The fifth limb of yoga is called pratyahara, conscious withdrawal from the senses. It is concerned with drawing us inward to find the true Self.
“After asana & pranayama are perfect, pratyahara, sense control follows. The first four limbs are external exercises: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama. The last four are internal, and they automatically follow when the first four are mastered. Pratyahara means that anywhere you look, you see God. Good mind control gives that capacity, so that when you look, everything you see is Atman (the God within). Then for you the world is colored by God. Whatever you see, you identify it with your Atman. The scriptures say that a true yogi’s mind is so absorbed in the lotus feet of the Lord that nothing distracts him, no matter what happens in the external world.” ~Sri Guruji Pattabhi Jois
“Pratyahara is a culture on the mind. As I see it is a ‘new wiring’, a creation of a new habit of sorts where we change directions as the attention constantly goes out and we rein it inside.” ~ Patanjali
“Withdrawing the senses helps us come into the present moment without any filters, that is what Jois meant, how to come to a blank state where there is no projection, where we simply are.” ~Patanjali
The term pratyahara means “gaining mastery over external influences.” It is compared to a turtle withdrawing its limbs into its shell — the turtle’s shell is the mind and the senses are the limbs. The term is usually translated as “withdrawal from the senses,” but much more is implied. Without it, you will not be able to meditate. Although there are four main forms of pratyahara, we will focus on the most common understanding of pratyahara; control of the senses.
Most of us suffer from sensory overload, the result of constant bombardment from television, radio, computers, newspapers, magazines, books — you name it. Our commercial society functions by stimulating our interest through the senses. We are constantly confronted with bright colors, loud noises and dramatic sensations.
The problem is that the senses, like untrained children, have their own will. They tell the mind what to do. If we don’t discipline them, they dominate us with their endless demands. We are so accustomed to ongoing sensory activity that we don’t know how to keep our minds quiet. We run after what is appealing to the senses and forget the higher goals of life. For this reason, pratyahara is probably the most important limb of yoga for people today.
Right Intake of Impressions
Pratyahara centers on the right intake of impressions. Most of us are careful about the food we eat and the company we keep, but we may not exercise the same discrimination about the impressions we take in from the senses. We accept impressions via the mass media that we would never allow in our personal lives. We let people into our houses through television and movies that we would never allow into our homes in real life! What kind of impressions do we take in every day? Can we expect that they will not have an effect on us? Strong sensations dull the mind, and a dull mind makes us act in ways that are insensitive, careless, or even violent.
According to Ayurveda, sensory impressions are the main food for the mind. The background of our mental field consists of our predominant sensory impressions. We see this when our mind reverts to the impressions of the last song we heard or the last movie we saw. Just as junk food makes the body toxic, junk impressions make the mind toxic. Junk food requires a lot of salt, sugar, or spices to make it palatable because it is largely dead food; similarly junk impressions require powerful dramatic impressions — sex and violence — to make us feel that they are real, because they are actually just colors projected on a screen.
We cannot ignore the role sensory impressions play in making us who we are, for they build up the subconscious and strengthen the tendencies latent within it. Trying to meditate without controlling our impressions pits our subconscious against us and prevents the development of inner peace and clarity.
Fortunately we are not helpless before the barrage of sensory im pressions. Pratyahara provides us many tools for managing them properly. Perhaps the simplest way to control our impressions is simply to cut them off, to spend some time apart from all sensory inputs. Just as the body benefits by fasting from food, so the mind benefits by fasting from impressions. This can be as simple as sitting to meditate with our eyes closed or taking a retreat somewhere free from the normal sensory bombardments, like at a mountain cabin. Also a “media fast,” abstaining from television, radio, etc. can be a good practice to cleanse and rejuvenate the mind.
Yoni mudra (below) is one of the most important pratyahara techniques for closing the senses. It involves using the fingers to block the sensory openings in the head — the eyes, ears, nostrils, and mouth — and allowing the attention and energy to move within. It is done for short periods of time when our prana is energized, such as immediately after practicing pranayama. (Naturally we should avoid closing the mouth and nose to the point at which we starve ourselves of oxygen.)
Another method of sense withdrawal is to keep our sense organs open but withdraw our attention from them. In this way we cease taking in impressions without actually closing off our sense organs. The most common method, shambhavi mudra, consists of sitting with the eyes open while directing the attention within, a technique used in several Buddhist systems of meditation as well.
Turn your eyes upwards, and look through the center of your forehead. Use caution and do not strain your eyes. Apply mudra only as long as comfortable and release it when you feel you need to. You can use Shambhavi Mudra during your asana practice as well, whenever when holding certain postures. If applying the mudra is difficult, you can just bring your attention to the Third Eye region, without moving the eyes, which also helps to draw attention inward.
Focusing on Uniform Impressions
Another way to cleanse the mind and control the senses is to put our attention on a source of uniform impressions, such as gazing at the ocean or the blue sky. Just as the digestive system gets short-circuited by irregular eating habits and contrary food qualities, our ability to digest impressions can be deranged by jarring or excessive impressions.
Creating Positive Impressions
Another means of controlling the senses is to create positive, natural impressions. There are a number of ways to do this: meditating upon aspects of nature such as trees, flowers, or rocks, as well as visiting temples or other places of pilgrimage which are repositories of positive impressions and thoughts. Positive impressions can also be created by using incense, flowers, ghee lamps, altars, statues, and other artifacts of devotional worship.
Creating Inner Impressions
Another sensory withdrawal technique is to focus the mind on inner impressions, thus removing attention from external impressions. We can create our own inner impressions through the imagination or we can contact the subtle senses that come into play when the physical senses are quiet. Visualization is the simplest means of creating inner impressions. In fact, most yogic meditation practices begin with some type of visualization, such as “seeing” a deity, a guru, or a beautiful setting in nature.