What does yoga's fifth limb, pratyahara, really mean?
Did you know there is a step, or limb, in yoga that moves you from poses and breathing practice into meditation that, if skipped, makes meditative awareness difficult to reach? This limb is called pratyahara, the withdrawal of the senses, yet it is rarely referenced in your typical yoga class and remains illusory for many.
Let’s shine light on this important limb for your busy life, so you have the tools to go further in, truly, deeply, towards your bliss.
The eight limbs
Pratyahara is the fifth limb on the eight-fold path of raja yoga yet, to some degree, each limb contains some aspect of this withdrawal of the senses process. In order, the limbs are:
- Yama: moral conduct; the five yamas are:
- Ahimsa (nonviolence/ non-harming)
- Satya (truthfulness)
- Asteya (non-stealing)
- Bramacharya (sexual restraint)
- Aparigraha (non-possessiveness)
- Niyama: behavioural guidelines; the five niyamas are:
- Saucha (purity)
- Santosha (contentment)
- Tapas (disciplined austerity)
- Svadhyaya (spiritual study)
- Isvara pranidhana (surrender and devotion to the Divine)
- Asana: postures
- Pranayama: breathing practices
- Pratyahara: withdrawal of the senses
- Dharana: concentration
- Dhyana: meditation
- Samadhi: bliss of oneness
The first four limbs prepare the body and mind for the final four states, which lead to self-realisation. Guidance in methods of living are at the beginning of the yogic path, preparing the body and mind comes next, and techniques to increase prana (energy) is the fourth step. Pratyahara, as the fifth limb, is the cornerstone for crossing the threshold into the antaratma sadhana: the last three higher limbs of yoga. These limbs are internal concentration, meditation and pure absorption.
Pratyahara directs not only the senses, but also the prana and the mind, to turn within. Without internalising through pratyahara, you can’t obtain success with the antaratma sadhana, limiting your yoga practice to an external focus. If you are having difficulty concentrating or meditating, therefore, pratyahara is the practice you need.
Why do we need to go within?
There is a multitude of objects vying for your attention in daily life. The senses are constantly processing and being attracted to whatever is in front of them. Sensory indulgence can feel like temporary euphoria, misleadingly taken as freedom; however, it is simply a form of addiction, attachment and aversion.
Addictions can take the form of drugs and alcohol but are also present in other ways, such as an addiction to your smartphone, devices and social media channels as well as the sounds, smells, bright lights and fancy packaging of the consumer life. New tastes and heavily marketed, commercially driven ideas directed right at your interests, as well as your memories of things from the past, all keep you focused on the external. Whether you are aware of it or not, this leaves your mind in a state of agitation, and agitation moves you away from divine connections in life.
Being at one with nature is to touch the exquisiteness of pratyahara. Find strength in silence, alone in the great, expansive natural world.
Distractions are part of the human condition. Even 5000 or so years ago, before the current age of sensory overload, people were distracted. In sutra 2.54 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the process of pratyahara is explained as: “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 conscious withdrawal from never-ending sensory activity is an appeal to change direction, so the senses are engaged in and become attracted to the interior realm. When the senses are reigned in, the mind becomes still and absorbed in consciousness. This is what Patanjali refers to as the “cessations of the fluctuations of the mind”.
Finding pratyahara in nature
Are you ready to bring pratyahara into your life? Start with cultivating discipline of the yamas and niyamas, and discipline in the company you keep, as well as adopting an internal focus in your asana and pranayama practice, and communing with nature.
Letting go in nature might be in antipathy to your to-do lists — yet it’s crucial for peace and wellbeing. Being at one with nature is to touch the exquisiteness of pratyahara. Find strength in silence, alone in the great, expansive natural world. Revere the divine within the living earth and refine your senses by exposing them to subtleties unavailable through artificial indulgence.
In nature, watch as you start to breathe out, to let go. Appeal to the sense of touch and feel the texture of the rocks, the delicate balance of the dew drops that glisten on the nearby leaves, the granules of sand as they slip through your fingers. Breathe. Listen for the bird’s song and take in the changing colours of the setting sun. Close your eyes and allow the senses to turn inward.
Aim to withdraw into natural surrounds as much as possible, to heal from the bombardment of sensory menus all too available for attachment in the commercial world. Train your mind in nature and increase your prana, your energy levels, through this communion in preparation for absorption during higher yogic practices.
When you are deep in nature, resist taking photos to be used on your Instagram account, and turn off your phone. It is possible to simply be in the natural world. Observe your prana and your thoughts, and fast from negativity.
The attractions of your inner world
Pratyahara is to recognise the outward pull and desires within the sensory attraction and, rather than blocking them, to practise techniques that attract the senses within.
Mantra is a powerful way to achieve this interiorisation. Choose your chant (find a suitable one online if you don’t know one) and sing out loud for the chosen series of rounds. Then chant in whispers, focusing your attention on the sounds. Next, silently chant in your mind. At the point where the body and mind are prepared, the senses and prana will eventually become peacefully engaged in the inward motion of the mantra, attracted by each succeeding step in.
Visualisation is another tool of pratyahara that comes from the inner landscape, offering the same inward attraction for the senses and mind.
Fasting as a form of pratyahara
Pratyahara practice is non-action, so providing a profound source of energy for spiritual acceleration. Prata means “against” or “away” and ahara means “food” or “anything taken into ourselves”. Fasting from food is a form of pratyahara as you withdraw from unhealthy or “dead” foods. Sensory fasting from “ahara” refers to fasting from the subtle impressions in the sensations of sound, sight, touch, taste, smell as a way to strengthen the mind.
Drama and action bombard the senses, ultimately dulling their sensitivity to higher vibrational qualities in life.
If you are someone who always has the television or music going, your computers and other devices switched on, try turning them off — and watch the senses look for their next attraction. At this point, you can light a candle and stare into the flame. Now the senses are attracted to a simpler external object that is compelling and the drishti, or point of concentration, that this pure, natural, incandescent light offers naturally takes the senses within. After a while, close your eyes. See the image of the flame inside your eyelids and allow the senses to be attracted inwards towards the spiritual fire of the heart. Effortlessly now, your mind will become receptive to meditation and the deeper states.
Understanding the four pratyaharas
Vedic scholar Dr David Frawley refers to four pratyaharas. It is helpful to understand each of these forms in order to begin to work further with this key yogic limb.
- Indirya pratyahara: control of the senses
Your senses thrill-seek through entertainment, consumption and information, inviting negative energy into your body-mind through the small screens of your life and other means. Drama and action bombard the senses, ultimately dulling their sensitivity to higher vibrational qualities in life.
Indirya pratyahara is about becoming conscious of the impact sensory information has on your mind and the palette of choice available to you. It is here that you might consider doing a sensory impressions fast.
- Prana pratyahara: control of the prana
Pranayama or breathing techniques are an important step to pratyahara, as your prana needs to be strong in order to control the direction of the senses. Frawley says the best method for practising prana pratyahara is to visualise the death process, where prana withdraws from the body, shutting off the senses from the feet to the head.
- Karma pratyahara: control of action
Nerve impulses come through the senses (sound, sight, taste, touch, smell) and are expressed through the motor organs (ears, eyes, tongue, skin, nose), which drives further sensory involvement.
Here, Frawley explains that right intake of impressions gives control of the sense organs, and right work and right action control the motor organs. Karma pratyahara is about surrendering the fruits of our actions to the divine, as discussed in the Bhagavad Gita and other works on dharma (righteous action).
- Mano pratyahara: withdrawal of the mind
The mind is the sixth sense organ, and responsible for coordinating the others. When you focus on something, your mind overlooks other things, and this innate quality can be harnessed through pratyahara, explains Frawley. The mind is formless, and pratyahara directs the senses towards the formlessness of the mind.
Mano pratyahara is the path of consciously withdrawing your attention from unwholesome impressions. First learn to control the senses, motor organs and prana, then withdraw the mind.
How to find bliss through simplicity
Set up a clean, simple space free of clutter and fill it with positive, uplifting sights, sounds and smells for peaceful living. A beautiful, simple pratyahara practice is to focus the mind on positive impressions rather than negative ones, and this can be more easily done in a decluttered space. Meditating in a temple, church or meditation hall is, therefore, extremely powerful, as is the temple of nature.
Yet you can practise pratyahara even on the brightest of city streets, in among it all, by consciously directing your attention within while keeping your eyes open. Directing your senses of sight, sound, smell and touch inwards while those sense organs are open to outside experiences purposely trains the mind to turn off sensory engagement at will. That is freedom. Gazing into a starry night sky or the moon’s reflection across the ocean is, too.
Cultivate a life of non-doing, of non-action at will. Turn the pratyahara key and open the door to the higher limbs of yoga. Go within, reside there, find peace, find purpose and, as always, offer the fruits of all actions — and all your non-action intentions — back to the divine. Surrender, practise pratyahara for peace and extend this intention: may all beings everywhere be happy and free.
Om shanti (peace).
A pratyahara practice for deep peace
Seated, begin with a mantra for pratyahara, such as the Kali Heart Mantra. Sitting in a meditative posture of your choosing, centre yourself, close eyes and chant rounds of krim hum hrim. So you can focus on the chant and nothing else, use mala beads, finger positions or simply allow yourself a set time such as five minutes.
Next, choose cleansing yoga postures with longer holds. Focus on the ujjayi breath (a breathing technique where you contract the glottis, the upper part of your larynx) and its sounds for calm, serene interiorisation.
If you can, attend yoga classes so you can move into the poses without having to think about the order of the sequence. Find a class in which you’re comfortable so that you can interiorise. When you practise the poses led by an experienced yoga teacher, it allows your mind to stay focused on your ujjayi breath and on your chosen drishti within the pose, without having to pull your focus to consider what the next aspect of what the sequence will be. Throughout asana practice, fix your gaze and move slowly, consciously, as you transition between the poses. Guide your drishti during transitions from one pose to the next.
A beautiful, simple pratyahara practice is to focus the mind on positive impressions rather than negative ones, and this can be more easily done in a decluttered space.
Perform pranayama, such as the balancing breath of nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), then immediately after perform Yoni Mudra. This is the practice of blocking “the seven gates”. While seated, block the sensory openings with the fingers — lightly block the ears, eyes, nostrils and mouth, so that you can still breathe — and allow your attention and your energy to move within.
Next, with closed eyes, concentrate on each of the following body parts in ascending then descending order, while suspending the breath. Take your time moving on to each focal point with slow, steady progression. Focus on, and suspend the breath at, the big toe on one side. Breathe during the transition to the next focal point on that side, then focus on and suspend the breath at the ankle. Continue this practice up through the calf, knee, thigh, anus, genitals, abdomen, navel, heart, wrist, elbow, neck, tip of the nose, eyes, roof of the mouth, space between the eyebrows, forehead; then back down through the roots of the teeth, neck, chest, navel, base of the spine, coccyx, hip, thigh, knee, leg and big toe.
At this point in your sequence, it is timely to practise a lying down yoga nidra.
Afterwards, come to sitting, and bring your attention to the physical location of the spiritual heart, right in the middle of your chest. Be still, breathe into and out from the heart centre.
Conclude your practice by meditating on a yantra, or sacred geometrical shape, such as the Sri Yantra.
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