Sensory Deprivation: Pratyahara
Solving the Sensory-Overload Epidemic
The Sanskrit word "Pratyahara" translates as "withdrawal of the senses from objects." It is the fifth of a total of eight limbs of Raja Yoga - the systematic analysis and control of the mind. One might ask, "Why would I want to withdraw any of my senses from anything, including objects? Shouldn't I be paying more attention in life and not less?" The short answer is: we practice withdrawal of the senses in order to focus on what some of us call the sixth sense: intuition. We all have it, but to develop it we have to stop distracting ourselves with the other five.
Let's review the five senses of mere mortals (like us):
For the context of yoga, we'll toss out tasting, because it's not part of yoga practice as we know it. (Which reminds me - please don't chew gum in my yoga class. You know who you are.) Of the remaining four senses, which one would you give up temporarily in order to develop Pratyahara - the withdrawl of the senses from objects? Pratyahara is something that we practice in every yoga class when we close our eyes and instead use our ears to listen to the teacher's instruction and also to our inner voice of instruction. We listen to it tell us what is going on with our body in that particular moment and particular pose. Should I go a bit deeper, or is a modification more appropriate right now? Since we live here (in our body), maybe we should listen more intently to it.
Years ago, after getting frustrated because I couldn't get interested in The X-Files, my friend Helen recommended the show Fringe, which I ended up watching and loving. If you are at all interested in a repeated theme of sensory deprivation via floating in a salt water bath while enclosed in a tank as a means of time travel, by all means watch it. We can achieve this in our bathtub with some bath salts, dim lights, and warm water Not the time travel part, but the sensory deprivation part of eliminating sight and sound. I'm a swimmer, so I understand this concept. The meditation is built in; easy-breezy.
What is an example to show the importance and benefit of sensory deprivation or withdrawal of the senses? If you aren't sleeping well, you could practice sensory deprivation via not taking your phone to bed with you. Or your Kindle. Or not keeping a television in your bedroom. Maybe you need a new mattress if your aren't sleeping well. A mattress past its expiration date can cause a myriad of problems like numbness of limbs due to lack of circulation, misalignment of hips, and general non-communication between your brain and your body due to the lack of support for those eight hours of your day.
Mask-wearing (which I'm still doing even though I'm vaccinated) has taught us to live with a temporarily modified sense of smell while moving through our daily lives from point A to point B. I'll take that brief sensory deprivation over contracting a debilitating and potentially fatal virus any day of the week, thanks. I wish we wore masks in 1985; my entire high school was saturated with Polo cologne.
"If I Could, I Would..."
If I could get away with it, I would have a pretty little basket full of blindfolds near the front door of my yoga studio for all of the "Blindfold Yoga" classes I would teach forevermore. I'm fairly certain no one would show up, though. Why would I enjoy teaching a yoga class where my students are blindfolded? To enhance my student's sense of hearing, to enhance their sixth sense of listening. If you know me, you know what I look like. (Thank you, Margret). After that personal identification, there is no reason to look at me during class, since I'm walking around talking you through a sequence. The exception to this condition of "blind" is being a new student to yoga. Being new to anything requires us to be "all eyes." Most of us need to use predominately our sense of sight in order to learn. I just started learning how to play the acoustic guitar, and almost two months in, I'm finally able not to look at my hands for most of the eight chords I've memorized.
A good teacher can communicate effectively with just his or her voice. Some people are more auditory than visual or kinesthetic (touch/physical activity learners), and we get there more quickly with vocal instruction. I happily plowed through many CD recordings (and before that, cassettes!) of Bryan Kest and Baron Baptiste talking me through yoga sequences. There is great advantage for the visual learner who is willing to withdraw the sense of sight to learn yoga. After all, who cannot agree that we as a society are visually overstimulated? It's like after eating Thanksgiving dinner - you are so overfed that you can't eat another bite. We are so visually overstimulated that we can't see that "no left turn" sign on 50th & Leavenworth Street.
My friend Marjorie recently shared with me that as per the directions on her eye drops that prevent glaucoma, she is to close her eyes for two minutes after application. For those two minutes, she walks around her house, testing herself on the "lay of the land." She does it successfully and without fear. A "no tripping, no falling rule" is a good rule to live by. One of my yoga students recently revealed an incident where she was looking at her phone while walking, and as a result, managed to miss the first step going down a flight of stairs. She bit her tongue and her neck was sore the next day, but she did not fall. She credits her yoga practice for being able to catch herself. Another of my yoga students contracted poison ivy this week. Talk about the sensory deprivation of touch.
Yoga teaches us that a good goal in life is to know yourself very, very well. Ask yourself which of the senses you lead with for learning. Now, choose a task and withdraw that sense. Deprive yourself of it for just that one, brief task. Observe what your other senses do in response. Can you hear your intuitive voice above the clatter and hum of your thoughts? Does your body begin to tell you what it needs? Can you sense danger ahead? Joy? Cobwebs begin to clear; signs are seen. Whatever you do, just don't turn left on Dodge Street, and you'll be fine.