How the Ancient Yogic Practice of Pratyahara can help you create a better relationship with your technology
Ancient yoga philosophy is an entrance into another world, a land before time was standardized. It was possible to live as a nomad — not a digital nomad but a hunting and gathering nomad, spending long stretches of time in contemplative solitude without books or music, wandering in and out of the forest ashrams of sages. Yogic teachers were sought out by kings and warriors; women had an almost 2000 year long wait before being accepted as students.
When yoga was being taught and practiced in ancient India, books and yoga mats were not even on the scene: students sat in mountain and forest ashrams with teachers and learned directly, unlimited by the now-normal framework of 60 minute classes schedules between zoom meetings and coffee dates. Yoga life, before hashtags and green juices and studio-to-street loungewear, was natural in the very core sense of the word: immersed in the dangers and distractions of nature as we, comfortable in our landscaped cities and suburbs, will never know it. Just sitting down with a tangible, made-of-paper, not-scrollable book is a #goal for our internet-addled minds.
Imagine the human mentality before clocks were pervasive. There were phones buzzing morning alarms, no trains to catch, no factories or conference calls to clock into — you generally when where and when you needed to, or wanted to, or just stayed put and let the world come to you as the earth turned around a day of work and family life. We had infinitely less data and proportionally more mental space for direct perception of the present, the stories and wisdom of elders, and natural time to sit with ourselves or wander to the forests.
Our internal world matched our external world, which was a natural invitation for the mind to be deeply immersed in yogic practices, surrounded by the vast time and space of nature.
Today, our world, our leggings, and our eco-lux island-destination yoga-retreats are man-made. It would be exceedingly difficult to live totally off the grid as a nomadic ascetic, and almost as difficult to find an enlightened yoga master, or to independently cultivate the attention span to parse the primary texts of yoga. Much easier to watch videos, get distracted, and watch other videos, before returning to our regularly scheduled, over scheduled, busy-mind lives, unsure of how and why to change daily life to reflect big ideas.
Which is exactly why yoga trending. With the rise of attention deficits, anxiety, addictions, pandemic concerns for breathing, and the urgent call for self-care health-care, yoga is more needed now than ever. And it needs to be not-shallow, not-languishing in the surface levels of cliche, but rooted in the deep wisdoms of ancient people who had the attention span to devote a life span to this practical path of real peace and, yes, love and breathing and maybe even more plants on your plate — not to dabble in the trendy but as conscious choices reflecting deeply considered personal values and the liberal energy it requires to break free of conventional habit.
For freedom of choice, we need time away from our constant influx of news in order to process what is already within us, and make space for a clear vision of how we want to live this life.
This is feeling is true for every era of humanity: we feel that times are changing, we are advancing at break neck speed, and more important things are happening quicker than ever before. People were overwhelmed with the printing press, the assembly line, the telegraph, the iphone. Technology is constant, despite our advertisements of the latest-and-greatest. What needs to adapt is our approach to it. Change your relationship with tech, and you’ll change every relationship in your life.
We learn to see the phone as a window or a tool to consciously, purposefully pick up as you would a simple hammer, rather than an extension-of-self that we keep in hand all day and under the pillow at night. Separating our emotional state from our work, becoming aware of the difference between education and entertainment, authentic and gratuitous communication, all allow us to use technology for less time and with greater impact.
More difficult is disengaging the mind from the ever present state of feeling that something urgent or exciting is probably going on without you, and that checking the internet is the best way to find out what that thing is.
The Beatles said it like this: life flows on, within and without you. Patanjali, in ancient India, wrote of Pratyahara, drawing the senses inwards.
Even before Facebook teased us with filtered images of our friends and frenemies living their best lives, our minds had the tendency to wander into what could have, should have, will probably be happening to us. The looming unknown and invisible internet is our ever present burden of excitement or dread, which sounds a lot like the threat of divine or spiritual presence.
With our mind attending to anything other-than-present, the breath is shallow at best, forgotten by default. Energy flow slows and stagnates, our attentional capacity wanes, and no matter how many coffees we drink, we find ourselves perpetually tired.
Pratyahara is the yogic practice of drawing the senses inwards, of returning our attention to our present state of being: mind, body, and breath. When we are looking out into the world, attached to our screens or possessions or even our loved ones, our energy flows in that direction, out of and away from us. Listening to music, or to our thoughts, draws our auditory attention away from the breath, and feeling left out or stressed or excited to share the thousandth-but-perfect selfie decreases our ability to feel inside the body.
Drawing the senses inwards, letting internet life flow on without you while you pay attention to the life flowing within you, is the entrance to the present moment. You’ll feel your breath, its mood, how you can naturally deepen and balance and enhance the breath, how your body responds with heightened, focused energy. You’ll save money on coffee, you’ll decrease your screen time, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll finish reading that book.
For more musings from the mat: reading on how to break habits, how to elevate your yoga practice by incorporating the scientific method, and a photo essay on my experiments on living a tech-free life. For online teachings, visit me on megnapaula.com. Happy practicing!