“Just as a tortoise withdraws its limbs, so when a man withdraws his senses from the sense objects, his wisdom becomes steady.”
So far we have covered the external aspects of Yoga: Yamas, Niyamas, Asana and Pranayama. This means that we have reached the stage in Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga where we transition from the external aspects to the internal. The bridge between the two is Pratyahara.
The practice of Pratyahara involves the Yogi withdrawing from the senses – taste, touch, sight, smell and hearing – so that they can focus on Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and ultimately Samadhi (enlightenment).
Why withdraw from the senses?
Our senses are useful so we can experience and navigate the outer world. However, there comes a point in Yoga where we have to go beyond the senses, and they become a hindrance to our ability to concentrate on one thing. The mind has a natural tendency to be distracted by physical stimuli. For example, have you ever struggled to read a book because of too much noise around you? Or maybe you have decided to eat healthily but then given into temptation after smelling some delicious pizza! Without practice, our senses have so much control over us and it can be difficult to achieve our goals.
With dedicated practice of Pratyahara, we become more able to consciously withdraw attention from the activities that do not help us to achieve our goals, and instead direct our focus inwards. This allows us to more clearly observe the inner workings of our mind and distinguish from what is true and what is mental chatter / thought patterns caused by the senses.
Pratyahara is something that is simple to understand, but not so easy to do. There are several techniques we can use to help ourselves withdraw from the senses (and it takes lots of practice!). Here are a few that help me.
Asana and Pranayama
Patanjali placed these two before Pratyahara for a reason. Asana and Pranayama balances the flow of Prana, releases tension in the body and allows us to tune in to the inner sensations. After practice, the body becomes more still and so can the mind. This enables us to more easily control the senses, thus withdraw from them.
Mindfulness is simply paying attention to the sensations in the present moment and bringing your attention back whenever your mind starts to wander. You can focus on one sense at a time too, for example observing the breath (feel), noticing sounds without judging them (hear), mindful eating (taste and smell), or candle-gazing (sight).
Of course, this is something that was not relevant when the Yoga Sutras were written, but has become a potential blocker to achieving Pratyahara in the 21st century. It is not possible to maintain pure consciousness if we are being constantly bombarded with digital stimuli. Try using digital media in a mindful way that benefits your Yoga practice rather than hinders it, and take the occasional day to go completely offline so you can give full attention to everything in the real world.
This is a form of Pranayama that especially encourages Pratyahara. It literally turns the senses inward by blocking the external input to the senses using Shanmukhi Mudra.
To practice, sit up tall and place your hands on your face with the thumbs on the temples, index fingers on the inner corners of the closed eyes, middle fingers on either side of the nose, rings fingers above the lips and pinky fingers below the lips. Use light pressure here.
As you exhale, make a humming sound and enjoy the feeling of the vibrations throughout the entire body. It has a deeply calming effect and is an intense experience as you become of the internal bodily sensations which take precedence over the external environment around you.
When we chant mantras or prayers, we focus our attention on the words and vibrations it causes in the body so it is more easy to move inwards. It also improves our ability to concentrate in everyday life and become less distracted.
Tapas / Discipline
It’s good to practice self-discipline on a small scale every day. Little examples of practicing Tapas include: waking up early even if you want to sleep in late, reading a book for 10 minutes when you would rather scroll through social media, doing that chaturanga when you would rather skip the vinyasa, or cooking a nice meal for yourself when you want to order a takeaway. Of course it is good to have balance and enjoy indulging the senses occasionally, but little acts of discipline can go a long way in gaining control over the senses in the long term.
Have you ever been doing an activity and become so engrossed in it that you become immune to everything going on around you and lose track of time? This is similar to Pratyahara since you are becoming less responsive to distractions. Examples of flow can be found everywhere and certain activities work better for different people. Common activities include sports, art (knitting, designing, painting, etc.), and playing an instrument. More time spent in flow state is associated with greater happiness, wellbeing and productivity.
By learning to control our mind’s reaction to the senses, which may sound like restriction, we actually gain more freedom to do what we truly want since we are liberated from the physical temptations. Do you agree?