Svavisaya asmprayoge cittasya svarupanukarah iva indriyanam pratyaharah
Withdrawing the senses, mind and consciousness from contact with external objects, and then drawing them inwards towards the seer, is pratyahara.
In one of the famous pictures in the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna is sitting on a five-horse chariot, holding the rein in his hand. The five horses represent the five senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. Without discipline, the five senses are always searching for objects outside. Once the senses are attracted to a certain object, the mind starts to flow. Consciousness unites with the sensed objects and as a result we start judging the objects by what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch, or starting relating the true Self with these objects. For example, when a Chinese tastes Indian desert for the first time in life, he feels sweet and says “It is sweet”. However, to a Indian who has been growing up eating this kind of sweet food every day, he feels nothing particular and the desert is “just nice” to him. Similarly, when one feels cold, he says “I am cold”. However, it is the “sense” sending out the “cold” signal, he has been united with the senses but not the true Self.
Pratyahara is a state when senses are withdrew and directed inwards. When we engage ourselves with the senses, our energy is moving outward. You may have experienced that it is easier to feel tired walking in a shopping mall than in a park, assuming the same walking distance. That is because in a shopping mall, our senses are busy reaching out to different objects and the mind is restless; while walking in the park, we are more focused within. Energy should be retained. If we let the energy out all the time, in the long run, health status will be affected either physically or mentally.
In Ashtanga Vinyasa practice, we have been taught techniques to withdraw our senses and go within. By using Ujjayi breathing technique, we focus on the sound of breathing and do not attend to other environmental sounds. By following the dristi points, our eyes don’t move about and thus we drop the sense of seeing. Similarly, the sense of tactile is withdrawn by engaging ourselves in the practice of asana. This is called pratyahara. The same should happen in the practice of pranayama.
In the state of pratyahara, one merges with the true Self, the Nature. There’s no more attachment and desires, and pure intelligence and consciousness will flow freely.