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Pratyahara: Withdrawing to See More Clearly

Updated: Apr 5, 2020

As this time of global crisis continues, I keep thinking that I don't have anything to say that isn't being said everywhere else. We've all had weeks now of emails from every business we've ever visited, every email list we've ever subscribed to, and every publication we've ever read, each giving us their opinions, hot tips, and assurances that they're following the news and making decisions in real time, so who needs more? But then, engaging with all of you via classes and creating this way to stay connected is entirely what is keeping me sane as I negotiate the reality of the moment.

So here we are.

In planning one of this week's livestream classes, I began thinking about the ideas of isolation, aloneness, and solitude. In all of their forms and connotations, positive and negative and everything in between. I turned to Rilke, that paragon of statements on solitude; here are only a few, but it’s almost shocking how many mentions you can find within his works:

Your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes, far in the distance.

Solitude is like the rain

rising from the sea to meet the nightfall

from the dim far distant plain ...

Solitude falls like rain in that gray doubtful hour

when the streets all turn into dawn ...

But your solitude will be a support and a home for you, even in the midst of very unfamiliar circumstances, and from it you will find all your paths.

In Yoga philosophy, one of the eight limbs of the yogic path is pratyahara. It’s been defined as "a naturally occurring uncoupling of sense organs from sense objects as awareness becomes interiorized." My brain cries out, What does that even meeean?! When practicing yoga asanas (the poses we move our bodies into and through), I think of pratyahara as a moving deeper within the space of the pose, withdrawing out of external stimulus and sense awareness and turning deeper into the internal experience of the moment. It is our link, our threshold, between our outer and inner worlds.

Our culture is on this same threshold. We’re being asked to move inward, physically. With many of our outward-facing activities unavailable to us, we’re also being asked to move inward, mentally. To withdraw. We can do so in fear, or we can do so consciously and with purpose. When we consciously and purposefully turn the mind inward, withdrawing from external stimuli, our energy is allowed to become more focused, more concentrated. It is with this focused energy we are able to see more clearly when we eventually come back to engage with the world.

It is my great hope that we can remember we have a choice during this difficult time. We can choose to live in the fear and the chaos, or we can choose to keep breathing. Some of us have the privilege of staying home during this time; some of us are out every day working in the chaos; some may be feeling calm, frightened, frozen, angry, sad….all of it is a part of feeling human. We can choose to keep breathing. Within any experience of this situation, we can remember our connection to our shared humanity. And we can choose to turn inward and allow that cocooning to help us come through to the other side with more strength and clarity.

Earlier this week, I shared some words on withdrawing from one of my favorite books, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, by David Whyte. I leave it for us all here, as a reminder for approaching this threshold with curiosity and gentleness:

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