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.
What is Pratyahara?
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 you practice this, the more your mind is able to resist the negative sensory influences around it.
While your senses keep your mind engaged outward, pratyahara teaches you 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:
- Yama – moral discipline
- Niyama – moral observance
- Asana – body posture
- Pranayama – breath control
- Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses or control of senses
- Dharana – concentration
- Dhyana – meditation
- Samadhi – bliss
This eightfold path includes both an outer and inner dimension of yoga. The outer dimension speaks to living ethically, taking care of your body, and enhancing your 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 your senses are brought under control and developed properly, you can successfully achieve meditation.
How to Practice Pratyahara
Withdrawing from the senses can be a daunting task in an an overly stimulating world. Fortunately, there are techniques that can help you practice this important skill to prepare for meditation. 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. 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 temporary internet or social media detox.
- Yoga Nidra: Learning a practice such as yoga nidra can give you tools to cultivate pratyahara while in relaxation poses. 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 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 your hands in front of your face with your elbows pointing outward in line with your shoulders. Close your ears with your thumbs. Close your eyes and lightly touch the inner corners of your eyes with your index fingers. Place your middle fingers on either side of your nose. Your ring fingers are placed above your mouth with your little fingers below your mouth. Practice for 5 to 10 minutes either in preparation for meditation or immediately after pranayama.
Prana Pratyahara (Control of Prana)
Because prana (life force energy) drives our senses, scattered prana leads to scattered senses. Learning to control your breath will allow you to harmonize its flow and neutralize your senses. As the fourth limb, pranayama is the most effective way to keep your prana strong to control the senses. Some popular techniques include:
- Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing): This technique will calm and center your mind by balancing the left and right hemispheres of your brain. To perform this beginner practice, start by gently closing your right nostril with your right thumb. Inhale through your left nostril, then close it with your ring finger and little finger of your right hand. Open and exhale through your right nostril. With your left nostril still closed, inhale through 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 your body and clarifies your mind. In bhastrika, both the inhale and exhale are powerful and equal in length. To practice this technique, rest your hands on your stomach to feel the movement as you inhale and exhale. Inhale through your nose and push your stomach out forcefully. Exhale through your nose and feel your stomach draw in rapidly. This breath should be quick and even.
- Ujjayi (Victorious Breath): This calming style of breathing is performed by inhaling through your nose and exhaling slowly through your nose while constricting the muscles in the back of your throat — similar to the feeling of trying to fog up a mirror. The resulting sound of your 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 our 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’s more about doing good than what is gained in return.
- Asana Practice: Asana provides a method of controlling your motor organs, such as the hands and feet. This control is a necessary component for seated meditation within your practice. Physical postures help focus your inner awareness, quiet your mind, and bring stillness to your body.
- 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)
As the most advanced form of pratyahara, mano pratyahara involves withdrawing your senses from their objects and directing them inward to the formless nature of your mind. Because of the difficulty 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 a 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.
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.
Want to put pratyahara into practice? Check out our online library of pranayama, meditation, and yoga nidra videos on Alo Moves.