What can the tortoise teach us about practising Yoga? Perhaps not that we should be laboriously slow-moving and certainly not that we should protect ourselves with a hard shell! Instead let’s think about these lines from the Bhagavad Gita where Shri Krishna compares us to a tortoise when he instructs Arjuna:
“Just as a tortoise withdraws its limbs, so when a man withdraws his senses from the sense objects, his wisdom becomes steady” (BG 2.58)
In this metaphor, the tortoise's shell is our mind and its legs are our senses. But why might we want to 'withdraw our senses' into the shell of our mind as part of our Yoga practice? After all we rely on our senses to help us understand the world through sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.
One answer is that we can have too much of a good thing! Our modern world is a bright, noisy, colourful, 24/7 environment. It constantly stimulates our senses until we can feel swept away by information overload. We become almost addicted to this kind of 'entertainment'. We crave more sensations and more vivid experiences; we become led by our desires and we latch onto the pleasure of the moment. Maybe you can observe this on a very crude level, if we think about how many times a day you check your smartphone, even when you don't really need to. Because our senses are used to this constant stimulation, our minds are unable to become quiet and settled into true focus. In spiritual terms, our uncontrolled senses drag us away from the bigger picture of self-knowledge and wisdom which is the goal of Yoga:
“When the mind is guided by the wandering senses, then it carries away one’s understanding, as the wind a ship on the water” (BG 2.67).
'Withdrawing our senses' (pratyahara in Sanskrit) is the practice of turning our attention within. By doing this we let go of sensory stimulation and allow the mind to become still. We draw our energy away from the external world and channel it inwards to create an absolute focus on the question at the heart of Yoga — exploring what is real.
By Alessandro Gozzi