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How Pratyahara Helps with Sensory Filtering and Sensory Integration

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Hi, my name is Stephanie Foster, and I have the privilege to work as an occupational therapist in Santa Maria, CA.  I specialize in working with children with self-regulation difficulties, and find my passion in helping people to live their lives to the fullest, to enjoy their activities and their life roles, especially without medication or caffeine.  My specialty area is called “Sensory Processing Disorders” and “Sensory Integration therapy.”  

In the past year I began a journey as a master-level yoga teacher and therapist.  The class I am taking is called “Yoga Teacher training 300 hour.”  At the culmination of this coursework, I will be certified as a yoga teacher at the 500 hour level.  This journey has helped me to understand how to naturally get in touch with one’s inner states and feelings, and to live throughout one’s day in a more present and mindful manner.  As part of this training, I learned about the eight limbs of yoga.  I became intrigued with the fifth limb, called Pratyahara, which is sense-withdrawal.  I hope to share with you what this practice is, and how Pratyahara helps with sensory filtering and sensory integration. 

According to Tomlinson (2020), Pratyahara is perhaps one of the most difficult of the eight limbs of yoga to explain, as well as to attain.  Although the practice is commonly defined as ‘withdrawal of the senses’, my work to help people integrate their sensory experiences is greatly enhanced by withdrawing from the sensory world.  Our worlds are constantly bombarded with sensory information, and it can be difficult to calm and settle when there’s so much going on around us.  There are many specialists that work with the body, mind, and breath, and help us to calm and focus.  The practice of Pratyahara specifically encourages us to pull awareness within to awaken our inside world.  The ability to fully absorb and withdraw from the external world, and the wonder of what is going on inside oneself– despite all of the ‘noise’ – makes yoga unique.  

Let’s look at the concept of Pratyahara closer.  Pratya means to ‘withdraw’, or ‘draw back’ and ahara is anything we ‘take in’.  We take in information from our five foreground senses, including sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.  There are also three background senses, which include proprioception (body positon awareness), vestibular sense (movement and balance), and interoception (internal position awareness).  Sensory input is processed in your brain, and helps you make decisions on how to respond, resulting in “sensory integration.”  A difficulty with sensory integration is called a “Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).”  Sensory information can be very distracting to your ability to calm and focus.  These distractions are not just limited to the outside world – sometimes the noise of our internal chatter can be just as deafening!

Sometimes sensory information is a distraction and hinders to our ability to focus.  As we go through our days in a present and mindful manner, we need to learn to integrate and filter out the external stimuli and internal chatter.  This can be quite challenging.  We are so used to reacting to the continuous barrage of stimuli and to pushing our energy (prana) outwards, that we have difficulty sitting still.  The phrase ‘sense withdrawal’ implies that we should be able to switch our senses ‘off’.  In actuality, pratyahara changes our state of mind so that we become absorbed with what we’re focusing on inside, and that the things outside of ourselves no longer are distracting.  Of course, in the beginning, this may be hard, but with a little practice we become attuned to those internal states.    

Let’s look at this concept further.  Let’s say you get a text on your phone.  You hear a “ping” notifying you of a message.  After you fumble to find your phone, you answer the text.  You may then turn on your favorite background music, which helps you feel calm and relaxed.  In the background, the TV is on.  Now your sense of sight and hearing are all busy, making sense of what’s going on around you.  What happens if an airplane flies overhead?  Do you turn and watch it, or ignore it because you know it’s an airplane.  Your senses must filter all this sensory information, and chose what’s important to focus on. 

The world is an amazing, exciting place.  I enjoy using the technology that surrounds me.  However, sometimes I feel like everywhere I go, I am bombarded with sensory input and I have to figure out which one input to respond to.  There is too much over-saturation of noise and sights to take in. Other times, I (and yes, some of that comes from living in a place with noise pollution, having a smart phone, and being on social media), feel over-whelmed and just need a break. 

This is where sensory-withdrawal comes in handy.  The fifth limb of yoga, Pratyahara, works when you choose to turn off the TV and put your phone on silent before deciding to meditate.  It’s choosing to turn your attention inward and remove external distractions.

WHAT ARE SOME WAYS TO TURN INWARD AND WITHDRAW FROM YOUR EVERY DAY SENSORY EXPERIENCES?

1. Sensory Deprivation Floating

There are places where there’s no sensory input.  These include a “sensory deprivation chamber.”  During a recent trip to Belize, I entered a cave where there was no natural light or sound.  The only sound present was the feeling of water moving around me.  It felt wonderful, so calming, and so surrounded by nothingness.  The water allows you to float and relax.  This is a very concrete way to come into pratyahara.  Another way is to place yourself in a very dark room, lay down comfortably, and just be quiet.  Physically you are alone and away from all distractions and sensory stimulation.  Floating help with pain relief, improved sleep, and a reduction in depression/anxiety.  

2. Restorative Yoga

Restorative yoga is a practice that consists of props, sustained stillness, and an emphasis on comfort.  By propping your body up, you are able to relax with support.  If done in a very quiet environment, it can feel very restful.  The silence and supportive style will invoke pratyhara relatively easy.  If you find you want to practice pratyahara in your everyday life without props or a yoga class, keep reading.

3. Practice Non-judgment and Delayed Reaction

It’s very easy to judge and instantly react to all the over-stimulation around us.  Although non-judgment and delayed reaction may be the simplest ways to turn inward, it’s not the easiest.  One method you can try is to take a walking meditation practice.  Challenge yourself to focus on walking and try to not make distinctions about anything you see or hear.  Imagine that you just look at what’s ahead of you, WITHOUT judgment.  Notice the color, smell, temperature, texture of all you see.  Walk slowly, pay attention to where you are, just noticing, and not going too fast or too slow.  (Hong, 2020)

4. Pratyahara 

This form of meditation is a profound relaxation practice for bringing in all of the outward senses.  The facilitator will guide you through a 20- to 40 minute meditation.  This is very similar to a guided imagery, yet focuses on how to settle down your senses, and remove yourself from the sensory world.  The facilitator begins by helping you to withdraw from your physical body, then away from awareness the breath, thoughts, and emotions.  

Want to learn more?  Stay tuned and try out the Pratyahara meditation here.  When you go to the YouTube channel by following this link, you will find a 45 minute deep relaxation session.  I will guide you to pay attention to each of your senses, and then slow and safely withdraw from them.  At the end, I will guide you back to the here and now, ready to continue with your day.  Please let me know if you have any questions or want more information by checking out www.kidsworktherapy.com or contacting me at Stephanie@kidsworktherapy.com

Thank you and Namaste. 

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