Coming from the Sanskrit prati, meaning “away” or “against” and ahara, meaning intake of food or other substances, pratyahara signifies the withdrawal of the senses—turning the consciousness inward to release external stimuli. While pratyahara may seem like a difficult concept to grasp and practice, it’s something that we are already moving toward in meditation and asana practice when we concentrate on our breath. Working with pranayama leads us toward internal awareness as we release conscious responses to externalities.
Pratyahara is the fifth limb of yoga as explicated by Patanjali, and is the bridging force between external and internal yoga practices. The first four limbs of yoga are more external. They consist of yama, which includes non-harming and truthfulness, niyama, which constitutes duties and tasks that can lead to a healthy life, and asana and pranayama. The practice of pratyahara allows us to move into the last three limbs of yoga, which are internal: dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (total absorption).
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In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says that “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” (2.54). He follows this by explicating that “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” (2.55). In meditation, this is the difference between just relaxing and being still and moving into a state of inner awareness.
How do you cultivate pratyahara your own practice? Since pratyahara involves moving away from your racing thoughts and coming to a place of inner stillness, the next time you’re in a yoga class and attempting a challenging pose, notice whether anxiety or fear arise. You may even fantasize about coming out of the pose. But rather than seeking escape, move deeper into the pose using your breath and drishti. This will lead to an awareness of your physical body’s ability to sustain deep postures. Withdrawing from your busy thoughts will lead you to discover more subtle things happening in your body, mind and spirit. You can also cultivate pratyahara in savasana using techniques like yoga nidra,which can take you into a deeper state of relaxation and quietness.
In meditation, move toward pratyahara through pranayama techniques. Simply focusing on your inhales and exhales will begin to quiet your mind and the outside world. Another technique is visualization, which can quiet external stimuli. You might visualize a vast landscape, like an ocean or a field. The absence of details in these kinds of scenes will help you from becoming distracted. Beginning your meditation in a quiet place will also allow you to move into pratyahara more quickly.
Pratyahara isn’t just good for your yoga practice. It’s a useful skill that will influence your whole life. In our overstimulating modern world, we easily slip into noise, distraction and the lure of media and technology. We check our cell phones every time they beep, and we crowd our lives with diversions like television, games, alcohol and even food. Though none of these things are inherently bad, they can take over our lives even in moments where silence and stillness would more fully nourish, enhance and enrich our days. Cultivating pratyahara keeps us in the driver’s seat of life.
What techniques do you use to withdraw your senses and quiet your mind?