Staying Present in a World of Sensory Overload

The practice of pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga, can help us stay calm and focused in a world of seeming chaos.

We live in a world where our senses are increasingly bombarded. Not only that, but as a society we seem to be seeking out ways to have more sensory stimulation. It’s not enough to simply watch a movie—now we have 4D cinemas replete with motion chairs, smells, and even wind and rain to heighten our experience. Even our yoga cannot always be simply yoga—it often has to come with lights, music, floral scents, cushiony mats, and furry blankets. Little wonder we often find it hard to focus, or that we complain of feeling fried or overwhelmed.

If we are searching for ways to focus our scattered minds and return us to a sense of calm, it is pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga as mentioned in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, that can help us as part of our daily practice.

Withdrawing the Senses

Pratyahara refers to a withdrawal of the senses, and in our eight-limbed path sits between the more worldly-focused limbs of yoga such as the yamas and niyamas, asana and pranayama, and the inward-focused limbs of dharana, dhyana, and Samadhi.

As yoga practitioners we often skip over pratyahara. After all, withdrawing the senses can sound unappealing, or even impossible to achieve. Are we to lock ourselves in a sensory deprivation tank for the rest of our lives? Is this where we are told we have to go and live in a cave?

Whatever our beliefs, on one thing we can agree—we are having a human experience, and that is one that includes senses.

Not at all, say the yogis. For example, you can go and live in a cave, but if you spend your whole time thinking about the taste of ice cream, the sound of birds, or the sight of a loved one, then you’re not practicing pratyahara one bit.

Furthermore, to deny the senses is to deny our humanity. Whatever our beliefs, on one thing we can agree—we are having a human experience, and that is one that includes senses. What pratyahara teaches us, however, is to train the mind to remain fully present within our human and sensory experience.

In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna explains the path away from presence that our mind takes when it is drawn away by the senses. “When you keep thinking about sense objects, attachment comes. Attachment breeds desire, the lust of possession that burns to anger. Anger clouds the judgement; you can no longer learn from past mistakes. Lost is the power to choose between what is wise and what is unwise…”

The Path Back to Peace

So, for example, we may be walking down the street in a peaceful state of mind when we smell freshly-cut grass, and like it very much. If we were to stop the mind there and return to walking peacefully, the chances are our day would continue smoothly. But for the untrained mind, we could instead become so distracted by our sense of smell and the object it is smelling, that we could decide we must go and lie in the grass somewhere.

And if that were not possible, we might become angry. What an unfair life it is, we might think. All I want to do is lie in a meadow. And before we know it our peaceful state of mind has been destroyed because it got pulled away. That moment when the mind runs away with its story is always spurred by our senses coming into contact with sense objects say the yogis.

It’s not just pleasurable sensory experiences that take us away from the present moment. Perhaps we don’t like the smell of cut grass, and that results in a whole chain of thoughts about desiring to run away, and anger if that were not possible. Pain or pleasure, aversion or craving—it makes no difference—the yogis are clear that if we get caught up in the senses, the result will be a lack of tranquility, a lack of balance. We’ll have gone to watch a 4D movie only to be angry that we were rained on, frustrated by the shaking chair, or so enamored with our experience that 3D movies now do not give us enough—we need more stimuli.

So where do we begin to train the mind to relax, and let the senses bring us a human experience without getting so deeply entwined in them that we end up frazzled?

There are two ways to look at pratyahara as a practice:

1. Becoming the Witness

We start by practicing noticing how our mind gets carried away by the senses, and where it leads us. We can do that in meditation where it maybe easier with fewer distractions, or we can practice off of our cushions in our daily routines. It may take a while to notice, but in the moments we do we are essentially detaching from the mind, and instead observing where it wants to go. So we might hear a song that reminds us of a challenging time in our lives, and we notice the mind’s inclination to start reliving that period in history. We notice the stories it tells us and the mood it creates. We might notice the tendency for the mind to create words about everything it sees as it attempts to make sense of the world around it.

With this detachment we can gain more clarity of how the mind is creating a reality that is not true. The truth is that we are here in the present moment. Nothing more. And as we practice this method of pratyahara more often with a sincere desire to notice the mind’s tendencies, we will naturally begin to question—well, if I’m observing my mind, then that means I am not the mind. Which means who am I?

Pratyahara can lead us not only to a calmer, and more balanced mind, but also into deep Self-realization.

2. Hearing, Seeing, Tasting, Touching, Smelling Love

Another way of practicing pratyahara is to view the senses as an opportunity to uncover what is behind our human experience. Rather than watching the mind’s response, we cut out the mind altogether and instead search within the senses for an experience of love or the divine. John O’ Donohue in his book, Anam Cara, Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World, describes the senses as the “threshold of the soul.” He explains that when our senses open out to the world, the first presence they encounter is the presence of our soul—that our senses link us intimately with the divine within and around. If we cut out the mind’s judgements or chatter, perhaps we will experience it.

When we practice pratyahara with this perspective we do not get distracted by chains of thought, rather we deepen into the senses. We gaze deeply upon everything with wonder. We bring mindfulness to tasting. Our smelling becomes the breath of life entering our being. Our listening becomes worship of that being heard, and our touch becomes the sacred exploration of another as ourselves. We are seeking the truth in all experience—beneath the veils the mind adds to them. And every time we have a sensory experience we say thank you, whether pleasurable or painful. We set an intention to see the holy in every experience—not by making up meaning—but by recognizing that all things are happening in this moment, and we are simply here for the ride so why not marvel at it all?


Helen Avery is a senior writer for Wanderlust Media. She is also a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, minister, and full-time dog walker of Millie, residing in Brooklyn, New York. You can find out more about her on her website, Life as Love.