According to Wikipedia, “an isolation tank is a lightless, soundproof tank inside which subjects float in salt water at skin temperature. They were first used to test the effects of sensory deprivation. Such tanks are now also used for meditation and relaxation and in alternative medicine. The isolation tank was originally called the sensory deprivation tank.” What does that have to with yoga?! Let me explain – this is an article about pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga, which refers to sense withdrawal or control of the senses.
To Recap The Limbs Of Yoga
So far we have talked about the following limbs of yoga in preceding articles:
- Yama – Ethical disciplines
- Niyama – Self-observations
- Asana – Physical posture
- Pranayama – Breath control
These four aspects approach the yoga practice from an external, or ‘macro’ view, and proceed inwards from there. In the introduction article to the eight limbs we covered the order. You start with yama, your ethics around how you live your life, and then move to niyama, how you conduct yourself. Next is asana, meaning your body and posture (including your physical practice) followed by pranayama – your breath. The first four of the eight limbs are mainly external, with pranayama starting to build a bridge to the internal aspects. Now it’s time to move on to the fifth limb.
Pratyahara – Moving Inward
What exactly does this mean? Well, we need to see this in relation to our external senses. We need to find a way to pay less attention to the sights, sounds, smells, feelings and thoughts which feed our ‘monkey mind’. By that, I mean ‘the monkey’ is a slave to your senses. The monkey will always be moving towards some sort of pleasure of the senses, or trying to avert pain. This creates more desire, more pain, and thus more turbulence. What we really want is calm, peace, freedom, and the ability to choose our state of mind.
How To Practise Pratyahara
Swami Vivekananda puts it very simply:
The first lesson is to sit for some time and let the mind run on.
You will notice all your thoughts come and go, pleasant and unpleasant, and all the ways your mind will try to avoid being still. Vivekananda advises to give the mind free rein. Eventually you will find your thoughts become fewer and calmer, until you find stillness. He says that over time, you will be able to control the impulses you receive, and your responses to them, therefore freedom. Hence the sensory deprivation tank, you with me?
Here’s a simple way for you to try it for the first time:
First, make your way into Savasana: a comfortable position where you’re lying flat on your back, palms facing up and feet flopping out. Now it’s about using your imagination to relax and let go of the senses:
- Eyes – Close the eyes, relax the forehead, roll the pupils downward as if looking toward the heart.
- Nose – Bring the attention to the root of the nose. Imagine a sense of emptiness from the root of the nose toward the brain.
- Ears – Let go of any tension running from the cheekbone to the earlobe. You’ll notice a sense of the inner ear relaxing.
- Tongue – Relax the jaw, letting the tongue drop away from the palate. Relax the corners of the mouth and the jawbone.
- Skin – Starting with the face, move the awareness all around the body letting go of all tension. Become aware of any sensations on the skin of the entire body. Feel the body as a whole, without focusing on any particular sensation.
You might notice your awareness becomes vague, and kind-of zooms in and out. Over time it becomes easier to ‘zoom out’ to where the senses are withdrawn.
Those Yogis Are On To Something…
In the 50s, scientists had an inkling that some forms of sensory deprivation could have beneficial effects for certain people. They tested this through the use of sensory deprivation or flotation tanks. They made a number of discoveries of the beneficial effects on:
- Brainwaves: Time spent in flotation tanks could transition our brainwaves to ‘theta’ brainwaves, the optimum state for creativity and problem solving.
- Cortisol Production: Studies have shown that flotation therapy could reduce pain and stress, by lowering cortisol in the body.
- Blood Pressure: Lowered stress could result in lower blood pressure.
- Chronic Stress-Related Ailments: There is a growing body of research which shows that there are benefits to patients with ailments such as anxiety, depression and fibromyalgia, for example.
- Meeting Particular Objectives: You can harness flotation therapy to a particular purpose, for example, meditation or self-hypnosis.
Bringing It Together
Sometimes when we read yoga philosophy it can be a bit difficult to make it relevant to our lives, and to see how we might benefit. But I love that it’s possible to make all the concepts in yoga practical – you don’t have to take anyone’s word for it, you can practice it yourself and find out for yourself. In this case, the example of a flotation tank brings science closer to yoga, since they figured out the benefits to be had from paying less attention to the senses. It’s a shame the yogis figured that out a few hundred years ago! Maybe they didn’t know about theta waves or cortisol, but they could feel the benefits in themselves.
Obviously practising pratyahara takes a lot more discipline than going into a flotation tank but it may be helpful to imagine what a flotation tank might feel like, to prepare for your own experience. The yogis warn that practicing pratyahara may be an arduous process, which may take months and years. We can take encouragement from science, which shows us that we can have at least some of the benefits relatively quickly, extra motivation to start now.