July, 2014

Sex, Death, Sleep, Love, Magic and Pratyahara

Everything that is seen should be looked upon as the Self

Shandilya Upanishad

Guruji, what is pratyahara?,” I asked my teacher. He came closer to me, turned my head to face a wall in his practice room and asked, “Look at that wall, what do you see?” “A wall?,” I asked timidly. “If you see a wall that means you have to practice pratyahara, then afterwards you will see God, not a wall.

Yoga is a tantric practice in which the practitioner practices seeing all of life as alive, as the living manifestation of God. What is realized in the yogic state of samadhi is the Oneness of being. A realized yogi does not see a world populated with others—living beings or inanimate objects—separate from themselves. A realized yogi sees the Self/God in all of life. It is the illusionary appearances of others that must be overcome in order to break though the false separation between self and other, or between self and nature, or between self and God. Practically speaking, what that might mean is that you start by putting a face on the other, you relate to others that you encounter as persons, you even relate to the Earth as a person, to animals, trees, plants, even streams, rivers and oceans or rain and wind as persons. You don’t see the living world as made up of inanimate objects or unfeeling, faceless animals, plants, minerals or elemental forces, but as individuals, much like yourself. When you perceive the world as alive in this way, it is easier to interact with and relate to your environment; you don’t feel so alone or as if others or the world were coming at you and you were only a passive victim. Pratyahara is the practice of purifying your perception—not believing in only what you see with your physical eyes, but looking deeper. When you can really relate to others as persons more like you than not, that provides a way, an access point, to get underneath or through the illusion of separateness.

You know how it feels when you fall in love with someone and at first, they seem like a separate person, and you seem like a separate person, but then you become enthralled with the similarities rather than the differences between the two of you, which draws you even closer, and the separateness that seemed to separate you from them dissolves. You may even feel like the same person. It may dissolve for perhaps only a moment, but in that moment, you know that it’s possible. They say that everyone experiences the true Cosmic reality many times in their life. You don’t have to be an enlightened being or a saint to have this experience of the Oneness of being: it happens at the moment of sexual orgasm and at the time of death. And it also happens every night when you go to sleep, into deep sleep, where you lose your identification with your ego/personality, with your body and mind, and you no longer experience your own self as separate, you let it go. For most people the merger experiences of orgasm, death and deep sleep are involuntary, beyond their conscious control.

A yogi wants the deep sleep experience while they are awake, a conscious experience of continuous ecstasy, like a perpetual orgasm; well, we could use the metaphor of the orgasm, but we could also use the metaphor of death. Many tantric practitioners meditate on death, and others on sex and others on sleep. The word tantra means to stretch across: tan=stretch + tra=cross over. The tantric yogi stretches their perception of self and other so far that their perception magically encompasses all of existence, including of course the Divine. To the realized yogi there is nothing outside of, or separate from God.

The word sex means separation. Etymologically, the word sex is derived from the Latin roots seco and secare, which mean “to divide, cut or separate.” Actually the experience of orgasm is a resolve of sex or separation, where the person loses themself and feels the heightened experience of oneness, if for only a moment. At the time of death a person separates from their body and merges with the oceanic experience—no longer identifying themself as a separate being confined in a body of flesh and blood, but instead as one with the universe of potential. The experience of samadhi is akin to orgasm, death and sleep, as it is a resolving of all forms of separation into the reality of Oneness. Yoga means “to yoke, to connect, to dissolve disconnection.” Yoga is the antithesis of sex, because sex means separation—to divide or separate—and yoga means union—to yoke or bring together. The state of Yoga is the state of Love, unconditional. To see yourself in others—to see so deeply into others that otherness disappears and only the Self—only God, only Love—remains is the yogic magical quest. Through the practice of pratyahara—looking deeply within—one refines their ability to go past the outer differences apparent in other beings and things in order to perceive what unites all beings and things—the universal solvent, the Divine force of eternal love, which is actually the essence of one’s own self.

—Sharon Gannon

Teaching notes: 

During this month, teachers are advised to study, contemplate and practice pratyahara in order to gain an understanding of it that can then be communicated to students. To help you with this, I recommended studying Yoga Sutras 2.54-55, as translated by Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati in the Textbook of Yoga Psychology. To provide you with guidelines for practice I recommend Chapter 8, The Practice of Pratyahara Through Seven Chakras, in Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati’s book, Fundamentals of Yoga.

I have also found, in the Introduction to Light on Yoga, a section devoted to pratyahara, written by B.K.S. Iyengar, which is quite illuminating. In that section, Mr. Iyengar makes reference to a passage from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Chapter 4.30, which uses the classical metaphor of a chariot and chariot driver to describe how to cultivate pratyahara. This same metaphor is also found in many yogic scriptures, including the Katha Upanishad, the Yogashiksha Upanishad and the Bhagavad Gita. In the teachings of the Path of Grace, Shri Vallabhacharya gives many teachings about pratyahara and how to control the senses by offering them to Lord Krishna and thus employing them in His seva. You may want to look into these bhakti teachings to gain a deeper understanding of the bhakti approach to pratyahara. Shyamdas has translated many of Vallabhacharya’s teachings and his books are available through www.shyamdasfoundation.com.

Jayne Schell

18 July, 2014 - 23:03

Dear Sharon-ji,
I have not been able to find the reference to the chariot and chariot driver as a means to cultivate pratyahara. Perhaps my edition of Light on Yoga or HY Pradipika are of a different vintage. Also, are there any bhakti teachings by Shyamdas-ji that you could specify?? I have several of his books and am enjoying reading Path of Grace at present.
Thank you for this timely focus on imvolution through pratyahara. This has been a cherished exploration for myself in order to teach from a beginners point of entrance!
And I am enjoying playing Beethoven's last Sonatas in my classes as they were created in the space I believe was inner listening and pratyahara! He studied the Bhagavad Gita and kept a quote from BG under the glass on his desk. (Something about giving up the fruits of actions) Amazing and lovely!!
Deep Love and Gratitude to you!!!

Daryl Veligor

18 July, 2014 - 17:43


With all due respect, your etymology of the sexual act is incorrect.

First, while it's true that the term "sex" does come from "seco" and "secare," the terms only refer to the gendered species, male and female (there was no transexual designation at the time). The term literally refers to two types of creatures that are separate and distinct from each other, not that they have been separated from each other because of their sexual activity, or that when they have sex they become separate.

Second, the term for the act of two (or more) people coming together for the purposes of pleasing each other is "sexual," as well as "sexualize," and both bare the meaning of "separate things coming together."

Third, the use of the term "sex" to define the act of two (or more) people coming together for pleasure is a baby on the linguistic horizon. It is only in the late 18th and mid-19th century that the term "sex" was used for the physical act, and even then, it was an enlightenment term, not meaning separate or separating, but referring to the species and their coming together for reproduction by virtue of the genitalia they have.

Fourth, the older term, as far as two (or more) people coming together to offer pleasure to each other is "copulate," which was the preferred term in Middle to early Modern English (still, coming from the Latin), and comes from "copulates," which means, "to Join, couple, bond, link, unite," and comes from the Proto Indo-European words, "ko" and "ap," meaning, "to come together." This is indeed akin to using the term "Yoga" as "Union," although most serious scholars dispute the use of Yoga as "Union" these days, and prefer the more literal, "to Yoke."

Fifth, if you want to be completely honest about the history of sex and the evolution of the English language, "fuck" is actually an older word than sex, sexualize, and copulate, it appears in Old English, Middle English, and our current English, and means the same as "copulate."

Finally, human beings are capable of supplying meaning to their own actions, and they don't need to base how they feel about their bodies and what they do with their bodies, on 19th Century Victorian attitudes, 16th century late-Renaissance views, nor on religious crisis cults that thrive on sexual repression, misogyny, and violence, in order to constantly turn back the hands of time to the glory days of when we threw stones at young women for not remaining virgins, or shamed people for loving and becoming one with another person (or more) through the coming together of their bodies. The days of shame should be long behind us, and it's horrific to see "enlightened" people propagating this sort of shame=spiritual nonsense.

It's very scary when I see Christian shame and self-hatred transported into a Yoga context, but if we're going to be teaching the history of words, it's important to at least be loyal to the words.

Derek Goodwin

15 July, 2014 - 21:41

Great article on Drishti in Yoga Journal by David Life...