the fifth element of patanjali's yoga sutras: withdrawal of the senses
One of the greatest gifts one receives through living a life in yoga, is that of cultivating the mind...
Of being able to look within for wisdom, insights, and imagination. Of reaching for serenity, calm, and overall well-being.
This state of inward-looking mindfulness is known as "Pratyahara".
For those who practice yoga, it doesn’t take long to realize how much depth there is to the discipline outside of the physical postures.
Yoga, translated from Sanskrit as union, is an all-encompassing belief system and a way of being...
And much like the other virtues to which one aspires, the state is never fully reached while still within the physical body.
The physical plane must be transcended entirely to be fully engulfed by the form of yoga.
The union of yoga is said to be achieved when one has chronologically practiced all eight limbs of a system known as Ashtanga (which is not to be confused with the physical system of movement by the same name).
To move forward with Ashtanga, one must first complete the steps prior.
It might be surprising to learn that the physical practice, or Asanas, with which many are most familiar, are the third limb in Ashtanga; while Meditation, or Dhyana, is not realized until the seventh step.
The Sutras leading up to Pratyahara:
Ashtanga begins with Yama. These are specific acts of self-restraint.
Next comes Niyama, which are specific observances and practices which must be worked through first, before stepping foot on the mat.
One is now prepared for Asana, the physical practice of flowing through the yoga poses.
After Asana comes Pranayama, which is about learning to control the breath.
Following Pranayama, one finally begins to look within. A mindset is welcomed that allows one to withdraw the senses and learn to practice a delicious state known as Pratyahara…
the purpose of the sutras
- The Yamas and Niyamas are first intended to help cleanse the mind of toxic practices.
- The Asanas are then utilized to help cleanse the body of toxins.
- Pranayama is implemented to energize the body, and then to begin to quell the mind, bringing attention to the senses.
- Finally, Pratyahara is then practiced to find stability within the mind by going deep within. It removes all feedback from and acknowledgment of the five senses.
- It is said that all of these steps must be practiced regularly before one is truly ready for meditation.
what is pratyahara?
Pratyahara may be the most elusive of the eight limbs in the philosophy of ashtanga yoga, for it is exceptionally difficult;
Not only is it difficult to explain, but also to “accomplish”
This is precisely due to its seemingly abstract concept, which is to withdraw from each of the senses, and to go into the mind only.
Predictably, to remove oneself from acknowledging any sensory feedback from the body or one’s external surroundings is quite challenging.
Learning to ignore everything that one is accustomed to focusing upon, and instead to go deep within and find oneself centered in the mind, is a state most find nearly impossible to achieve with any regularity.
Many will argue that like all forms, it is not meant to be achieved with any permanency, but rather to be practiced; to cultivate awareness of all that must be tuned out and turned down to take steps toward realizing a true meditative state of being.
accessing glimpses of pratyahara
One way to start accessing glimpses of Pratyahara is to begin noticing when one is not practicing this limb.
For example, while sitting in Anjali mudra, and one’s nose begins to itch… being aware of the itch is the first distraction by the body. Simply acknowledging that the nose is itching means that one is still connected to sensory impulses, and thus the state of pratyahara remains elusive.
So... Could you resist the scratch? Are you able to start dialing down your sensory feedback of the surrounding temperature, your stomach grumbling, the light in the room or your itchy nose... and instead stay firmly within the mind, enjoying the comfort of its safety and bliss?
These are all steps toward achieving yogic mental stability and detachment.
It is said that reality within the mind is the only true reality and that when one can be fully engulfed by its magic, then and only then, is anything possible.
The only limit one has is that which has been set and believed by the mind.
Pratyahara allows us to strengthen that muscle... The mystical muscle of visualization and imagination.
Once you have been regularly practicing the yamas, the niyamas, asana, and pranayama, and you find yourself ready to go within the mind, it is then time to withdraw from the physical and embrace the beauty and power of the imagination.
Perhaps begin by reconnecting with the inner child.
Try to harness the infinite possibilities you dreamed of before this version of reality became so burdening as an adult. This is no small task, but its exercise is most profound.
The mind wants to dance... To be opened, expanded and explored- and it exists for each of us to do just that, ad infinitum.
It’s an always available, always personal, always fantastical playground of possibilities in which one might spend endless hours.
You can reap the tremendous benefit of not only exploring self, but also the unseen; unity consciousness and ethereal universalism as well.
The greatest truths lie dormant in our most protected depths.
facilitate the allowing
If it feels difficult detaching, you might find some allowance when you try visualizing an aspect of your life that is not yet exactly as you’d like it to be.
Visualize its solution as your current reality and stay there... Explore every detail, every smile, every moment of appreciation; to carve new mental pathways.
See these images, feel their sensations, taste the emotion of these thoughts, and listen to the response from the mind.
Try this each day for at least 21 days, and see if this practice does not begin to flow a bit easier.
As always, have self-compassion, for trying something new is daring, uncomfortable and demonstrates growth...
And remember, the sticking points and their raw emotions mean that the moth is preparing to leave its cocoon.
embrace the philosophy
As with all aspects of philosophy, the form is never meant to be reached.
The daily practice is always about getting a little closer, and a little more in alignment with oneself, and one's innermost being.
Tapping into the depths of the imagination will yield the most fruitful of all potentialities... truly beyond one’s wildest dreams.
It is infinite, boundless, buoyant, and eternal, and yet this mountain climb may sometimes feel steep, lonely, and difficult.
...And yet, with concentration, or Dharana, the sixth limb, you may steadily ascend to states of meditation: To catch glimpses of that mountain’s apex- Brilliant, true bliss- or Samadhi, the eighth limb.
Without Pratyahara, the infinite potential of the mind is unharnessed, and transformation from the spiritual path remains elusive.
Pratyahara, then, is perhaps the most prescient solution to every puzzle in this version of reality to be experienced - at least the Ashtangi imagines it so!
With practice and gentle discipline, you too can attain the insights from achieving Pratyahara. And on the way there, don't forget to enjoy the ride!
Together, striving for our most blissful states,