Out of the blue it hit me.
Real-life pratyahara, that elusive but vital part of yoga often awkwardly translated from Sanskrit as ‘withdrawal of the senses’.
It was staring me in the face in the most unlikely of places, a school of more than 400 children aged four to 11.
I was one of a small group of prospective parents on a ‘tour’ of the school. It is mainstream but unusual. It doesn’t have conventional classrooms with doors, but is open plan. I had no clue how that would work.
I had heard only good things about it though—that children were happy there.
As I was waiting for the tour to begin, I started reading some of the children’s poems about autumn that were on display. They all started with the same line, and then went free-form. I love this kind of thing, seeing the inner creations of brilliant budding little people, so skilfully guided.
Suddenly I felt close to tears. Soon my still so young boy would be off into the world, finding his way. I just prayed he would find something that made his heart sing. My own early years in a Steiner nursery in the English countryside had been blissful. I have clear visual memories of that time. Big city mainstream education after that taught me to be streetwise, but felt more like a necessity than a pleasure or an adventure. I wanted bliss for my son, for him to soar.
Then I became more aware of it—the noise around me. Voices, footsteps, movement. It was more like a buzz, but it was constant. There was no silence.
Our tour started and we went first to the area for the youngest children. There were two large open spaces either side of an entrance/exit for a total of 60 children (currently absent, practicing for a Christmas concert) and four to six adults. By any account that’s a lot of children in one space.
Then, past a big hall, two music lessons (in separate rooms with doors) and on to classes with older children. Now we could see the space in action. This is when we began to understand how it worked and I began to see something extraordinary. Two maths classes gently in full swing. Again, 30 children per class, listening to the teacher, to each other and working in silence in between, before sharing their findings with the whole group. Our guide explained that teachers plan together so that the two classes in the same space do creative or livelier activities and then more academic tasks at the same time, so that neither is disturbed.
I had been on observation alert. Anyone who was not teaching or learning in class moved around and communicated calmly and quietly. They were relaxed, in good spirits. Of course there was the natural excitement and exuberance as children came in from playtime outside, but they soon settled.
They looked happy and confident. They were aware of how things worked in this space and of their important role in that process. I could see awareness, consideration and respect for others.
Yes, there was that constant buzz with its fluctuating volume, but maybe the children didn’t hear it. Or if they did, it didn’t bother them. It hadn’t bothered me when I was reading their poems. They were ‘in the zone’. That place we are in when we blossom, when we start to feel our inner life and our true potential in all its scary greatness, even if we don’t know yet where we’re going with it.
This pratyahara was beautiful, with all its idiosyncrasies and imperfections. Gym mats were lying in the corridor due to a lack of storage space, a portable library blocked the way as it waited to be picked up. That wasn’t important.
It’s the same in life. It doesn’t matter where we are. Our senses can be awake, seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling all the drama around us, but we don’t need to be distracted or disturbed by it. We don’t need to jump in and stir it up some more.
It isn’t about ‘withdrawing’ our senses, disconnecting or shutting down. Just the opposite: a complete presence in all our actions, guided by an intent focus on our inner life. This shows us the extraordinary in the ordinary, the flashes of insight, witnessing, deep contentment, knowing and peacefulness. I once felt it while walking against a tide of rushing commuters in the London Underground.
It can take us by surprise. We don’t need to search for the perfect set of circumstances for it to happen.
In yoga, pratyahara first looked to me like a kind of poor relation, oddly sitting there in Patanjali’s Sutras (one of the most read yoga texts) between all the action on the one hand (morals, postures, breathing techniques) and all the contemplation (concentration, meditation and beyond) on the other. In fact it’s the crucial link between both. We can’t just leave it out. It transforms action and is the lifeblood of contemplation. It is a practice, and it’s indispensable in my life.
How do we enjoy it in everyday life? The best news is we already know how. As babies and children we had it, completely absorbed in whatever it was, wherever it was, giving our whole being to our actions. It is in our cells. It might take a while to unearth, but it is there.
A few quiet moments in the day is a good way to start. Perhaps a couple of minutes before a meal or before leaving the house in the morning. Sitting or standing, it doesn’t matter. Mind focused on feeling our breathing. Pristine silence is not required. Yes, sometimes we do feel like spending more time in silence, to delve deeper, but we can feel the massive impact of even small morsels of quiet on our life.
That quiet doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s how the bud begins to blossom.
A short post script. When we first moved here, before my son was born, we walked past the school in this story with my parents. My Mom stopped dead in her tracks in astonishment. ‘Carol! It looks just like your old nursery’, she couldn’t believe it. I’d say it’s about five times bigger, but it’s true, the resemblance is uncanny, and hopefully some of the same magic is there too. I’m pretty sure it is.
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