Quick questions: Do you find yourself randomly checking your phone during your Yoga class? How about at the movies or while watching TV? When you’re out having dinner with friends? Do you ever check Facebook or Instagram while talking to someone on the phone? Have you pretty much stopped talking to people on the phone because you can just text them and leave comments on their feeds?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s time for a little intervention.
The idea of social media being an addiction isn’t hyperbole anymore—it’s actually a thing now. Thanks to a few tech defectors brave (or guilt-ridden) enough to tell the truth, we now know that social media apps are brilliantly/diabolically engineered to turn you into an addict. An insatiable little addict that will totally ignore your beloved Grandma at the family dinner table for a hit of hearts or a shot of a thumbs-up.
The drugs aren’t in the social media apps; the apps are amping up the drugs that are already in your brain. Specifically, dopamine, the brain’s chemical messenger. Dopamine’s job is your survival. When you score something it perceives as valuable, like food or a potential mate, it gives you a feel-good hit. This is why you feel euphoric when you get something you want. Dopamine is also your brain’s seeking mechanism, keeping you on the move and hunting, because the cupcakes you have today will run out tomorrow. (Unless you’re like me, in which case they’ll run out tonight.)
Basically, dopamine gets you searching for survival stuff and, when you find it, rewards you with a brief high—very brief, so you’ll start looking for more survival stuff again fast. Back when we were living in caves and wearing animal-skin tunics (not yet stylishly belted), this “More—Yay!!—More” loop kept our species alive.
Fast forward to now. We’ve evolved to being able to get food any time we want and wearing faux-animal tunics belted. But dopamine is still in the “More—Yay!!—More” groove, still laser-focused on survival, even though what ranks as important has been modified. Approval from the tribe meant survival back in the cave days. Approval by the virtual tribe means social survival now. With every “like,” heart, and upward thumb, we get a hit of dopamine, and just like with any drug, the more you get, the more you want.
So what’s wrong with liking “likes”? It’s not a problem if it’s not hurting anybody, right? But it is hurting us. All this phone checking damages the quality of our relationships, and even our ability to process and focus on information. According to a recent study on cognitive capacity, the mere presence of a smartphone dumbs us down.
One of the things I hate (in a serene, Yoga teacher kind of way) is when I read about social media addiction—usually via social media—and there’s no solution. Thankfully, that won’t be the case here, because I can offer you, in my serene, Yoga teacher kind of way, a suggestion. Yep, there’s a Yoga tool for that. And it’s NOT an app.
Pratyahara means “sense withdrawal,” and it’s about tuning out distractions from the outside world so you can tune into your own beautiful inside world. Pratyahara involves closing your eyes, plugging your ears, and making sure you’re as removed as possible from distractions, which is where you get the classic image of the Yogi sitting on a mountaintop. If you don’t have a mountaintop handy, use this modified approach to Pratyahara.
First—and this may be the most difficult step—put your phone down and move away from it. Turn it off and leave it in another room. If this feels challenging, you know you need to do it.
Next, find someplace comfy to sit or lie down for 10 to 15 minutes, or longer if you like. Close your eyes, and use earplugs if there’s noise outside.
Then, just relax. Listen to the sound of your own breathing. You don’t have to try to clear your mind of thoughts. Let your mind wander. It hasn’t had any undistracted playtime for a while. See where it wants to go.
You may be surprised to find solutions to problems that have been bugging you, or peaceful conclusions about unfinished business. You may be bored, and that’s okay; there’s a theory that boredom leads to increased creative thinking. You may feel a new passion for something, or have the Next Great Idea… There’s no telling what a calm, undistracted mind can come up with.
Make Pratyahara a regular part of your life, at least weekly, if not daily. Breaking the habit of checking your phone might be hard at first, but when you find out what your own wild, beautiful mind can do, unplugging could become addictive.
Suzan Colón is the author of Yoga Mind:Beyond the Physical: 30 Days to Enrich Your Practice and Revolutionize Your Life From the Inside Out.