Pratyahara: Sense Withdrawal

Pratyahara:  Withdrawl of the Senses

Pratyahara is described as withdrawl from the 5 senses (taste, touch, sight, sound, smell).  It is derived from the Sanskrit words “prata”, which means away from/against, and “ahara”, which means food, or anything taken into ourselves.  Pratyahara links the external aspects of yoga (yamas/niyamas, asana, pranayama) with the internal (meditation, enlightenment).  It is the 5th step in the 8 limbs of Raja Yoga.  The 8 limbs/steps are performed sequentially, as the mastery of each one is required to move to the next level.  To achieve pratyahara, the mind must first be turned inward—only then can the senses (indriyas) follow.  Pratyahara is a mental function and involves both cognition and expression (physical and astral planes)—so one must suspend both external stimulation of senses and those within the mind.  This means that one must go beyond reducing external stimuli (closing eyes, sitting in a quiet place, touching as little as possible) but must extend into what is going on in the mind (“seeing” with the mind’s eye, for example).  Pratayahara is described in yoga sutras 2.54, 2.55.

2.54 When the mental organs of senses and actions (indriyas) cease to be engaged with the corresponding objects in their mental realm, and assimilate or turn back into the mind-field from which they arose, this is called pratyahara, and is the fifth step.
(sva vishaya asamprayoge chittasya svarupe anukarah iva indriyanam pratyaharah)

2.55 Through that turning inward of the organs of senses and actions (indriyas) also comes a supreme ability, controllability, or mastery over those senses inclining to go outward towards their objects.
(tatah parama vashyata indriyanam)

 “Clinging” to the action of sensing will hinder the mind from withdrawl and does not lead to meditation.  Continuing sensory function (internal or external) is merely relaxation.  Pratyahara is the suspension of both.  One must train the mind to turn inward and suspend sense gratification on the astral plane—where the mind goes, the physical senses will follow.  For example:  Breaking a bad habit.  Habits arise from gratification of the physical senses.  To completely stop the action can lead to suppression and frustration.  Using the principles of pratyahara, if the mental “habit” can broken first, physical will follow.  By withdrawing from the sensory stimulus, the mind is taking control of the sensory function and desire on a physical level is lost.

Pratyahara practices include:

Pranayama—the focus is solely on the breath, turning attention inward

Concentration or Visualization of the 3rd eye (Ajna Chakra)

Focus on one sense only.  The mind will naturally roam between the senses.  By pinpointing one and focusing on that sense only, the mind will eventually tire of it and withdraw.

Advanced practitioners can stop nerve impulses from reaching their centers in the brain through pranayama and thus “turn off” nerves.

The final form of Pratyahara is to withdraw attention from anything that is unwholesome and distracting for the mind.  The practitioner will thus lose the desire for things he/she formerly used to gratify the senses and will have less attachments. 

References: 

  1. Swamij.com  “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2.54, 2.55.  Pratyahara or sense withdrawl…”
  2. Wikipedia.com  “Pratyahara”