Understanding Pratyahara: Incorporating Yoga Philosophy Into Your Class
In this series of blogs, we travel through the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali; one of the most important texts of the yogic philosophy and tradition, actually covering all aspects of life. We discuss the Eight Limbs of Yoga and the inspiration we can draw from Patanjali’s path towards self-realization and enlightenment.
In the previous blogs of the series, we discovered the 5 yamas (ethical guidelines), the 5 niyamas (inner observances), asana and pranayama; the first four limbs of the path, which are considered to be the external limbs. Today we are going to have a closer look at pratyahara, the fifth step in Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga.
Pratyahara is most commonly seen as the bridge between the external and the internal limbs of yoga. It prepares the practitioners as they move towards the more subtle art of concentration, meditation, and finally enlightenment.
The term “pratyahara” consists of the two Sanskrit words, “prati” and “ahara”. Ahara means food, or anything we take into ourselves, while prati is a preposition meaning away or against. Therefore, pratyahara refers to gaining mastery over external influences and achieving withdrawal of the senses. Practicing pratyahara is about withdrawing our attention from any external information so as to be able to have a look within.
And in a world that constantly competes for our attention, it will most likely take quite some time to develop the skill of withdrawing.
But Why Is It Important to Practice Pratyahara?
How many times do you catch yourself grabbing your phone to check your emails or scroll through social media throughout the day? How much time do you spend on television? Have you noticed how much of your attention goes out to your external world, constantly shifting from one thing to the next?
Living in the digital age, our daily lives are synonymous to a constant flow of information. This never-ending stream of stimuli through the five senses can be overwhelming, and, needless to say, it gets harder and harder to take a break from the sensory overload. But living under this constant sensory input makes it difficult to avoid running from one impulsive reaction to the other. It pulls us away from our inner peace. Pratyahara comes to show us that it’s actually in our hands to find stillness.
The 4 Types of Pratyahara
The yogic philosophy suggests that there are four types of pratyahara, each of them allowing us to experience different benefits.
Indriya Pratyahara: Probably the most important type of pratyahara, it involves focusing on withdrawal from the sensory inputs coming from our five senses; sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. And it helps create the right environment for the mind to relax.
Prana Pratyahara: Control of our senses requires mastery over the flow of our prana, the valuable vital energy flowing throughout our body. When practicing pratyahara, it is essential to seek control over our prana’s flow, in order to avoid scattering it on external stimuli.
Karma Pratyahara: After withdrawing the senses and mastering the prana, comes the control of action. Karma pratyahara is not just about controlling our motor system. It is about doing the right thing and performing it as an act of service.
Mano Pratyahara: This final, and probably the most advanced form of pratyahara, is related to withdrawal of the mind. It involves pulling the senses away from objects and redirecting them inwards, to the formless nature of the mind.
In Patanjali’s Words…
"Sva vishaya asamprayoge chittasya svarupe anukarah iva indriyanam pratyaharah” (sutra 2.54)
Patanjali has dedicated two sutras to describing pratyahara. According to the first one, pratyahara is the fifth step in the self-realization path and it involves the organs of senses and actions ceasing to be engaged with the corresponding objects in their mental realm and turning back into the mind-field from which they arose. It is the withdrawal of the senses of cognition and action from the external world and the images or impressions in the mind.
"Tatah parama vashyata indriyanam” (sutra 2.55)
In the second pratyahara-related sutra, Patanjali suggests that through that turning inward of the organs of senses and actions, there also comes the mastery over those senses inclining to go outward towards their objects.
Or in other words, our senses constantly drag us around in the external world, whether pursuing material objects, or circumstances related to our professional and social life. As we establish ourselves in the practice of pratyahara, we gradually gain control over the mind being obsessively drawn towards all of those objects. And for meditation, temporarily breaking the connection between the senses and their objects is essential, as it allows for our attention to be able to focus and go inward.
How to Incorporate Pratyahara into Your Yoga Classes
There are many ways we can practice pratyahara. If you want to introduce the concept of pratyahara to your yogis in class, without necessarily naming it, invite them to just observe their breath, while not making any effort to change it. All other senses will slowly tune out, until there is only the breath, even for a brief moment. Practicing pratyahara doesn’t mean we will completely withdraw our senses at all times after all. It means being able to notice where we place our attention and what use we make of our energy.
Every now and then during practice, encourage them to focus on their body sensations. Ask them to close their eyes during meditation, or even as they move from one asana to the next. And for those who might not feel comfortable with keeping their eyes shut, there is always the option to maintain a soft gaze, not really focusing on anything specific in their visual field.
And probably the best way to introduce your yogis to the concept of pratyahara would be teaching a yoga nidra class. Even 15 minutes will do. Yoga nidra, also known as yogic sleep, is a powerful practice that allows one to cultivate pratyahara while relaxing in savasana. All your yogis will have to do is follow the sound of your voice.
Of all the steps along Patanjali’s path towards self-realization and enlightenment, pratyahara is probably the most challenging one so far. But don’t forget that our yoga practice is just that; a practice. And in a world that constantly competes for our attention, it will most likely take quite some time to develop the skill of withdrawing. Pratyahara, however, gives as a wonderful tool for taking control of our reality and opening up to our inner world. Shouldn’t we give it a try?