Personalizing Pratyahara

Pratyahara is the fifth limb in Patanjali’s 8-limbed ashtanga yoga system and is literally translated as “the conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses”. To be honest, it is one of the “limbs” that I least understood. The basic tenets of saucha (wisdom), santosha (contentment), asana (stead and effortless pose) and pranayama (breathing) can be understood and embraced but what exactly does pratyahara require of the yoga practitioner? How does one withdraw one’s senses?

We live in a world where our senses are stimulated on every side. We’re hooked up to the internet all day long and bombarded with loads of information about people and places we might never meet or visit. We become used to the constant chatter of voices, vehicles and construction and we have a never ending to-do list. I know when I go home one of the first things I do is to turn on the TV and check out what’s on today’s news. Our senses are stimulated all the time, everywhere. We could retreat to an ashram or live out our days in a cave but for most of us those are not tenable solutions.

So in our everyday life, perhaps pratyahara is about sensing the stimuli but choosing not to react to that stimuli in the way that the stimulus would want us to react. So it’s a little bit like creating a space between the sensing of the stimulus and our response to the stimulus. I like what yoga teacher Judith Lasater said in her yoga journal article “Return to Stillness” that ”practicing pratyahara doesn’t mean running away from stimulation (which is basically impossible). Rather practicing pratyahara means remaining in the middle of a stimulating environment and consciously not reacting, but instead choosing how to respond”.

I deal with alot of crises in my work. I think consciously practicing pratyahara would help me to not feel overwhelmed but be able to take a step back or withdraw from the stimulus or crisis in question, find my center and inner calm and choose my response carefully. That’s why I titled this post personalizing pratyahara because I think there is no ONE way where we choose to withdraw our senses. For some of us the particular struggle might be in the area of not giving in too much to the stimulus that certain food brings or for some of us it might be choosing to stay in a certain difficult asana even though our senses want to give up and get out.

I think I understand pratyahara a little bit more now. 🙂

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”