Pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses

Pratyahara” or yogas forgotten limb means literally “control of ahara,” or “gaining mastery over external influences.” It has been compared to a turtle withdrawing into its shell—the turtle's shell is the mind and the turtle's limbs are the senses. The term is usually translated as “withdrawal from the senses,” but much more is implied.

The limbs that we have explored to date are external or explore the outer aspect of yoga. With the next 3 limbs, we will explore the internal aspect of yoga —meditation or the development of higher consciousness. This is the real purpose of yoga, the focus of the next three limbs we will visit dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, which together form a single process—samyama, or meditation in the broadest sense.

As the fifth of the eight limbs, pratyahara occupies a central place. Some include it among the outer aspects of yoga, others with the inner aspects. Both classifications are correct, for pratyahara is the key to the relationship between the outer and inner aspects of yoga; it shows us how to move from one to the other.

It is not possible for most of us to move directly from asana to meditation. This requires jumping from the body to the mind, forgetting what lies between. To make this transition, the breath and senses, which link the body and mind, first need to be brought under control and developed properly. This is where pranayama and pratyahara come in. With pranayama we control our vital energies and impulses, and with pratyahara we gain mastery over the senses.

The term “pratyahara” is composed of two Sanskrit words, prati and ahara. “Ahara” means “food,” or “anything we take into ourselves from the outside.” “Prati” is a preposition meaning “against” or “away.” “Pratyahara” means literally “control of ahara,” or “gaining mastery over external influences.” As earlier mentioned, it has been compared to a turtle withdrawing into its shell—the turtle’s shell is the mind and the turtle’s limbs are the senses. The term is usually translated as “withdrawal from the senses,” but much more is implied.

In yogic thought there are three levels of ahara, or food. The first is physical food that brings in the five elements necessary to nourish the body—earth, water, fire, air, and ether. The second is impressions, which bring in the subtle substances necessary to nourish the mind—the sensations of sound, touch, sight, taste, and smell that constitute the subtle elements: sound/ether, touch/air, sight/fire, taste/water, and smell/earth. The third level of ahara is our associations, the people we hold at heart level who serve to nourish the soul and affect us with the gunas of sattvarajas, and tamas (the prime qualities of harmony, distraction, or inertia).

Pratyahara is twofold. It involves withdrawal from wrong food, wrong impressions, and wrong associations, while simultaneously opening up to right food, right impressions, and right associations. We cannot control our mental impressions without right diet and right relationships, but pratyahara’s primary importance lies in withdrawal from or control of sensory impressions, which frees the mind to move within.

By withdrawing our awareness from negative impressions, pratyahara strengthens the mind’s powers of immunity. Just as a healthy body resists toxins and pathogens, a healthy mind resists the negative sensory influences around it. If you are easily disturbed by the noise and turmoil of the environment around you, you need to practice pratyahara. Without it, you will not be able to meditate.

Pratyahara is related to all the limbs of yoga. All of the other limbs—from asana to samadhi—contain aspects of pratyahara. For example, in the sitting poses, which are the most important aspect of asana, both the sensory and motor organs are controlled. Pranayama contains an element of pratyahara, as we draw our attention inward through the breath. Yama and niyama contain various principles and practices, like nonviolence and contentment, that help us control the senses. In other words, pratyahara provides the foundation for the higher practices of yoga and is the basis for meditation. It follows pranayama (or control of prana) and by linking prana with the mind, takes it out of the sphere of the body.

Pratyahara is also linked with dharana. In pratyahara we withdraw our attention from ordinary distractions. In dharana we consciously focus that attention on a particular object, such as a mantra. Pratyahara is the negative, and dharana the positive aspect of the same basic function.

Tune in next week to see how external and internal yoga knit together to bring samadhi or enlightenment.

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