Embodiment II – Pratyahara and the Soft Fascination of the Body

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“All that is gold does not glitter

Not all those who wander are lost” JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings 

 

“Soft fascination” is a term coined in 1989 by environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. It draws upon philosopher, educator and psychologist William James’ distinction between two different types of attention. What James called “voluntary attention”, also referred to by the Kaplans as directed attention, describes a mode of concentration in which the mind has a specific task. In order to maintain that concentration, will or force is required to sustain one’s application through interruptions or other external factors which might otherwise disrupt the mental direction. The key word here is effort. In contrast, “involuntary attention” is essentially passive, requiring no willpower or exertion to sustain it. Involuntary attention refers to the human bodymind’s ability to become captivated by external stimuli, and is not elicited purely by intention.

The Kaplans’ work focused upon finding a balance between the two types of attention in order to heal a mind exhausted by the demands of directed attention, which they found (and which is instinctively corroborated by our own experience) is an inevitable side effect of existing within urban and work environments. (We might add digital milieu to the mix nowadays.) They called this balance “attention restoration”, and within Attention Restoration Therapy (ART), developed by the Kaplans and others, one of the key concepts is that of soft fascination.

Before I describe this intriguing term and how it might apply to our yoga practice, it’s worth noting that these two types of attention might be used to broadly categorise types of yoga. Perhaps some call for the engagement of attention more strictly than others, and perhaps there is a relationship between this and the typical outcomes for students. Ashtanga vinyasa students, for instance, develop concentration through the tristana method – movement (including the bandhas) yoked to breath and gaze. “Vinyasa” itself is composed of the Sanskrit words “vi” and “nyasa”. Vinyasa commonly means “sequence” nowadays, but it is more accurately translated as something along the lines of “to place in a special, deliberate way”. The tantrik practice of nyasa itself, concerned as it was with installing the specific energies of deities through students visualising them at particular points on and in their bodies, required practitioners to develop and refine powerful concentration abilities. So we could say that some forms of yoga, whether they work predominantly with the annamaya kosha (the physical body) or the manomaya kosha (the mental/emotional body), require directed attention. Attention is tethered and asked to rest in a series of pre-determined places, and to be a student of the practice is also to be a student of the placements.

Similarly, perhaps there are more permissive yoga styles in which the practice is primarily noticing, opening to, and including or incorporating that which might otherwise be understood as distraction. Perhaps attention does not need to be fixed or yoked in the same unwavering fashion in forms such as yin, or other gentle styles; and perhaps this might have more in common with involuntary attention, allowing time and space for working with whatever is currently arising within the bodymind. Even the dreaded goat, kitten, and bunny yoga, and “doga” (dogs + yoga, duh), though they can hardly be termed styles in their own right, are, by encouraging students into a pleasant somatic experience, prioritising involuntary attention. (Whether that is intended to lead towards the practice of yoga is debateable.) At the far end of the spectrum here is Judith Lasater, originator and queen of restorative yoga, who currently recommends that teachers “avoid the trap of believing you are not giving your students enough if you are just sitting with them … Trust the silence” (from Restore and Rebalance). The asana itself is considered powerful/potent enough in and of itself to still the fluctuations of the mind, hence the directive to “trust the pose. Trust your students”.

At first glance it might seem that the eight-limbed path codified by Patanjali will always lend itself most readily to voluntary/directed attention. Therefore any effective yoga style we can think of, from the most physically demanding ashtanga vinyasa to the most mentally challenging meditation, should by rights be readily classified as requiring directed attention. Even the less obviously restrictive types, those which might seem to align more easily with involuntary attention, carry expectations and requirements as much as does, say, vinyasa flow. They might be less obvious, and slower, but they are present nonetheless, and perhaps all the more oppressive for being unspoken. And perhaps this is only right; perhaps yoga has to be with this way because of the scattered nature of our minds. No translation of the Yoga Sutras of which I’m aware does not explicitly address the tendency for the mindstream to waver (sutra I 2).

The Sutras offer a coherent and sequential model to guide practitioners towards steadiness of attention.  The first two limbs, the yamas and niyamas, prepare us for settling within formal practice by directing us to establish an ethical life. That formal practice in the form of asana and pranayama, limbs three and four, can encompass and lead to sense withdrawal, concentration and meditative states, limbs five to seven, leading eventually to direct realisation, the eighth limb. Patanjali’s Sutras refer to samyama, the blending of one-pointed concentration (dharana) with what sutra III 2 calls “a steady, continuous flow of attention” – meditation (dhyana) – and profound, deep, meditative, transformational states (samadhi).

There is tremendous effort implied in all of this, as anyone from a complete novice to a seasoned practitioner will attest. The Sutras make this explicit by using terms such as “steadfast effort” (I 13) and “burning zeal” (II 1) (depending on your translation, various levels of harshness are implied!). They categorise practitioners as “mild, average or keen” (I 22), and exhort us to remember that styana (mental laziness or stagnation), alasya (idleness or fatigue), and anavasthitatvani (lack of perseverance) are obstacles on the path (all from sutra I 30). Indeed, we are reminded, “the goal is near for those who are supremely vigorous and intense in practice” (I 21, transl Iyengar. Incidentally, it is interesting to compare this with other translations such as Desikachar’s which includes “faith” as part of the intensity required, and Alistair Shearer’s, who simply renders this sutra “it is near for those who ardently desire it”! Edwin Bryant translates this as “intense application”, and Chip Hartranft uses the phrase “seek[ing] liberation wholeheartedly”).

Despite the famous description of yoga as “effortless effort” (actually a misapplication, as it is in fact only asana that is described in this way, in sutra II 47), what has been called modern postural yoga certainly demands some effort. Breathe this way, making this sound, inhaling and then exhaling for exactly this long. Stand with big toes together, big toes and heels touching, ankles in line with each other; tighten the knees, pull the kneecaps upwards and tighten the quads, compress the hips and tighten the buttocks. Focus your gaze on this point, then move it here as your body assumes this shape. Hold this shape for this amount of time, and then move into this shape for this amount of time. If we add to this the hyper-stimulation that attends many group classes – the gaudy clothes, the sheer number of people in the room, the music, and in some spaces, the searing heat –  then we are truly in the realm of voluntary attention, where the task in hand – concentration and skilful action as a result of that – is basically at odds with the environment in which it occurs. We live in a “directed” society in which even our “involuntary” attention times are scheduled and prescribed within the larger “direction”: yoga culture mirrors that.

So, tapas, you might counter: fervour and zeal! Concentrate, apply yourself, follow your teacher’s instructions! The mind is a drunken wild monkey, a wild forest elephant, and our ability to concentrate is ruined by social media nowadays! And indeed I cannot and have no wish to argue that this is not an integral part of yoga; and yet …. Perhaps it’s a personality issue, perhaps it’s an immaturity in me, perhaps it’s a fundamental laziness on my part, but all this effort makes me exhausted before I’ve even begun. I don’t do well with trying to engage my body, my awareness, my heart, with what feels like a sledgehammer to these delicate, infinitely sensitive instruments. My years of daily personal practice have definitely honed my ability to apply myself, to commit myself, to both hold on with tenacity and to let go with grace. I do this in life and I learn how to do it in formal practice. But I do not do it by crowding my mind with the white noise of breath, by fitting myself into the mould of the predetermined gaze points of dristhi, the precise angles of my limbs and joints of asana. I need nuance and space, investigation and exploration. I need relationship. I don’t want the product so much as an understanding of the process. The styles of yoga that correspond most obviously to voluntary attention – ashtanga, Iyengar, Bikram; all the hybridised forms that have grown out of these – do not suit me. Even yoga styles which would seem to offer more sympathy with involuntary attention, a way of engaging that I sense could engage my individual bodymind skilfully – yin, restorative, old-school hatha – seem to intrude upon my private explorations of what I believe is the inherent nature of awareness to coalesce, ossify, dissipate and break apart. Even in yoga classes in which I am apparently invited to explore at my own pace, I rebel and find myself mired in refusal to participate when I am required to bring my attention back from its wanderings and musings, its meanderings and its amblings, over and over, like a strict parent chastising its wayward, life-filled offspring.

I want to make it clear that I have no desire to supplant the comprehensive body of knowledge that yoga already is; nor to proclaim it something other than what it manifestly says it is. I detest and despise the modern tendency to announce yoga as “THIS, actually (frequent subtext: forget that old Indian stuff)”, and to graft onto it, usually in ignorance that within its vast teachings yoga has already encompassed the essence of this, thanks very much, some new-fangled, sexed-up, shiny addition to make it more palatable to the yoga masses. At the same time, I think that the authors of the texts that we might apply to our yoga practice (which is not quite the same thing as saying that they’re texts that guide our practice) can hardly have imagined the magnitude of the problems humanity is currently grappling with, nor how that would manifest in our individual bodies. So although the texts might well contain something we call “universal truths”, we need skilful, relevant practices in order to work appropriately with our 2018 selves. These are not necessarily the ones we encounter in yoga texts. The shatkarmas in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Gherandha Samhita, for instance, are cleansing or “purification” practices. They include such practices as vaman dhauti (induced vomiting) and bahiskrita dhauti (washing the rectum in the hands), which hardly seem appropriate for your average keen but chronically-out-of-contact-with-the-body practitioner – to say nothing of the fact that overlaying what might be dormant bulimia in some students with a spiritual sheen is hardly healthy. Equally, the complex breath counts and ratios of inhale, exhale and retention we find in classical pranayama (detailed in, for instance, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Shiva Samhita) are unlikely to sustainably undo and displace the ingrained breathing habits of most practitioners.

So perhaps the application of certain concepts from outside yoga which have an affinity with embodiment might help us to both work wisely and safely within yoga, and yogasana. Despite the near-universal exhortation to “listen to your body”, the “how” of this is rarely taught in group classes; and in fact a yoga class might be one of the very worst places to learn how to do this. The combination of stressed, numbed bodies, the echoes they carry of the religions and ideologies which perpetuate this and promote distrust of this precious instrument, with asana, certainly seems to be yielding worrying results in the form of the yoga injury epidemic, be that physical or psychological. Modern asana (by which I mean here the severing of movement practice from spiritual and philosophical roots) seems too often to uphold or give rise to a particular mindset that is actually antithetical to yoga – that of endless striving, competitiveness with others and with oneself, a linear progress curve within practice. What we do in the class seems to encourage further alienation as often as it does union. So please note that I am not saying here that asana = yoga. I’m well aware that all the authoritative yoga texts make it very clear that asana is only one route into yoga. Neither am I arguing that we junk asana, or indeed pranayama. But if we are going to continue to utilise asana as the primary access point to yoga, it might be useful to learn some skills to help us to approach the body with gentleness, kindness, and an open mind about what it might present us with.

This is where soft fascination, the art of allowing attention to be gently captured by that which delights, intrigues and inspires just enough, might come in. As mentioned earlier, it’s a term originally coined by environmental psychologists, and as such, it generally refers to a manner of relating to natural environments. In neuroscientific terms, directed attention causes activity in the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain to which jobs such as “higher order” thinking (multitasking, problem-solving) are assigned. This is an area increasingly stimulated and over-burdened by the busyness of life, and by being metaphorically if not literally constantly online. Involuntary attention allows the overtaxed prefrontal cortex a break, and other parts of the brain come to the fore, including those concerned with creativity, memory, and self-focused processing (the hippocampus and the medial prefrontal cortex). Babies and young children slide in and out of this mode of being; it’s a state that is as natural and necessary to a healthily developing human as breathing. Ideally, we drift in and out of it regularly and often as adults, too. We might call it daydreaming, but it is not quite that. We might call it spacing out; but this is to do a disservice to the tremendous creativity, awareness and contemplative potential it calls forth.

Soft fascination is the kind of awareness kindled by a crucial balance of predictability and irregularity. Although it was developed as part of environmental psychological theory, it does not correspond exactly with just getting out there in the wild. Both physically and psychologically, raw, untamed nature is the unknown. The human nervous system evolved in tandem with the delights and demands of being in relationship with nature, and part of this was the ever-present danger of predators. Popular theories such as re-wilding argue persuasively for the re-introduction of this element into our pampered lives, and it is fashionable nowadays to proclaim re-wilding as crucial to our activities in both our inner and outer worlds, including yoga. But soft fascination does not mean quite this, either. Rather, it is the particular manner of being elicited by, say, observing dappled light slanting through tree branches. The sound of waves breaking upon a beach. The call and response of birds during the dawn chorus. Wind moving through long grass, both seen and felt, flower heads nodding. The scent of honeysuckle on a warm evening, floating towards you and then drifting away, never quite captured. The patterns summer clouds form, the gradual coming together and breaking apart of shapes and forms, subtly suggestive of both the known and the half-dreamt. Flickering sunlight on river water. Dried leaves skittering across the ground in a sudden gust of wind. Snowflakes drifting lazily from a leaden sky.

Some of the poetic descriptions above depict an idyll that not everyone necessarily has access to. But the key to soft fascination is not that the external environment is gorgeous. Although my personal practice increasingly takes place in natural environments, I’m aware that this is not practical for everyone, and I certainly don’t want to promote destruction of our precious world in the form of flying long-haul to yoga retreats in order that we can connect with nature! Luckily, soft fascination is available to us in the most mundane of experiences. A breeze through an open window moving your house plant leaves. Flocks of pigeons moving through the sky. The patter of rain on your roof. The important point to grasp about soft fascination is that it awakens within us a specific set of responses. Attention is caught and held, but not demanded. It is dangled and dandled, not pinned; invited and aroused, not imposed upon.

Stimuli that elicit soft fascination have an inbuilt irregularity. We might say that the sound of waves crashing onto the shore has a predictable unpredictability, and that the flickering of dappled light through tree branches has an unpredictable predictability. Part of the essence of both the waves and the light is an inbuilt chaos giving way to order, and back again. Their nature is self-disruptive, and that means that it’s not possible to concentrate on them in the usual “directed” sense. There is simply too much information to process. In order to be in relationship with them, we have to give up trying to concentrate and simply allow them.

Without knowing it, I have long used soft fascination as a yoga practice tool. I was introduced during a training to two practices which have their roots in tantrik yoga, and which were unlike anything I had come across before. Yoga nidra and antar mouna take the experience of the physical body as the starting point for an exploration of embodied meditation, leading to deeper and more finely-honed experiences of our inner reality. Yoga nidra translates as “yogic sleep”, but it is more properly an opportunity to wake up. The body takes very deep rest, lying in motionless comfort, whilst the mind is guided (or for advanced practitioners guides itself) through ever-more refined states of concentration, leading to direct experience of the conditioned, and for some the unconditioned self. The early stages of antar mouna (“inner silence”) explore the senses as gateways. The acts of looking and listening are reconfigured not so much as looking at or listening to, but as opportunities to become aware of the processes of looking and listening. In everyday life we direct the senses outwards into the external world, but they can also be harnessed as portals into our inner reality.

Antar mouna is a formal pratyahara practice. Pratyahara also effectively complements the framework of yoga nidra. Both foreground what is as a method of guiding the attention inwards. There is no implication that one’s engagement with the world is inherently a problem, rather a compassionate understanding of this – and, crucially, a methodology within which to work in order to gain experiential understanding of the fact that our senses are habitually in thrall to external stimuli. Practitioners of antar mouna do bring their attention back to the object of awareness, echoing more “voluntary attention”-orientated meditation styles. The point is not luxuriating in sensual gratification for its own sake. But because the object of awareness is simultaneously the sensing instrument, its inherent nature is not pathologised. (Note: I am not saying here that yoga itself pathologises; only that our Western conditioning is likely to lend it this lens, and that this subtle slant necessarily pulls counter to our aims in yoga.) There is no problem with the wandering nature of the senses, or with our relationship to them. Even the habitual scattering of attention that this leads to is not inherently a problem to be fixed, but is rather instructive of the nature of embodied consciousness.

Pratyahara teaches us that there is no such thing as distraction (therefore failure), but only differing levels of engagement. One of the reasons that these practices landed so well for me was that this manner of anchoring awareness was one that I have discovered in my own practice as a powerful tool. And this corresponds quite uncannily with soft fascination.

When I stopped attending yoga classes, I had to learn how to engage my bodymind within practice by myself. Cut loose from the unyielding demands of directed attention in the form of instruction, to which I had become accustomed and not a little dependent upon, I had to learn how to use the tools I had. These were, as for every practitioner, body, breath, mind, external environment, past encoded within my body. During this time I was also engaged in the everyday miracles of growing, birthing and feeding babies. A mother’s body is a newborn baby’s entire world, and experiencing and responding to this gave me a deep trust in the rightness and goodness of my body. I began to experiment with treating my body as my loved ones did, with infinite tenderness and respect, even wonder and awe. If my body was a world unto itself, it was a precious jewel, valuable beyond my rational comprehension. Both lulled and crazed by the rhythms of childcare, I had both fuel and method to practice deeply and effectively by myself.

Frequently nowadays this means moving through asana very slowly, allowing the unfurling of a limb across the ground the same kind of attention I might give to the movement of tree branches in wind. There is both a dispassionate observation and a minute attention to detail, a sort of beneficent impartiality that has nothing in common with detachment or dissociation. The delight available in watching a bee move from one blossom to another on the apple trees in my orchard is the same order of pleasure I find in feeling air transmuted into breath by the pull of my body, that breath hovering imperceptibly at the tender patch of skin at the base of my nostrils in the same way as the bee ponders its blossom of choice. Breath moves through body with the same hypnotic potential as dappled light flickering on a forest floor. Occasionally my body moves in a new and startling way, surprising me by sliding effortlessly into hanumansana or eka pada rajakapotasana, appearing like the rare orchids that bloom some years in the woods here. Movements of limbs, folding and unfolding of joints, breath coming in and breath going out; being with and allowing, letting my attention be tricked into engagement by these simple, bare-bones experiences of having and being with a body; all of these serve to lull me reliably towards a state that matches both descriptions of a bodymind anchored by soft fascination, and that of yoga. My yoga practice begins with the soft fascination of the body.

The soft fascination of asana and pranayama, nourished by pratyahara, dharana and dyana, rooting in the fertile soil of yama and niyama regularly – not always, but more and more frequently – can also allow me access to a state of deep reflection.  Experiencing the body as infinite variety within familiar rhythm with tenderness, reverence and openness induces a state that would be trance were it not for the simultaneous anchoring of awareness.

Dramatherapist Toby Chown, writing in the journal Unpsychology, describes a classic experience of embodied soft fascination induced by a silent night walk across a moor.

It was an invitation to go within and without at the same time, through the simple act of walking, into a semi wild environment, in a group, and yet alone … The act of walking and the suppression of words encouraged reverie, that state of being where images, memories and feelings flow unbidden before one’s mind as in a dream, yet awake.  Yet the darkness and the tangible presence of root and path made the environment vivid and real, each step to be taken with care.  Each step was a step taken simultaneously into oneself and into nature, memories, images and reflections mingled with the flash of torchlight and the darkened outlines of trees and hills.

As a yoga practitioner, this passage speaks to me powerfully of the potential for self-awareness and self-knowledge available to us through approaching the body with soft fascination. Its poetic account of encountering facets of the self not accessible under regular states of consciousness echoes yoga’s deeper goal of encountering the conditioned self as a route into the unconditioned. Chown mentions “memories and reflections”. In yogic philosophy, these are products of the i-making process, which are understood as both part of human nature and as the cause of our suffering. Pada IV in Patanjali’s Sutras makes several mentions of “memory and impression” (IV 9-11), and the thrust of the text is towards a realisation that they are intimately bound up with the self-making project. Therefore, it may be that within states of awareness induced by practices that align with soft fascination, latent impressions, known within yoga as samskaras, might arise. It appears that not only can soft fascination lead to a powerful experience of embodiment, but that that can then lead spontaneously to an encounter with the constructed nature of selfhood. Yoga aims to free us from our false identification with the conditioned self. Perhaps the unremarkable yet magical practice of soft fascination is a gateway through which we can step into the radiant ground of being which is our true nature.

Sneaky side routes into yoga such as soft fascination, as opposed to the practices we come across in classic texts, might also help us make sense of some of the contradictions inherent in practicing yoga in the modern world. Patanjali’s yoga is explicitly a yoga of transcendence. This is problematic for those of us who wish to practice as sincere, committed students who are simultaneously committed to life in the world. Especially for those of us who are the heirs to belief systems, ideologies and religions which have left traces of distrust of the body, and which utilise the body as the primary site for enacting oppressive behaviours and resultant dissociation, it is vital that we thoroughly investigate how the practices we take as “yoga” might uphold rather than dismantle these disconnects. Soft fascination might be a key to experiencing the body, and the body-in-the-world, not as a problem to be fixed or overcome, but as a portal to the world. In this schema, neither the body, nor the world, are problems. And in this time of increasing pressures pushing us towards multiple, intersecting crises, do we need another belief system that reinforces the notion that our beautiful, precious world must be escaped from and transcended? Does yoga as it is both commonly understood nowadays, and as we experience it in our own, very personal ways, help or hinder us here?

I’m reminded as I write of an early fragment of this piece which had the working title “pratyahara is a bullshit goal”. I was disheartened, some years ago, to find that my growing conviction that I as an individual practitioner was less aligned with classical yoga than I had previously thought was backed up by the thrust of what I understood as pratyahara. Whilst understanding all too well the enormous energy expended in sensory engagement, and intuiting that this energy can be channelled inwards within meditation, I instinctively felt that I didn’t want to view my senses as some kind of enemy. I was, and am, enamoured of Celtic poet-scholar John O’Donohue’s beautiful take on embodiment. He writes in Anam Cara of “the senses as the threshold of the soul”, calling them “generous pathways which can bring you home”. This spoke powerfully to my awakening to yoga’s anthropocentrism.

Of course, yoga does not need another justification for severing its limbs from themselves and from their philosophical roots, by me or anyone else. But neither does it need a blind adherence to its tenets by those of us who choose to engage with its other limbs, simply “because it’s yoga”. So: is our practice another way of avoiding ourselves and retreating from the world? Is it a technology of intimacy, or spiritualised disconnection? Do we need to withdraw our senses? Do we even know what it is to be a sensing, feeling organism in the cacophony of modern life which both deadens and hyper-stimulates these exquisite instruments?

The world desperately needs those of us committed to waking up to turn back to it, rather than withdrawing in splendid yogic isolation. The stranglehold of the dominator paradigm is loosening all around us as the Earth, the natural world, and those most brutalised by the paradigm’s systems rise up and join our voices to say, enough, no more, me too, and time’s up. We need to dedicate the fruits of our practice to the world’s healing as much as our own: they (/we) are after all indivisible. Our senses, our bodies, our minds and our hearts are ours, to use as wisely as we feel impelled. Embodiment practices such as soft fascination teach us the art of relationship – between our bodies and the ground, our breath and our forward fold, our senses and the outer world. Turning back to the body with friendliness can lull us into the sort of effortless engaged attention in which the mindstream can be ridden upon, merged with/penetrated and therefore harnessed as a potent tool. This might allow us to restore the senses to their rightful, health-ful places, which for some might then allow for the inward-turning of classical yoga. For others it might awaken a calling to renewed engagement, such as activism. Perhaps hidden gems of practices such as soft fascination can re-configure a technology such as yoga as a powerful tool for both internal awareness and engagement with the external world.

(Note: Apologies to anyone who feels their practice, lineage or allegiances are misrepresented by this piece. As ever, it is a personal exploration of the issues therein, and is necessarily constrained by that.)

References:

Restore and Rebalance, Judith Lasater (Shambala, 2017)

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, various translations:

                BKS Iyengar (Thorsons, 1993)

                Alistair Shearer (Bell Tower, 2002)

                Edwin Bryant (North Point Press, 2013)

                Chip Hartranft (Shambala, 2003)

                TKV Desikachar’s translation in The Heart of Yoga (Inner Traditions, 1995)

Unpsychology, eds Steve Thorp and Julia Macintosh (online journal, Spring 2018)

Anam Cara, John O’Donohue (Bantam Press, 1997)

 

 

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