It is a commonly held misconception that in yoga we switch off.
Take the posture savasana; you are supine, eyes closed. An observer might think you are asleep. You are not! Yes, you have put down the screens, stepped away from the to-do list, the noise, the intensity of everyday life, but you have not switched off, you are tuning in.
Roots: In the ancient source, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, he sets out an eight limbed system of practice which includes asanas (postures), pranayama (breath control) and also pratyahara, or “the conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses”. Hmmm, confusing, what does that mean?
I have come to think of it like this. I don’t think Patanjali meant for us to switch off our sense, or to withdraw permanently from the world to live in a cave. Instead, firstly to send attention inwards, withdrawing from external stimuli, paying attention to what we can feel in our own body/mind. Secondly, to not react to what we observe, but simply to observe. Then there is space between the sensory stimulation and the response.
Back to the example of Savasana. practising Pratyahara:
1. Lie down on your back and get comfortable. Allow the body to be still, let go and feel supported by the ground. Slow your breathing. Muscles will begin to relax because they are not working to hold you up.
2. Draw your attention inwards, becoming aware of your breath and what the body can feel. External stimulation begins to be less important, you do not react to noises in the room, it is like you are at the bottom of a well.
This going inwards is pratyahara. It gives us the space to listen to our body, the subtle nuances as we move through our asana practice, the feeling of our palms touching, the breath moving the body, energy levels, the feet on the ground, residual tension. In turn, this paying attention gives the mind a break from the bombardment of reactions, judgments, self criticism and other chatter it generates so much of the time.
Of course, we cannot move through everyday life like this all of the time, we would never get anything done (!) but we can have moments of being more tuned into what we are feeling. If something frustrates or angers us, we can notice the clenching in our jaw, the tightness in our shoulders, and we can give ourself space before we react….. step by step!