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What is Pratyahara and how can we practice it?

Learn about the meaning of what is Pratyahara in yoga philosophy and how can we practice it.

In the Raja yoga path, Patanjali gives insight into 8 steps towards Moksha/liberation. The Ashtanga eightfold path otherwise known as the 8 limbs of Yoga, is a very clear set of practices towards enlightenment (referred to as Samadhi which is the 8th limb). The Ashtanga eightfold path was created for everybody seeking to find this sense of freedom and spiritual enlightenment, so it is accessible to all who wish to embark on this journey.

The 5th limb is known as Pratyahara which refers to sense withdrawal. The mind receives information from the external world through the 5 senses (smell, sight, taste, touch, hearing) which bring it into our internal world. Here, the intellect makes decisions based on discernment and assessment of factual information and where the ego usually interferes. As each sense is connected to a specific body part, not only is the mind stimulated with the information, but also the body, by developing a physiological response to the information received. The eyes give us the ability to see. We can smell all kinds of scents with our nose. We can hear external sounds with our ears. We can taste with our tongue and finally we can experience feeling/the sense of touch through our skin.

Pratyahara can also be interpreted as the leap or bridge between the first four limbs (yamas, nyamas, asana, pranayama) which are more related with the external world practices and the last three limbs (dharana, dhyana, samadhi) which are internal and considered the higher spiritual practices. Therefore, a great emphasis can be placed on sense withdrawal. Of course we need the senses to experience the world, but when we practice sense withdrawal we can move onto experiencing the internal world with more insight. For a focused mind, the senses function very clearly. But for a scattered mind, they can easily cause distraction. For example, some people say they find it difficult to practice meditation. But why? Meditation is a mental focus practice so difficulty can come when we cannot focus the mind because the senses stimulate an internal response or reaction from the information received. We sit down, close our eyes and then we can smell a delicious food smell from the kitchen. Now the mind is focused on food. “I feel hungry” or “Ah that smells so delicious”. Let’s say we are able to come back into mental focus. Then a mosquito starts flying around, making a loud sound and occasionally wonders on the arm. Now the sense of hearing and touch are activated. Again distraction occurs.

When we practice Pratyahara, we bring the senses inward, so we are focused internally regardless what happens in the external environment. And this also naturally creates connection with the 6th & 7th limbs, dharana (concentration) & dhyana (meditation). Only through pratyahara these can occur. Pratyahara is an important practice which takes time and through consistency one can reach the ability to control impulses or reactions based on the information received from the senses.

The most obvious way is to close our eyes, which immediately eliminates any distraction experienced through our vision. Whilst this is indeed effective, mental focus has to be there which as mentioned above, sometimes can be a challenge until we train the mind to be still. So the below practices and techniques may help as they are all focused on sense withdrawal and teaching our mind to concentrate. Whilst not all senses are withdrawn at the same time, focusing the mind on a specific one or two, can help to minimise the distraction caused by the others.

This is a very effective way which can bring our focus to the breath, not only observing the breath but actually counting each inhalation and exhalation. One can count up to 50 for example (one full breath is an inhalation and exhalation). This technique has also been related to bringing a sense of calm for those who experience stress or anxiety. The sense of feeling is more active in this practice, as we focus on feeling the flow of the breath.

In this technique, we activate our sense of hearing and focus on a specific sound. This can from the be outside such as a melody, the singing of a bird, the sound of rain etc. It is helpful for the sound to be the same for a longer period of time so that the mind does not become distracted.

This is actually considered a meditation practice and one of the shat (six) kryas or yogic purification techniques. Trataka is the practice of steady gazing at one object. A common object is a lit candle, where the focus is placed on the flame of the candle. Trataka is best done in a dark room, with the only light coming from the flame. Traditionally in this practice, one can try not to blink the eyes and just keep a steady gaze. Trataka can be practiced with any object, although it is useful to use one that is neutral and does not have any emotional
meaning. Trataka helps to purify the mind and it also strengthens the eyes/vision.

Repeating a mantra is a spiritual practice which can lead to a deep state of meditation. It is otherwise known as Japa meditation, where a mantra is repeated for a duration of time. Usually, a full japa practice is the repetition of a mantra for 108 times. The mantra can be repeated out loud, whispered or mentally focused upon. Japa is done using mala beads to count the repetition, although it is also possible to practice it without, therefore not focusing on the number of repetitions. The focus object is the mantra itself and the mind becomes concentrated solely on it.