In the Yoga Sutra text of Patanjali, the 8 limbs of yoga provide the yogi with a path to spiritual enlightenment. The fifth limb in this path, pratyahara, refers to a withdrawal of the senses. This practice holds a central position along the path as it acts as the bridge between the outer aspects of yoga such as postures and breath control, and the internal aspects of yoga such as concentration and meditation. This guide will help you get to know pratyahara and how to bring it into your practice.
Pratyahara is the conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses in order to gain mastery over external influences. In practicing pratyahara, we learn to withdraw from negative impressions (everything we take in through the five senses) and create positive ones. This could relate to the food we eat, the media we consume, or the people we relate to. The more we practice this, the more the mind is able to resist the negative sensory influences around it.
While our senses keep our mind engaged outward, pratyahara teaches us to turn inward. This shift is an essential component for successful meditation and is the difference between achieving a true state of inner awareness as opposed to simply sitting still.
Pratyahara: The 5th Limb of Yoga
Patanjali’s eightfold path of yoga is carefully structured so that each limb prepares the yogi for the next. Pratyahara holds a central place in the path and helps link the limbs both before and after it. These limbs include:
This eightfold path includes both an outer and inner dimension of yoga. The outer dimension speaks to living ethically, taking care of the body, and enhancing our vital energy. These ideas are represented in the first four limbs: yama, niyama, asana, and pranayama.
The inner dimension of yoga speaks to the true purpose of the practice: meditation and achieving higher states of consciousness. This purpose is represented in the final three limbs: dharana, dhyana, and samadhi.
Pratyahara acts as the bridge between these two dimensions. As a yogi cannot move straight from asana to meditation without first linking the body and mind, pratyahara provides the transition in the form of controlling the senses. It is at this point in the path that the mind begins to turn inward as the focus is withdrawn from the senses and the external environment. When the senses are brought under control and developed properly, successful meditation can be achieved.
Withdrawing from the senses can be a daunting task in an overly-stimulated world. Fortunately, there are techniques that can help us practice this important skill in preparation for a meditative experience. There are four types of pratyahara, each having its own methods: indriya pratyahara (control of the senses), prana pratyahara (control of prana), karma pratyahara (control of actions), and mano pratyahara (withdrawal of the mind).
Indriya Pratyahara (Control of the Senses)
Perhaps the most important type of pratyahara in today’s overstimulating world, indriya pratyahara helps us withdraw from sensory data that clutters our thinking. These techniques can help control the sensory input we receive from the external world:
- Sensory Detox: One of the most straightforward ways to control the senses is to withdraw completely for a short time. Spending some time apart from all sensory inputs can help clear the mind. This can be as simple as sitting in meditation with our eyes closed or taking a retreat in nature away from the stimulation of everyday life. It could also include a media detox for a short time at regular intervals.
- Yoga Nidra: Learning a practice such as yoga nidra can give you tools to cultivate pratyahara while in relaxation poses like savasana. Yoga nidra, also known as yogic sleep, allows you to practice a state of consciousness between sleeping and waking as you are guided inward through a withdrawal of the senses.
- Sensory Deprivation Tanks: While the modern world can contribute to our sensory overload, it also provides new methods for helping us navigate it. Trying a sensory deprivation tank, or float tank, can give you a helping hand in experiencing complete sensory withdrawal.
- Shanmukhi Mudra: This yogic hand gesture represents closing the six gates of perception: the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. By doing this, we allow attention and energy to move inward. To practice shanmukhi mudra, place hands in front of the face with the elbows pointing outward in line with the shoulders. With the thumbs, close the ears. Close the eyes and lightly touch the inner corners of the eyes with the index fingers. Place the middle fingers on either side of the nose. The ring fingers are placed above the mouth, and the little fingers below the mouth. Practice for 5-10 minutes either in preparation for meditation or immediately after pranayama when prana is energized.
Prana Pratyahara (Control of Prana)
Because prana (life force energy) drives our senses, scattered prana leads to scattered senses. Learning to control the breath allows us to harmonize its flow and neutralize the senses. Also the fourth limb, pranayama techniques are the most effective way to keep our prana strong to control the senses. Some popular techniques include:
- Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing): This technique calms and centers the mind by balancing the left and right hemispheres of the brain. To perform this beginner practice, start by gently closing the right nostril with the right thumb. Inhale through the left nostril, then close it with the ring and little finger of your right hand. Open and exhale through the right nostril. With the left nostril still closed, inhale on the right. Close the right, then open and exhale on the left. Repeat 3-5 times.
- Bhastrika Pranayama (Bellows Breath): This more advanced technique energizes the body and clarifies the mind. In bhastrika, both the inhale and exhale are powerful and equal in length. To practice this technique, rest the hands on the stomach to feel the movement as you inhale and exhale. Inhale through the nose and push the stomach out forcefully. Exhale through the nose and feel the stomach draw in rapidly. This breath should be quick and even.
- Ujjayi (victorious breath): This calming style of breathing is performed by inhaling through the nose, and exhaling slowly through the nose while constricting the muscles in the back of the throat — similar to the feeling of trying to fog up a mirror. The resulting sound of the breath should mimic ocean waves.
Karma Pratyahara (Control of Actions)
As we reach the final two types of pratyahara, we see the results of the work done in the previous two. Because our senses and mind instruct the motor organs (ears, eyes, tongue, skin, nose) to perform an action, controlling the senses in indriya pratyahara helps us control the motor organs. It is through these motor organs that we engage with the external world through right action and work. This includes:
- Selfless Service: Also known as karma yoga, this principle is expressed by living a devotional life in service to a greater cause. We connect with our selfless nature and surrender the fruits of our actions. It is more about doing good than what is gained in return.
- Asana Practice: Also the third limb, asana provides a method of controlling the motor organs such as the hands and feet. This control is a necessary component for seated meditation within our practice. Physical postures help focus our inner awareness and quiet the mind as our body becomes still.
- Silence: The self-discipline and austerity of tapas (part of the niyamas in the second limb) offer us a disciplined approach to restricting the senses. By observing silence on a regular basis, for example, we are able to control our actions and motor organs leading to improved control over the mind.
Mano Pratyahara (Withdrawal of the Mind)
The most advanced form of pratyahara, this involves withdrawing the senses from their objects and directing them inward to the formless nature of the mind. Because of the difficult nature of achieving mano pratyahara, many yogis first practice the more tangible strategies of controlling the senses, prana, and actions to allow withdrawal of the mind to occur as result of these other forms of pratyahara.
After gaining increased proficiency in controlling the senses, prana, and action, we can begin to consciously withdraw attention from low vibrational and unwholesome ideas, concepts, distractions, and impressions and learn to redirect our awareness inward to the mind. As Breaking Muscle puts it, “It’s like retraining ourselves to eat wholesome mental food that fuels our highest nature rather than junk food.”
Like any limb in the 8 limbs of yoga, pratyahara takes time and consistency to practice, but its importance in achieving higher consciousness is worth the effort. For more on how to put the 8 limbs of yoga into action, check out these ways to practice the yamas and this practice guide for asteya (non-stealing).