Following is some information I put together on the practice of Pratyahara. This is a delve into the world of Yoga philosophy, so keep in mind that we are just barely touching on a field that is incredibly vast and expansive! At the end of this writing I included some suggestions on further reading. Enjoy!
“Just as the tortoise withdraws its limbs, so when a man withdraws his senses from the sense objects, his wisdom becomes steady.” – from the Bhagavad Gita
Pratyahara is the fifth limb of Ashtanga Yoga (the 8 Limbs of Yoga). Together, the first 7 limbs form an interconnected pathway toward the 8th limb: Samadhi (the super-conscious state or absorption with the cosmic consciousness). This is the ultimate goal of Yoga, and the journey we are all embarking on through our practice of asana (postures), pranayama (breath work), yoga nidra (deep relaxation), and meditation. It is a life-long practice, ever shifting with flows of constant change both internal and external.
Here is a quick overview of Ashtanga Yoga – the 8 Limbs of Yoga:
1. Yama (abstinence)
2. Niyama (observance)
3. Asana (posture)
4. Pranayama (breath control)
5. Pratyahara (sense withdrawal)
6. Dharana (concentration)
7. Dhyana (meditation)
8. Samadhi (contemplation, absorption or super-conscious state)
Limbs 1-5 are Bahir (outer) limbs which focus on limiting disturbances from outer or external sources.
Limbs 6-8 are Antar (inner) limbs which deal with mind itself.
Yamas and Niyamas provide the ethical foundation of outer, external interaction with world and with each other. They provide principals to help guide us in right-interaction so that we move peacefully through/with the world. Asana and Pranayama are tools that engage the physical body, and the more subtle Pranic body, in order to draw awareness further inward. Pratyahara deals with unbalanced or inadequate energy that needs to be quieted or stilled in order to reach a more meditative or inward state.
Here is Yoga Sutra 2:54 on Pratyahara, from Patangali’s The Yoga Sutras with translation and commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda:
When the senses withdraw themselves from the objects and imitate, as it were, the nature of the mind-stuff, this is pratyahara.
“With pranayama, the mind is still not completely fit, because there are other things that will try to pull the mind here and there – namely, the senses. They will always tell the mind, “Ah, there is a wonderful thing in this showcase. Come on, why not buy it?” Or, “Do you smell that wonderful odor? Get ready. Wash your hands. Some nice things are being cooked.” The mind might even be quiet, but the nose won’t allow it to remain so. And the moment the nose says that something is being prepared, the tongue says, “The saliva is ready,” and the eyes say, “Can I have a look at it?” We must have a good rein over these turbulent sense…”
“…The senses are like a mirror. Turned outward, they reflect the outside; turned inward, the reflect the pure light. By themselves the senses are innocent, but when allowed to turn outside they attract everything and transfer those messages to the mind, making it restless. Turned inward, they find peace by taking the form of the mind itself.
The senses are in effect, a gateway that allows externals to come into the mind. For example, if we look at a cabinet, we can only understand it as a cabinet if our mind takes that form. This is the law of perception. That’s why when we concentrate on something holy, the mind takes that from. When the mind retains it, we get those pictures even in our dreams. When we have sense control we only allow the mind to take the forms we want.”
Here is the same Sutra translated by and with commentary by BKS Iyengar:
Withdrawing the senses, mind and consciousness from contact with external objects, and then drawing them inwards towards the seer, is pratyahara.
“Now the mind is able to concentrate and the senses no longer importune the mind for their gratification. They lose interest in the tastes and flavours of their respective objects, and are drawn back from the external world in order to help the mind in its inner quest. This is pratyahara.”
When practicing Pratyahara we are working with substitution over repression. There are many practices for controlling or withdrawing the senses, but it is important to remember that we are not repressing our thoughts but allowing them to flow…to remail open…offering what we are trying to overcome to a higher power, or offering them to the Earth as compostable energy. Pranayama, or a focus on the breath, will assist tremendously in the practice of Pratyahara.
This brief offering of an aspect of Yoga philosophy; there are vast arrays texts that explore in great and wonderful detail the teachings of Yoga, and I encourage you all to find some time to go deeper into your studies. Here are just a few recommended texts as to not overwhelm you with suggestions! ☺ The first is one that I am currently studying and I am absolutely blown away by the clarity of insight and practical guidance that it offers, especially as it relates to Pratyahara.
The Untethered Soul, the journey beyond yourself – by Michael A. Singer
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda
Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – by BKS Iyengar
The Bhagavad Gita – commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda
Here is a link to a nicely informative piece on Pratyahara:
“But you should never leave something as important as your energy flow to chance. If you like energy, and you do, then don’t ever close. The more you learn to stay open, the more energy can flow into you. You practice opening by not closing. Any time you start to close, ask yourself whether you really want to cut off the energy flow. Because if you want, you can learn to stay open no matter what happens in the world. You just make a commitment to explore your capacity for receiving unlimited energy. You simply decide not to close. At first it feels unnatural since your innate tendency is to close as a means of protection. But closing your heart does not really protect you from anything; it just cuts you off from your source of energy. In the end, it only serves to lock you inside….
…Through meditation, through awareness and willful efforts, you can learn to keep your centers open. You do this by just relaxing and releasing. You do this by not buying into the concept that there is anything worth closing over. Remember, if you love life, nothing is worth closing over. Nothing, ever, is worth closing your heart over. “ (p.45-47)
from The Untethered Soul – Michael A. Singer
With love and light.