Pratyahara may initially seem confusing to many students of yoga philosophy. The fifth limb of Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of yoga from the Yoga Sutras translates as “withdrawal of the senses”. We are used to yoga teachers encourage us to notice bodily sensations as they arise and to expand our awareness of these sensations. So, don’t these sensations come to us through the gateways of the five senses? If we’re trying to become more and more aware, why would we then pull away from our senses?
The misunderstanding arises from the fact that sensory withdrawal in yoga doesn’t mean that we ignore stimuli or dull our senses. It means to intentionally draw inward and create a little bit of space between the sensation or stimuli and our reaction to it.
Where does Pratyahara fit within the Eight Limbs of Yoga?
As we’ve seen in the previous episodes of this mini-series dedicated to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali for modern life, the first four limbs are seen as the external yoga. Here we are focused on our ethical standards (yama), our self-discipline (niyama), our physical yoga practice (asana), and the control of our breath (pranayama).
The fifth limb of yoga, Pratyahara, can be seen as the bridge between external and internal yoga. It moves the yogi towards the more subtle art of concentration and meditation, and finally to samadhi (enlightenment). The word ‘pratyahara’ stems from the Sanskrit prati and ahara. Prati means “against or away,” and ahara is anything we take into ourselves from the outside.
In this way, pratyahara could be interpreted as withdrawing ourselves from any external information so we can hear the sounds coming from within.
Pratyahara for modern life
In our super busy lives, we receive a constant stream of information through our five senses. The flow of stimuli can be overwhelming and it can get harder and harder to take a moment of sensory rest.
When we instantly react to the information our senses feed us, we are being pulled away from our inner peace into the fluctuating external world. The senses can easily take over, and we end up running from one impulsive reaction to the other, often forgetting our higher goals in life.
To ground ourselves on and off the mat, here are a ways to practice Pratyahara in our everyday life.
Unhealthy food and toxic relationships are the first things we could eliminate, but our sensory diet shouldn’t stop there. Our mind cannot thrive, be healthy and strong if we are surrounded by unhealthy patterns and information – this obviously includes the media we choose to watch or be exposed to.
To try and distance ourself from the sensory overload that comes from TV, internet and social media, we can decide to simply switch off. Even if just for few hours every now and then, switch off our phones, TVs and laptops – it’s a great way to turn our focus inward.
Mind first, the senses will follow
Our internal energy is influenced and directed by our mind. The mind can only take in a certain amount of input coming from our senses, so the energy flows where the mind goes. In the same way, if the mind is controlled the senses are controlled too.
In Savasana or simply before falling asleep at night, we can allow our mind to focus on one sense at a time and get familiar with the stimuli coming from it. For example, we can spend some time recognising and becoming familiar with all the different sounds around us, far away and close by. We can try not to judge or label the sounds, just listen. Once the mind gets used to the sounds, it will naturally stop paying attention to it and it will be easier to focus inwards.
Move mindfully and with awareness
During our yoga practice, we release physical tension which is vital for the mind to become quiet. On the mat, we can cultivate elements of Pratyahara by being fully present and leaving the external world behind. Off the mat, we can try to move about our day mindfully and with awareness, listening to our senses and our individual reactions to what is happening around us.
Patience and practice
Yoga is a process of discovery and growth. Just as asana practice takes time, so does practicing the mind. We cannot jump into Crow Pose on our first day of asana practice, but this doesn’t mean we can’t eventually get there. So let’s allow our mind the same freedom to grow and develop. Be patient, practice, and take each day as it comes.