Pratyahara – A Sensory Withdrawal Or Detachment?

TIL: we dont have 5 senses. we have 18?!?!? 

disclaimer: this post is based on my shallow understanding following my 1-video curiosity to learn about pratyahara.

Apparently, senses can be categorized into:

“Primary” “Internal” “Super”/ “Higher Order”
Sense of sight
Sense of sound
Sense of smell
Sense of taste
Sense of touch
Sense of warmth
Sense of cold
Sense of pain
Sense of muscular co-ordination
Sense of balance
Sense of thirst, hunger and sex
Sense of inner sight (clairvoyance)
Sense of inner hearing (clairaudience)
Sense of inner smell
Sense of inner taste
Psycho-kinetic sense
Psycho-sympathetic senses of sympathy, empathy, pity
Sense of higher compassion

In the 5th limb of ashtanga yoga, Pratyahara is often described as the “withdrawal of senses”. this is derived from a naive interpretation + translation of based on the breakdown of the word; prati means “away”, and ahara means “food”, or in this case, a any stimuli that we sense (or should i say, “feeds” us).

For the past few years since I managed to have a little bit of my ajna chakra activated (or so i would like to believe), i have been attempting to withdraw myself from my senses.

Let me step back and provide some context – i have always been someone who has heightened senses –  not to all 18 of them, but i would say more than 50% of it – i get extra negatively impacted when i sense someone/ something around me not being in the state of harmony, even if it were a stranger. i get overly consumed with negativity over a long list of things:

  • when i witness/ hear about an upsetting experience

(or superficially, when i…)

  • smell strong scents
  • see something out of place
  • touch something cold or wet
  • hear inconsistently loud noises

(or even more superficially – yes it’s possible – when i…)

  • only scratch my left arm and not the right arm
  • dont type with all my fingers equally
  • dont part my hair each side + centre about equal number of hours each day
  • have to stand in front of a fan on louver (because the air hitting me is not consistent)

The list simply goes on.

At this point, i can hear people laughing about such lameness/ weirdness. but emotionally, and to a certain extent, physically, i get more affected than one can imagine; i can feel my manipura chakra triggered and running in full speed (if i am using the concept correctly, but you get idea) – i feel a dull throbbing at the circumference along my temples, i feel flustered, i get impulsive. and yes, i would then react on the impulse and escalate situations that could be nothing – sometimes i’d start a heated argument/ blame it on the first person i see beside me/ allow myself to fulfil the “illogical” need (like proceeding to scratch my right arm).

So yes, since i learnt truly the idea of self-reflection and analysis, i recognized such unhealthiness brewing within me, and have been trying to do things to help myself. from hearing from others/ reading of self-help books/ experiential, i concluded that all these impulses due to my lack of self-discipline. here are some things i tried:

(sorry i am going to use my lame but hopefully entertaining examples.)

  • exercise discipline to abstain – stop myself from scratching that other arm when it doesnt even itch
  • exercise discipline to anticipate and control – intentionally scratch one side and stop myself from balancing out with the other
  • exercise discipline to delay gratification – wait until the end of this post to standardize fonts/ alignments if i know it is going to take more 10 seconds
  • exercise discipline to focus – meditating and focusing on breath as opposed to the 1 million things in my mind speaking at me/ surfacing in my brain.

Last year, i furthered in this journey of attempted self-help by consciously withdrawing myself from situations (which of course after taking this course only did i realize is called Pratyahara).

Despite so, i dont feel like i have made much progress – i mean yes there is a liiiittle progress in terms of 10% shorter procrastinations/ 5% lesser impulsive needs – but i find myself falling back easily/ progress made is not sustainable or stagnated. During this period, I also received advice that i should not avoid a negative thought, but rather acknowledge and even put in ALL the attention, and learn to let go of it. that is something that i have consciously tried to practice – the concept is easy to understand (though hard to convince my own friends because i cant verbalize myself very well), but i always had trouble applying the technique, and grasping how the experience should feel like… until this youtube video i decided to click on just because youtube recommendations… i mean, there were many more visually-appealing videos. #everythingalwayshappensforareason

In the video is this very wise dude, Dr Ananda, talking basically about the “missing link” in yoga. he states that Pratyahara is that easily-dismissed-as-just-another-external-practice, but in reality, the linkage between the other 7 external and internal concepts (or limbs) of yoga (to attain a yogic life). (please watch the video at your own time to understand why.)

He then started preaching about what Pratyahara actually means (to him) – it is not just the withdrawal, but the choice to withdraw from our senses. his interpretation is based on Pantajali’s sutra 54 and 55 (from 2:00min).

Sadhana Pada Sutra 54: Swavishaya Asamprayoge (to attach) Chitta Swarupa Anukarah Iva; Indrianam Pratyaharah

Direct translation: Pratyahara or abstraction is, as it were, the imitation by the senses of the mind by withdrawing themselves from their objects.

Sadhana Pada Sutra 55: Tatah ParamaaVashyateIndriyaanaam

Direct translation: Then follows the greatest mastery over the senses.

Quoting wise Dr Ananda’s interpretation of the sutra, “we have the tendency to attach and identify with our sensors. we need to come away from them” and “thru the practice of pratyahara, you are able to untangle yourself from the web of senses (indriya jala) into a state of mastery over the sense”.

He describes the practice of Pratyahara as intentionally over-heightening the sense that is being triggered, really experience, assess, analyze, and emerge objectively from the sense (i.e. “let go”), by the power of choice. specifically, you see the best you can see, you hear the best you can hear, you feel the best you can feel… and then you choose to withdraw yourself (“vairagya”) non attachment/ passion; only by choosing to move away from a sensory experience would you be able to achieve objectivity towards your sensory experiences; only by taking a step back and understanding your experience with objectivity, i.e. shifting our sensory experience inwards, and seeing it as an experience, as opposed to my experience.

Our pre-frontal cortex located between the brows is what gives us the power of choice. and that is what differs us from other beings – spinal -> reactivity -> response/ “response-ability” -> cortical (at brow center). according to Dr Ananda, in Pratyahara, you want to move away from spinal cord tendency to react reflexively, and responding reflectively instead.

Hence one can practice between-brows strengthening exercises – the more you become conscious of the brow center and choose to reside in the power of choice, you start to become a master of the senses rather than a mere slave to them. 

Dr Ananda’s recommendations are:

  • perform Shanmukhi Mudra while sitting in Padmasana, focusing on breathing at all times.
  • practice Prana Kriya to enhance your power of shifting your experience from external to internal. (meditate; IN 6 counts, HOLD 3 counts, EX 6 counts, HOLD 3 counts.)
  • practice Sapta Kriya – in savasana, sense (softest/ loudest) as much as you can on your periphiral, then come back within to observe your (softest/ loudest) internal sounds to silence.
  • om Japa – power to quiet your lymphic system (which is tied to our reflexive/ reactive/ emotional behavior)

After revisiting Dr Ananda’s teachings and my summary via this post, i am beginning to see that it does all fall back on discipline. given i acknowledge that there is a choice to withdraw, it is only with discipline would i be able to make the choice. with more knowledge on what (breakdown + linkage of concepts), why (bases of concepts) , and how (techniques) , i now feel a little more inspired to try harder.