If you’re like me, you feel bombarded by information. We can’t change much of it—those emails do need to be answered (at least eventually)—but practicing yoga offers some ways to deal with our world of constant stimulation and manage information overload.
One of the eight limbs of yoga is pratyahara. The term is composed of two Sanskrit words: prati and ahara. Prati means away or against. Ahara means food, or anything we take into ourselves from the outside. Thus, pratyahara literally means to push against external influences, to withdraw the mind from the world of external objects. It is the yogic practice of turning the mind inward, voluntarily shutting out the distractions provided by the senses. We still register the input from our eyes and ears, but we don’t react to that input.
For many yoga students, the practice of pratyahara can be elusive. The relentless onslaught of sensory input seems as unavoidable as water in a raging thunderstorm, but pratyahara rests upon the principle that we do in fact have the capability to influence our response to that input. Through the practice of pratyahara, we learn to create a gap between the world around us and our response to that world. This gap gives us the necessary space to choose the best response instead of simply reacting.
Believe me: I know firsthand that external distractions are hard to avoid. At the office, there are constant interruptions: audible email alerts, coworkers stopping by, phone calls, text messages, and other people’s conversations (especially if you work in an open setting), just to name a few. And if you work at home, you’re faced with a different set of things clamoring for your attention: the doorbell, half-completed chores, possibly children to look after. Regardless of our location, we are often running all day among various meetings, projects, committees, initiatives, and so on. It’s not practical or easy to completely shut down if your job or the needs of your family require you to be in constant contact or you’re expecting important incoming messages. What is possible is finding ways to manage the need to stay connected and still have a chance to unplug.
Establish boundaries by reserving blocks of quiet time that others know not to disturb. Schedule short breaks throughout the day where you step away from the task at hand by taking a walk outside, having coffee with a colleague, or even gazing outside through a window. Many of us are addicted to screens, and we keep our smart phones with us at all times. We have a compulsive urge to check our phones day and night. Some of us even sleep with our phones under the pillow. (Sound familiar?) It’s a good policy to block out time to check messages, instead of responding to your phone every time you hear a ping or a buzz. You may want to also turn off all nonessential notifications. (Sure, you may need to hear when an email arrives, but do you need to get Instagram notifications and all news alerts?) Another good way to break the cycle of unconscious habit of reaching for your phone at all times is a technology basket. Designate a basket or box as the “tech holder” and leave your phone there instead of out on your desk or in your purse or pocket. You’ll likely still hear when important messages come through, but you won’t be as tempted to reach for your phone every few seconds. And then there is the quintessential challenge: Going a whole day or weekend (or week!) without your mobile phone. Such tech vacations can be helpful not only in giving yourself a break, but in re-establishing your relationship with your various technological devices.
Practiced regularly, pratyahara is a powerful tool that supports our intention to be consciously present for every moment of our lives. It’s not easy, but it is possible. It just takes practice. While we all value freedom of access to information. In the modern era, we need freedom from access to information! I offer more tools and practical advice in Chapter 5 of Beyond the Mat that you might find helpful in enacting a change in your digital life.
Photo: Drew Graham