Eastern Philosophy for Contemporary Times: Self-Isolation and the 5th Limb of Yoga, Pratyahara

With people all over the world going in to lock down in light of the Coronavirus, it may seem somewhat ironic that we are becoming a (global) nation, united in self-isolation.

There are, however, only so many times you can clean your living space and with no estimated end date for social-life lockdown, we might have more time on our hands than we initially expected.

In these coming blog posts titled: Eastern Philosophy for Contemporary Times, I will be introducing some ancient Eastern/Yogic philosophical concepts which bear great relevance to this current situation. It is great to see so many people choosing to embrace various practices, hobbies and art forms as we enter these uncertain and challenging times. I hope these drops of yogic wisdom can serve to accompany and inspire whatever you may be up to. Enjoy and stay safe !x

Pratyahara


Pratyahara is the 5th limb on the Eightfold Path of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga Sutra. Coming after the 5 Yamas (universal restraints), the 5 Niyamas (observed purifying disciplines), Asana (comfortable seat; the physical postures of yoga) and Pranayama (the breathing techniques which expand Prana, the vital life force which sustains us), Pratyahara is one step closer to the ultimate goal of Union in Yoga, or the 8th and final limb, Samadhi.


So, what is Pratyahara?

‘Pratya’ means drawing back or retreating; ‘Ahara’ means nourishment.

Thus, Pratyahara means, “to withdraw oneself from that which nourishes the senses”.


Simply put, Pratyahara is withdrawing and going inwards, something you have probably heard your yoga teacher say in class. On the deeper level of being, Pratyahara is the practice of detachment from all external sensory stimuli.

Simply put, Pratyahara is withdrawing and going inwards, something you have probably heard your yoga teacher say in class.

On the deeper level of being, Pratyahara is the practice of detachment from all external sensory stimuli.

Through interiorisation in meditation, we go inwards and withdraw from that which stimulates our minds through the senses.

Thoughts, of course, are bound to arise but the deeper we go, the less we identify with them. Instead we become witness to the rising and passing of these thoughts, observing the subtler energies within ourselves.

In this way, Pratyahara is linked very closely to the 5th Yama, Aparigraha, or non-possessiveness. This is because all of our attachments are rooted in the external, including the thoughts we have about ourselves. It is these attachments to material posessions and ideas about ourselves that feed the ego, leading us to project in to the future and taking us away from the present moment.


A quick thought experiment: Have you ever thought about truth? Perhaps, but you will never have thought truth.

A thought implies a division between a subject and an object, as we create meaning through differentiation. These dualities, after all, bring our manifested world in to being but they are not fixed and are constantly changing! The goal of yoga is simply to transcend these dichotomies, to rest in the unity of oneness, the ultimate truth, but more on that in a later post!

As humans we of course rely on our senses (and thoughts) to experience and navigate the world, telling us when we are hungry and when we are tired. It is our developed cognitive capacities which allow us to interpret sensory inputs further: to differentiate between subjects and objects, ourselves and others. This allows humans to engage in complex relationships, social communication and action.

But as human society has developed, our senses are increasingly bombarded with information. Stimulation is at an all-time high and our concentration has fallen to the lowest end of the spectrum. We have more disposable income, more selfies and more media, yet we seem to worry more. We get lost in the past, project into the future and are not satisfied with what we have now.

Pratyahara is to withdraw from all of this: to realise and actualise our true, eternal, inner being.

By withdrawing from external stimuli and the thoughts it feeds, we reflect, observe and rest in the stillness we find. It may seem strange at first, because we are so used to constant stimulation, but it is through rooting in our own inner stillness and peace that we can return to the world more grounded and centred.


Right now, this is a priority. Fear, panic and anxiety risk destabilising us and our actions. When our actions come from such a place of fear, they will be of little to help to anyone- least of all ourselves.


For most of us, the isolation and withdrawal we face right now is not born of choice. Pratyahara asks us to take this time to rest, reflect and go inwards, experiencing a truer nature beyond the world of external stimulation and constant thought. It is through taking this time out that we can return: a calmer presence, more algined with our truer self and with the ability to act from this place of inner stillness, becoming less reactive to external stimuli, however adverse.

Written by Florence Harry

Disclaimer: I am aware that for some people, the situation of isolation may be especially challenging due to domestic abuse, overcrowding, unsuitable housing and so forth.


These philosophical bites are given with open hands, to spread ancient knowledge, and not as any sort of doctrine on how you should live your life. Acknowledging models such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the ascending Chakra system, it is clear that basic foundations of security are the first priority in life, necessitating further growth. I hope our government, our communities and us as individuals do the most we can to protect and support the vulnerable and each other in these unprecedented times. The future is uncertain but let it open the door to transformation, so that we come out of this phase of withdrawal with new insights in to how we can live as humans on this planet. Namaste x


And a final photo: Taken in Ladakh after my *real* isolation experience of Vipassana, a ten-day meditation retreat "to see things as they really are". A wonderful nun watching the sunset over the mountains in Ladakh, Northern India, after the retreat when we could finally all communicate! Post on this experience coming in the future... :)



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"The sun and the moon, the individual soul and the supreme soul and in the same way, the union of all dualities, is called Yoga." Yogabīja, 87a-90b.

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