The fifth limb of yoga is pratyahara, a Sanskrit term that is translated to ‘withdrawal of the senses‘.
If you’re not sure what Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga are yet, you can catch up here. Or, if you’d prefer the shorter version, they’re essentially a classification of yogic practices that serve as a template to bring us into a state of yoga (embodied unity).
The term pratyahara is composed of two Sanskrit words, prati, and ahara. Ahara means ‘food’ or ‘anything we take into ourselves’, and prati means ‘away’ or ‘against’. Together, they mean withdrawing or weaning away from taking things in (ahara).
It’s the conscious withdrawal of energy from the indriyas (sense organs).
As potentially the least understood limb out of them all, pratyahara’s goal is to create a sattvic (steady/balanced) mind, ripe for samadhi. Paramhansa Yogananda described it as ‘shutting off the sense telephones’.
To help you understand this concept in more detail, we’re going to look at:
- What Pratyahara is
- Why Pratyahara is Important
- How to Practice Pratyahara
What is Pratyahara?
Pratyahara is all about turning inwards. Picture a tortoise withdrawing into its shell – that’s what we are practicing when we apply this limb! (Yes, I did borrow that apt analogy from the Bhagavad Gita).
When we withdraw into our shell, through pratyahara, our ‘wisdom becomes steady’ (BG 2.58). Our knowledge of the self becomes firmly rooted in the Atman, instead of the outside world around us.
It’s one of the most important aspects of all of the limbs, and yet it’s the one that we hear discussed the least.We’ve all been there (at least I know I have):
You think you’re getting closer to a deep inner state of peace, and then someone’s unattended car alarm goes off in the middle of your meditation, a coworker says something irritating at work, or you’re stuck in a traffic jam when you’re late for an appointment.
That’s when your frustration about your external environment helps you to realize maybe you weren’t so close to enlightenment after all!
This is when pratyahara comes into play; the fifth limb is all about the senses (indriyas) and our reaction to the information that they gather.
Patanjali, and many other yogis alike, believed that transcending these sensory stimuli was the next step on the path to enlightenment. As the precursor to meditation and what sets the stage for deeper concentration (dharana), it serves as a pathway to connect the:
- Bahiranga (outer/external) practices of yoga – the first four limbs (yama, niyamas, asana, pranayama)
The practice allows the outer to become the inner, and the inner to become the outer.
It’s considered an essential component of a yogi’s practice before they can embark on the higher antaranga practices.
Instead of getting lost in the external world and the senses, well, sensing the world around them, they fold in on themselves and emulate the true nature of the ‘mind-stuff’.
The outer practices of yama, niyama, asana, and pranayama allow the senses to become absorbed in the mind (which happens because the mind is now calm and restrained thanks to the bahiranga aspects of yoga).
The regulation of the mind leads to the regulation of the indriyas, and this can only be done through self-control and sadhana.
Like the tortoise, when we draw back into ourselves, shifting our orientation from external to internal, we become fixed in the everpresent light of the soul.
Pratyahara refers to four different types of withdrawals:
1. Indriya Pratyahara
Control of the senses.
Allows for extensive concentration
2. Prana Pratyahara
Control of prana.
Prana controls our senses, so control of prana is necessary to stop our energy from becoming scattered
3. Karma Pratyahara
Control of action.
Restraint to follow the path of right of action
4. Mano Pratyahara
Control of the mind from the senses.
Stops the mind from becoming reactive to the experiences of the senses
Why is Pratyahara important?
The ability to withdraw our senses and so control the noisy mind may sound like a kill-joy, but in reality it restores the pristine flavors, textures, and discoveries that we associate with the innocence and freshness of childhoodB.K.S Iyengar
The practice of pratyahara allows us to become less reactive.
Stimulus does not automatically equate to a response, because it gives us space between experiencing something and reacting to it.
When we take our mind out of the senses, we can live in and from a much more balanced place.
In this way, it’s not a practice where we disengage from the world around us, but one in which we can live more fully in the world through using our energy in ways that most fully align with our truest goals and desires.
Acting from an inner knowing instead of an external pressure brings us closer to living our dharma.
2. The modern world
All of our senses are providing us with information constantly and, if Patanjali thought it was important to withdraw his senses in the 2nd century CE, it’s safe to assume that this practice is even more important in the modern world!
We are repeatedly, and what can sometimes feel like aggressively, fed stimuli in consumer capitalism’s bid for our attention.
Social media, our phones, music, TV, billboards, the work commute, and grocery stores to name just a few. It feels impossible to get away from things that are endlessly supplying our senses with new information.
In turn, this information distracts us from ourselves and pulls our attention away from what matters – looking inwards.
Where our attention goes, our prana flows. The mindless running of our senses depletes our life force energy, which is our greatest gift!
By mastering them through pratyahara, we stay centered in our spirit.
3. Ayurveda & Disease
Ayurveda holds that the improper use of the senses (i.e. lots of focus on the external world) is one of the main causes of disease.
Ahara (food) is mainly about 3 things:
- Physical food (things important for the physical body to survive & the five elements)
- Impressions (subtle elements, things that nourish the mind)
- Associations (people that nourish the soul)
If we control our senses with respect to all of these three things – choosing nourishing food over food lacking in nutrients, choosing things that stretch our mind instead of limit it, and choosing people that make us feel expansive instead of small – we are bound to be healthier.
For example, withdrawing our impulses away from the cravings for artificial or junk food will surely be important in disease prevention. Likewise, choosing to spend time with people that serve our highest good will ensure our energy is not being drained.
Vata-dominant doshas, in particular, would benefit immensely from the practice of pratyahara, with a mind that can easily wander and feel overstimulated.
For those that have a tendency, like Vata and Pitta, to react quickly, impulsively, and become easily agitated, it’s important to practice this limb to avoid declining emotional and mental health.
The senses also play a key role in our nervous system, the sense organs are how the nervous system takes in information which is then processed and reacted to.
Focusing inwards and moving our attention away from things that might activate us or make us stressed and anxious allows us to, over time, access the parasympathetic nervous system and help us feel safe, secure, and at home in our bodies.
How Can I practice Pratyahara?
The senses are like a mirror. Turned outward, they reflect the outside; turned inward, they reflect the pure lightSwami Satchidananda
1. During asana practice
- Continuously bring the mind back to your internal environment, instead of your external one (allow the room to exist around you but with your attention resting inwards, staying present even when the eyes are open)
- Try to flow with your eyes closed and notice how it changes your experience
- Turn up to your personal practice without a plan and trust that you can allow the movements to flow from a space of inner knowing
- Use savasana as an opportunity to practice this by focusing your attention inside, yet maintaining a loose, non-reactive sense of contact with the space around you
2. Create mental space
Create some mental space by taking a break from your phone, other digital devices, and social media. This might come in the form of a phone-free weekend, deleting social media for good, or anything in between!
You may be surprised how much time this frees up to really be in nature, with people you love, or doing things that light you up (fully being there, instead of just simply existing there).
It can also make you more aware of the quality of things you are consuming on a daily basis. By taking a conscious step back from the senseless scrolling through our phones or watching TV, we create more space in the mind.
I personally do this by ensuring that my morning routine is done in silent contemplation, without any music, phone, or TV to allow me to be fully present with myself.
You could also do this through your physical habits, like limiting time with specific people, being more mindful when eating, or taking a silent retreat.
As pranayama is the limb before pratyahara, it’s a great practice to start working on withdrawing the senses.
You may notice that pranayama is naturally conducive to pratyahara, as the kumbhaka (retention) draws your awareness inwards.
Although all pranayamas are great for realizing pratyahara, Bhramari Pranayama is a favorite.
All of these mudras will support you to shut off the senses and move your energy inwards:
Take moments out of your day to connect to your breath and reflect upon the present moment.
The more time you take to practice this, the more you will identify with the continual state of oneness that permanently exist as you and through you.
To develop your pranayama practice, take a look at these articles: