Pratyahara is the fifth limb in Patanjali’s ashtanga system. It can be loosely translated* as ‘withdrawal of the senses’ or more fully as ‘pratyahara is withdrawing the senses, mind and consciousness from contact with external objects, and then drawing them inwards towards the seer [self]’ (Sutra 2:54; Iyengar, 2002 p.168).
In some ways it can be seen as a bridge or link between the first four, more external or obvious limbs, and the remaining three which are much more inward, internal limbs. The second sentence (sutra) about pratyahara says ‘Pratyahara results in the absolute control of the sense organs’ (Sutra 2:55), and this ends Chapter 2 of the Yoga Sutras.
But what does it actually mean and is it something we can try to ‘do’?
On a crude practical level, pratyahara can be interpreted as physically withdrawing from the five senses of taste, touch, sight, sound and smell. This can be approached on a single-sense basis e.g. by closing the eyes and focusing purely on sounds, which will in time lead to turning further inward towards the mind. It can also be achieved through bhramari pranayama technique combined with shanmuki mudra whereby the fingers are used to actively block the eyes, ears and partially under the nose.
However, the withdrawal is really about not engaging with the senses, not reacting to them, not clinging to the experiences and resulting sensations. So, we may crave chocolate, the taste of it, the smell, the way it makes us feel. (Yummm!) Can we separate the physical thing (chocolate) from the emotional and mental responses it triggers? Whether the responses are positive or negative, pratyahara is seeking to disentangle senses, responses and experiences from external and internal objects so that we can be in a less attention-grabbing, demanding, space. This then sets us up nicely for the final three limbs of concentration, meditation, and full absorption.
In our 24-7 culture, with instant access to pretty much everything via mobile devices and the Internet, we are now generally living with sensory overload, constantly bombarded with emails, texts, tweets, Facebook likes, 24 hour rolling news, music in shops etc. It’s very rare now to have some quiet ‘down’ time. Even on retreats people find it hard to switch off their mobile devices.
And our senses are demanding tyrants, always wanting more, more sense gratification, and they pester the mind, unless we are able to control them, primarily by listening hard to what they, and the mind, are really saying. Without being more aware of them, they can take us off course and distract us from what’s really going on within. As the senses withdraw, or as we manage to gently quieten and control them, not responding to their demands, the mind has space to awaken. Thus pratyahara can help us break unhelpful habitual thinking and acting.
Can you experience pratyahara during a yoga class?
Yes, whilst practising asana turn the focus of your attention inwards. Focus on the sensations of the breath and the body. Where are you feeling sensations? Do you label them pleasant or unpleasant? Do you want to stay with them or move away from them? Do the sensations trigger thought patterns in the mind? Is the mind trying to go somewhere else? What are the emotional feelings associated with the physical sensations? Can you put that on one side and just be?
You can also apply pratyahara off the mat. For example, do you hear a ‘ping’ and immediately, instinctively, reach for your mobile phone, regardless of what you’re doing?
For some, therefore, pratyahara is probably the most important limb of yoga for people today, although it is often the forgotten limb. If you are interested in reading more I recommend this article which discusses the four main forms of pratyahara and is quite philosophical and complex, and this article which puts pratyahara into context of modern life.
[*Several literal translations refer to it as ‘the removal of food’; this is the ‘food’ or the source of what feeds your desires.]
Iyengar, B.K.S. (2002). Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
SwamiJ (n.d.). Yoga Sutras (free online text)