their eyes as we went through asanas.
Listen to your body; it will not lie to you. We can tell ourselves all sorts of messages in our minds, but the body will never lie to you. It can’t. Feel the life entering and the excess exiting with every cycle of breath. You don’t have to control anything.
Afterward, I was thanked by several students. I was astounded by their kind words; some had never had a yoga experience like that before that morning. It is a challenge—how do we retreat inward when right outside the door is a shopping mall buzzing with people?
We simply try. We make a new beginning.
Pratyahara is starting to pick up the pieces and doing the work because we choose to thrive. When we stop needing to control everything—our joy, our suffering, even the moments that feel mundane—we make space for real healing, new growth, and the chance to experience a deeper connection to all living things.
And the part of it that seems almost like it should be magic is the most genuine truth of all. When we recognize that connection, the realization comes that no one is ever really gone.