The Pratyahara of Geography

Purity…what we eat, what we consume

Citified Pratyahara

Three key words in business are: location, location, location. Yogis, in the business of enlightenment, can learn something here. Business wisdom advises that if the store is not well placed, success is doubtful no matter how saleable the goods.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra guides many to useful steps on the path to Samadhi (peace, happiness). As a Yoga culture, most tend to know most about Asana (step three, posture). If practitioners spent some time on the yoga path they might have learned about Yama (step one, restraint) and Niyama (step two, observances). Perhaps they have some experience with Pranayama (step four, breath control).

For many, though, the experience with Patanjali’s 8 limbs ends just after the fourth step. Yet the subtler steps, the more internal ones that lead directly to the goal, the state of Yoga, begin with fifth, Pratyahara. The Yoga Sutra, like all scripture, reveals timeless wisdom that needs to be related to our present circumstances, to those with modern lifestyles.

The most common definition for Pratyahara is withdrawal of the senses. And frequently we think of that as meditation, with Yoga teachers explaining the essence of it as attention away from the mundane concerns that are the crux of modern urban life – money, jobs, possessions – and instead taking attention inside oneself, toward the spiritual. People now live in a world infinitely more stimulating and distracting than the one in which Patanjali lived.

To apply the principle of Pratyahara to modern lives, one might expand the definition to include control of the senses, or focusing the senses. In an Asana practice, for instance,
Pratyahara might mean choosing to focus on the breath when one might tend to get distracted with vision (i.e. “what does his or her Asana look like) or smell (i.e. the aroma of the fresh croissants coming from the bakery next door).

Few would argue that living in a city makes it harder to be healthy. The pace, the stress, the pollution – all challenge our wellbeing. One famous yoga teacher recently said that enlightenment is very unlikely for one living in a city. The saying ‘when in Rome do as the Romans’ not only advises it might be helpful to blend in to our environment by doing what others are doing, it also indicates the truth that we do this automatically. So if the majority of people around us are primarily materially concerned, even at the expense of health and relationships, there is a momentum for us to do likewise.

With the number of yoga studios in cities still steadily growing, the question arises – are urban yogis wasting their money? Or is yoga’s growing popularity the result of city dwellers’ need to balance the stressful effects of city living?
On some level, whether enlightenment is more difficult in a city or not, it is possible. Everyone has experienced a momentary shift in thinking, which caused one to enlightened (to feel lighter). There is a feeling of knowledge that – letting go of stress is possible in the space of one breath, one thought – regardless of ones surroundings.

Still, the city living takes its toll. It’s harder to stay healthy, to stay positive. So what’s a Yogi to do? For the city dwelling Yogi, an expanded application of Pratyahara, including one related to geography, might be helpful.

The great Yogi Jesus counseled that our task is to “be in the world, yet not of it.” Humans have created this world we live in for some reason – it’s ours (of course shared with others). So to conclude that the only hope for happiness is to escape to a cave in the Himalayas is not only pessimistic, it’s missing the point. It could be said, in fact, that yogis, have a special responsibility (ability to respond) to be an uplifting presence where it is most needed, just like the Bodhisattva forgoes his own enlightenment until all beings are free.

How does one live in the city, yet not be sullied by it? One way of looking at Yoga practices is that they are all aimed at purifying – that when one is sufficiently pure (mind, body, spirit) one lives Yoga. Most are familiar with the concept “we are what we eat”; and this applies equally well to all senses, to everything we take in. When constantly consuming negative messages, stress, consumerism – we become that.

With food, the answer is simple. Consciously choose what you eat, go for that which is most conducive to our health. Perhaps one might even fast from time to time. The same is true for the other senses. By considering what sounds and smells we surround ourselves by, what information we ingest, we affect how our environment affects us.

Citified Pratyahara might include something as simple and cliché as burning incense to tune our sense of smell in a particular direction. It might mean a high degree of discernment over what media one exposes themselves to, choosing uplifting films rather than depressing news. Or it could be simply taking a few minutes out of a busy workday to breathe, to disengage from the usual concerns and attune to spirit, to love.

When one wants a quick and powerful way to change health, fasting is one of the best tools. Similarly geographic Pratyahara might mean consciously take the body out of the city to renew, to rejuvenate. For urban Yogis, retreats often hold keys to their wellbeing. While under the constant barrage of stimulus that is inherent in cities, senses become dulled, and so when stepping out toward nature, one opens. There is a connection between nature, simplicity, oneness and Yoga.

Bali, a tropical island whose culture Yoga International said ‘lives yoga,’ has become a hotspot for international Yoga retreats and trainings. The fecundity of its nature, the warmth and gentleness of the air, the simplicity and kindness of the people – all certainly contribute to this growing popularity. Yet there is something more, something intangible.

What many who lead yoga events in Bali have found is that this land, especially Ubud, slightly elevated and inland, is especially conducive to Yoga and transformation. Ketut Arsana, local guru and therapist, in his opening speech at the recent 1st annual Bali Spirit Yoga Festival, spoke of Bali’s long tradition of Yoga, its history of drawing Yogis from afar. He explained that is the history, which has led to such an influx of Yoga teachers and students to this small island.

The Balinese people practice an animistic form of Hinduism, speak languages with connections to Sanskrit, and believe in the unseen world, the world of spirits, as well as the seen. Complex and elaborate rituals are performed several times daily with offerings woven together with palm fronds, flowers, fruits, and holy water. The people constantly seek to live in the ‘third position’ between light and dark. An awareness of the unseen world brings a great reverence for spirits.

Perhaps it is absence of this awareness of the spirit world in cities, where the majority of attention is placed on the material world that makes them more challenging for spiritual progress.

Ultimately the real question is what conditions are most suited for each individual to create the life you wish? As Richard Baker Roshi said, “Enlightenment is an accident, but practice makes you accident prone.” What surroundings help? And for those who wish to live in cities, what creative applications of Pratyahara can help on a daily basis? And would withdrawing closer to nature for some time, help to return to ‘regular’ life refreshed and inspired – in the same way that meditation takes someone away from the busyness of our minds – at least for a little while.