When We Can’t Vanquish Sensation …

Is there a movie more quotable than the Princess Bride?

Personally, I don’t think so.

And this quote from the doggedly determined Inigo Montoya always itches my brain when find myself thinking about the somewhat misunderstood (maybe just conveniently overlooked) limb of Yoga: Pratyahara.

It’s commonly tossed around as “sensory withdrawal”. And taking it at surface level we often expect yoga class to magically buffer and comfort our bodies, balm our sense experience, and eliminate the things that agitate us. Then when that doesn’t happen, we assume something about the class failed us.

And while there is nothing inherently wrong with comfort,  interpreting the limb this way might lack the richness of what the word can offer.  Given our very human obsession with making everything all better – should we be surprised?

It’s so damn hard to just let things be.

The word itself is loaded. Pratyahara’s as Patanjali uses it in the Sutras has a meaning closer to something like ‘mastery over the influence of that which is external from Self’.

Pantanjali is not advocating for numbness. Pratyahara – like many Sanskrit words – has parts put together, a whole idea in one word how we might have an entire thought in one sentence.  There is an action, and an object of the action. In this case we can gain control over the stimulation of our external senses and human instincts. It’s important to consider that when we are practicing Yoga even the senses inside our physical body are also considered periphery to our true Self.

Our willingness or unwillingness to loosen our grip on the labels we attach to sensation offers a clear threshold between being on the side of meditation or the side of mere relaxation.

A lot of us are coming to Yoga for ‘relief’ – specifically physical and mental relief.
We want a certain prop, a certain lighting, a certain mood, a certain song (or no song).
Not too hard.
Not too hot.
Not too fast.
Not too slow.
Not too long.

In essence we are looking for yoga to balm our sensations, especially when those sensations are hot, and painful.

We get so scared of tipping over the edge that we build a fence for ourself that’s actually miles and miles shorter than our true potential. In this way, negative sensations and the fear they evoke keeps us safe, well guarded, and playing in a very small sandbox of experience.

Supressing, balming, numbing, and pacifying pain becomes a sideways effort to gain control, a habit that we think will offer relief. But the relief is temporary, and our fence keeps getting smaller.

Yoga seems to have little to say about getting rid of pain (in fact discomfort seems to be a certain, guarantee). But, it has a lot to say about gaining positive control over our obsession with it, and how to prevent inevitable pain from becoming our suffering in our essence.

Yoga Sutra 2.54-55 

When the  sensations and instincts cease to be defined by their object/source, then they can go back to the mental realm, from where they came. This is pratyahara. Through turning inward from the senses, instincts, and reflexes then we become sovereign over our human inclination to remain with those objects.

In other words when we allow sensation to just be sensation without attaching it too firmly to the source of the sensation we can begin to let the sensation live without allowing it to wage war on our inner world.

So, feeling better isn’t the point?

Maybe not.  Relief might actually be simply a beautiful side effect of getting stronger and more resilient.

Our recoiling from the sensation is exactly the opposite of what Pratyhara actually means. Rather our willingness to let go of attachment to the physical sensation, believe in our snap judgements, and loosening the grip on our preferences creates a threshold between meditation and mere relaxation.

Amplifying Our Inner Resource

Life hurts. Discomfort and pain seem to be the agreement we enter in exchange for this beautiful opportunity to be alive. But all of our energy and time and attention doesn’t have to be fixated on the hurt – like a magnifying glass that lights an ant on fire. Nor, does ignoring the hurt or straight up avoiding anything that might antagonize quite hit the mark as truly practicing pratyahara.

Rather let’s let the hurt be with us, something that might be a part of us, but not ALL of us.  Practicing a control over the external sensation allows us to stop waging war with agitation, it takes away the megaphone of hurt which lessens its power, and in the process we amplify our own inner resource.

So it doesn’t matter whether it is a hot sweaty flow, or a slow guided meditation, our obsession with how our physical body feels is the perfect gateway into practicing a mastery over our senses.

Become a Witness of Your Sensation

Does this mean we need to go stand in the middle of a noisy room and ‘meditate perfectly’ – otherwise we’ve failed?

No, that would be setting ourselves up to fail.  It is helpful to start where we are. So if today it is a physical agitation – like you slept funky – start there.  Maybe it is an emotional annoyance – start there.  Don’t leave it outside of the practice room. Bring it in, and work with it.

Notice what you feel during seated or moving meditation. Label it simply ‘sensation’.

Then begin to focus your breath towards the sensation, rather than away from it.

Imagine the breath getting bigger around the source of the ache or pain.

Keep a light attention on the source of the sensation, without putting a label on it as ‘bad’ or trying to fix it.

Just be with it. Breathe with it as long as you can withstand.

If there comes a time when the sensation is too great to breath through, pause, reset and begin again. If the breath gets ragged, pause, reset and begin again. If the mind wanders, pause, reset and begin again.

This practice can help us discern not only true essence from sensation, but also have a keener understanding of the true communication of the sensation – allowing for more discernment over the next course of action or whether or not any additional action to resolve an issue is actually necessary at all.

Maybe this practice happens just for a couple minutes during a class. Then maybe it lengthens to 5, 10, 20 or even 60 minutes of attention simply on sensation and breath – all the while you might be moving or not moving at all. You may notice when you cross the threshold from experiencing sensation to Witnessing it. Then from witnessing it to witnessing that you are simply present. Then from bring present autonomously to realizing that you are not your body or base instincts but rather you are connected to everything and everyone within the moment. That connectedness becomes bigger and more real than the sensation you started with.

When those flickers are of awareness happen breath them in, and let them go.

There’s no winning.

There’s no failure.

There’s only practice.


About the author:

Julia Lopez – ERYT500, YACEP, CPT, Certified Life Coach

Julia is a teacher that believes principles and practice of Yoga are transformative tools way to experience vibrant living that is rooted in true confidence and contribution!  Through the offering of asana and meditation, coupled with a deep respect for exercise science and the magic of the human body, Julia weaves classes that use the body as a metaphor to speak to the Spirit.

A lifelong student of yoga, first coming to the practice at the age of 16, Yoga expanded from personal practice to lifelong calling when she began teaching in her early twenties. Now, Julia’s extensive study of Yoga philosophy and the human body has led her to her most meaningful role yet, as the developer of Honest Soul Yoga’s formats and yoga programming. She is excited to see yoga-based formats founded on personalized intensity and pacing (not levels, or pose-chasing) shake up an industry in deep need of a reboot, and humbled to watch the HSY community embrace Yoga that challenged and uplifts mind, body, and soul.