Pratyahara is the fifth limb of yoga, and it’s usually translated as “withdrawal of the senses.” The limbs from here on out are starting to feel a little less familiar, and maybe a little more intense (read: intimidating?). But the beautiful thing is that they’re actually pretty accessible, even if you’re just “going there” for the first time. As many yogis and scholars have pointed out along the way, there really is a very natural and scientific progression across the limbs, moving from body (asana) to breath (pranayama) to senses (pratyahara) to mind (the last three limbs). And you may not realize it, but pratyahara is actually something that you’ve probably already practiced somewhere along the way.
Here’s where: Most yoga classes end with savasana, or corpse pose, and for this period of time, you’ve likely experienced some form of sensory withdrawal. Many teachers dim the lights and ask students to relax deeply, and just sort of…exist. When you’re lying in savasana, with your eyes closed and your breath slow, it’s very easy to bring attention inward and be less attuned to what’s going on around you – and this, in essence, is pratyahara. If you’ve been in this state, you might feel as if there’s a layer of distance between your senses and your surroundings: You might still register sounds in the studio, the temperature of your skin, your position on the mat, but you respond to them less. It’s as if you’re a little removed from your senses, not flush up against them – and for a true meditative state, this is a key element.
Because my experience with pratyahara had been mostly unintentional up till now, I spoke again to Patton Sarley, former head of Omega Institute and Kripalu Center for Yoga and Life to understand more about what it actually is. True pratyahara, he says, requires deep relaxation, not only physically, but neurologically. The physical relaxation comes first, so that the mental state can follow. This is why savasana is done at the end of class: After 90 minutes of asana, and hopefully a little pranayama, the body is usually very ready to go into this state. “Once you’ve relaxed deeply, and are in an open, alert state,” says Sarley. “You’re in a position to be alert to your inner energy. What we’re essentially doing by relaxing into pratyahara is reducing activity in the sympathetic nervous system and allowing the parasympathetic nervous system to take over.”
In other words, we’re turning the stress response off and allowing the relaxation response to kick in. Bringing the senses inward follows naturally: Just think how when you’re stressed, you’re in a state of hyper-vigilance, and your senses hyper-attuned to your surroundings. On the flipside, relaxing completely allows your senses to take a break, and withdraw themselves, as it were.
To be sure, this isn’t a practice that we can do walking down the street or riding the subway – it wouldn’t be very safe to do so. Sarley recommends that pratyahara be done intentionally as part of your practice at home, in nature, or in class. In fact, he makes the excellent point that pratyahara almost can’t be understood without the following two limbs, which are dharana (concentration), and dhyana (meditation). These three limbs together make up a trilogy of sorts, which is tightly and logically connected: Once we withdraw the senses, then we can focus our attention in concentration, and ultimately allow the mind to meditate.
A couple of points of caution about what pratyahara isn’t. Most people have probably had the experience of being so caught up in your own thoughts that you miss what’s going on around you. The other day, waiting for the train, I so completely wrapped up in my own contemplations that I missed a train announcement and probably a whole lot of other things that happened around me. Needless to say, this kind of withdrawal of the senses is not pratyahara.
A related point, also worth mentioning, is that pratyahara is not a way to intentionally cut yourself off from the world or to use as a form of escapism. It definitely shouldn’t involve self-centrism. Sarley points out that “Yoga and narcissism can, unfortunately, go hand-in-hand. The self-referential processes can become pathological. And this is not at all what pratyahara, or any part of yoga, is about.”
In contrast, yoga should do the opposite, and it’s generally extremely good at this – at quieting down those “self” centers of the brain. But sometimes in practices where we’re focusing intently on ourselves, even in the name of self-improvement and peace, we can a little get self-centered at first. Pratyahara is just about quieting down and being less distracted by our senses, so that we can be more open to the good stuff that’s inside. “The senses are like a mirror,” Satchidananda writes in his Sutras book. “Turned outward, they reflect the outside; turned inward, they reflect pure light…. when allowed to turn outside they attract everything and transfer those messages to the mind, making it restless. Turned inward, they find peace by taking the form of the mind itself.”
Have you experienced pratyahara in your own practice? How would you describe what it feels like? And does it help you prepare for meditation?
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.