Pratyahara is a Sanskrit term meaning “withdrawal of the senses.” It is the fifth limb of Patanjali’s eightfold path of yoga following yamas (restraints), niyamas (virtues), asana and pranayama (breathing technique).Pratyahara is considered important in yoga because it forms a bridge between the external focus of the previous limbs of yoga and the internal focus of the subsequent limbs, which move the practitioner into concentration, meditation and, eventually, to the goal of samadhi (union with the Divine). By withdrawing the focus from the senses and the external environment, the mind can turn inward, deepening yogic practice.
Pratyahara is derived from the Sanskrit roots prati, meaning “away” or “against,” and ahara, meaning “nourishment” or “food.” Therefore, the whole word denotes a withdrawal from what nourishes the senses. Pratyahara comes after the earlier limbs of yoga because, before the senses are turned inwards the mind must be purified and calmed by yama, niyama and pranayama. When the senses are withdrawn, they become absorbed by the mind itself, rather than engaging the mind with the external environment. It is said that this allows the practitioner to experience the true inner Self.
It takes years to develop a practice of pratyahara. But, once it is established, it allows the mind to become peaceful so that good concentration and meditation can be developed. It is said that once someone has mastered pratyahara, they will never again experience distraction or need to withdraw from the world in order to meditate. They will simply be able to turn the senses inward. As such, pratyahara gives the practitioner power.
Pratyahara can be practiced during pranayama, bringing the focus away from external stimuli and onto the breath. It can also be developed through the first stages of yoga nidra (“yogic sleep”),where all the senses are withdrawn, except for hearing, and focus is shifted only to the instructions of guided meditation.
The fifth limb of yoga, pratyahara, comes from two Sanskrit words, prati meaning “against” or “away” and ahara, which means “food.” In this case, we can refer to ahara as any stimuli we take in and ingest. The essence of pratyahara is “withdrawal of the senses” or mindfully filtering what we experience in our outer world.
Drawbacks of Outer World Exploration
I am a lover of life experiences. I’ve always had a natural curiosity to explore and try new things. As a result, I took in everything—good and bad, daring and harmless, and moral and immoral. The problem with this way of being is that I lived in constant fear. Because I knew what was potentially out there, my mind drew conclusions on what could happen.
Most people live this way. They are like huge buckets, taking in all stimuli with little filters. They don’t discern what they will let in through each sensory input. As a result, many get caught up in the craze of societal trends. For example, you always know when it’s flu season. You hear it on the news, people talk about it in the office, and friends ask you if you got your flu shot. You hear so much about the flu that you examine yourself for every sniffle, headache, or sore throat. Letting this in gets you caught up in the whirlwind of societal consciousness when, in reality, the threat for you to catch the flu may be very little. When people ask me if I got my flu shot, I respond, “I don’t plan on getting the flu, so no.” And most look at me like I’m crazy.
When I had my experience with cancer in 1999, I read a book by Dr. Andrew Weil entitled, 8 Weeks to Optimal Health, which I highly recommend. Dr. Weil suggests measures to withdraw the senses. At that time, I stopped watching the news, viewing violent movies or TV shows, reading thrillers, or looking at any disturbing images. I began to surround myself with beauty and to get rid of anything in my environment that made me unhappy. I made sure to turn off the radio when commercials came on. In other words, I began modifying my external environment. In a short amount of time, my fears subsided and I felt much better all around.
Naiveté or Co-creation?
In my plight to create a positive and uplifting environment for my family and I, I’ve been criticized by many as being unrealistic or blind to the realities of the world. The comments I often hear are:
- “How can you close your eyes to what’s going on in the world?”
- “You are a living in a bubble, the real world is harsh, violent, and scary.”
Unless you live alone, in a cave, for your entire existence, you can’t help but know what’s going on in the world. I am quite aware of what’s out there; however, I simply choose what to let into my inner world.
My mom used to tell me stories of my dad who loved political debate. He’s passionate about political issues and has strong opinions of what is right and wrong, according to his worldview. She explained that my dad would get up early in the morning and watch the TV talk shows. He would hear a political figure say this or that and then would be yelling and screaming at the TV. His face would turn red, his blood pressure would rise, and he would stay angry the entire morning about what he heard.
As humans, we have a natural propensity toward that which is negative. It creates news, drama, and stories of conflict. The old adage is “negative news sells.” If you don’t believe me, look at many of the reality TV shows.
Here’s the problem with letting in everything: most of the time you are not actively doing anything to change it. Most of us want more joy, happiness, peace, serenity, and love in our lives. Yet, we allow ourselves to be surrounded in negative stories, disturbing images, and people who create negativity by what they say. And then you wonder why you have no peace?
One of my guru’s, Dr. Wayne Dyer used to say, “You cannot feel bad enough to make one person feel good on the planet.” You must start co-creating your sense of peace, love, and happiness by letting in that which is peaceful, joyful, and loving.
A Diet for Your Senses
- The sense of sight: Start by keeping the TV off whenever possible. Don’t read news stories with violent images or content. Reduce the number of ads you view in a day. Buy yourself flowers and place them in a space you are in often. Remove clutter and things that no longer serve you.
- The sense of hearing: Eliminate music with harsh, hateful, or violent lyrics. Turn off radio stories that are disturbing. If a family member or friends start to talk with negativity, tell him or her that you choose to talk about a more positive topic or quickly find a solution instead of ruminating on the problem. If you hear about a tragedy or someone in need, opt to say a prayer for the person or situation or send money to a cause that could remedy the problem.
- The sense of touch: Take time to pet your pet. Hug your family members and friends often. Allow the sun to penetrate your skin. Walk barefoot in the grass, sand, or a body of water.
- The sense of taste:Eliminate all unnatural or artificial foods from your diet. Opt for fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. Eat some meals in silence and close your eyes while you taste your food to get the full sensation.
- The sense of smell: Burn aromatherapy candles or incense that makes you feel relaxed. Find a smell from childhood that brings back good memories and include that into your environment.
Finally, like other limbs in the Yoga Sutras, pratyahara is about discipline toward a more fulfilling life. By withdrawing the senses in your daily living, your meditations will be more peaceful. You won’t be afraid to access the silence within you and you will feel safe.