What is Pratyahara?
What is Pratyahara?
This article is part of a series exploring ashtanga yoga, or the eight-limbed path. You can check out the previous articles on the fourth limb, Pranayama, and the third limb, Asana, as well as the articles exploring the yamas (Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha) and niyamas (Saucha, Santosha, Tapas, Svadhyaya, and Ishvara Pranidhana) for more background.
Pratyahara is the fifth limb of the eight-limbed path as defined by Patanjali, who compiled the Yoga Sutras. Pratyahara is made up of Prati, which means “against” or “away,” and Ahara, which means “food.” In this sense, “food” is anything that we take into our bodies, which includes tastes, but also incorporates sights, sounds, smells, and physical sensations of touch. Taken together, Pratyahara means “withdrawal of the senses” or “mastery of external influences.”
“Withdrawal of the senses” can also be thought of as taking a temporary “retreat” into the Self from the external world. Pratyahara is about creating space and silence for your Self to exist without reacting to external stimuli; like creating a layer of insulation between external influences and your reaction to them.
The first four limbs of ashtanga yoga – Yama, Niyama, Asana, and Pranayama – are all about taking care of the self – the physical body, the mind, and the relationships that build the world of the individual. The three limbs that follow Pratyahara – Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi – are all about the inner world. Pratyahara connects the two aspects of outer self and inner world.
It’s a Facebook world – we’re just living in it
The world is incredibly over-stimulating, especially if you live in an urban centre. Leaving your house means being assaulted by sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch from morning until night. Even at home in bed, we are subject to an onslaught of information from our screens. Pratyahara is a way to balance that sensory overload by practicing letting go of sensory stimulants for a certain period of time.
We all have ways of “escaping” when things get to be a little too much, but often our escape tends to take the form of drowning out thought with sensory overload (like watching a dramatic or violent show) or withdrawing from the overload by “escaping” into our thoughts and ignoring what’s happening in the world. The difference between these approaches and practicing Pratyahara is that this practice asks you to be in the world but unaffected by it. This way, instead of escaping or drowning it out, you can experience what is happening and choose how to react to it instead of being driven to react in a certain way by your emotions.
How do you even start?
As with many types of yoga practice, the first step is to notice what is being pushed into your awareness. We are shaped by what we see and hear every day: advertising, sex, violence, bad news, maybe even a little good news. Start to notice for yourself – how do you feel after being on social media? After watching the news? After watching a dramatic or violent TV show? What do you gravitate to when you’re out in the city? How does advertising make you feel? What sensations, sights, sounds, smells, and tastes do you notice as you make your way through the world?
Then, practice shaping your daily experience with stimulation that makes you feel good: healthy food that you enjoy, smells, sights, and sounds that make you feel grounded and peaceful, and enjoyable sensations like soft fabrics and contact with people you love. Take breaks from the sensory barrage of your day-to-day life: turn off your phone and TV, avoid processed foods, and see if you can find the space and time to create quiet.
Finally, practice Pratyahara within your meditation by beginning to let go of your own value judgments and emotions about the things that you experience. For example, maybe you feel a cool wind across your face. Instead of feeling happy or sad about it, just notice that it happened and let it go without assigning a value to it. This may be easier said than done, but practicing regular withdrawal of the senses can help you to control your own sense of being dragged towards new or vivid experiences; it can help you find a sense of equilibrium and contentment so the need for newness is muted and you can choose the experiences that will make you feel fulfilled.
Pratyahara in your yoga practice
During your yoga practice, try letting go of attachment to sight: try seeing everything that is in your field of vision without focusing on any one thing. You can also work on letting go of external sensations during your practice and focusing on inner ones; since your mind can only focus on one thing at a time; focusing on your heartbeat or the feeling of your breath can help you let go of the temperature in the room or the sounds out on the street. Lastly, during your meditation, try visualizations: the creation of something visual in your mind’s eye can provide a very different experience than seeing something with your eyes. Start with something simple and visualize a tree or a flower, holding it in your mind’s eye as long as possible.
Pratyahara is one of the most complex and difficult ideas in the eight-limbed path of ashtanga. Take your time, and be easy on yourself – wherever you are in this practice, it’s okay.