pratyahara

Lessons in Pratyahara: a Yogi Memoir

Last week I wrote a researched and technical essay about Patanjali’s fifth limb of ashtanga yoga, pratyahara. As I wrote in the essay, simply called Pratyahara Sense Withdrawal, pratyahara is the somewhat elusive and overlooked limb of Patanjali’s yoga system, which many of us stumble across and experience without even realising it. Two years ago if I had read the essay I wrote last week I would have been appreciative of the theory and technique, but still not quite understanding the experience of withdrawing my senses. Yoga is an experiential practice, after all. As Sri Pattabhi Jois always famously said, 99% and 1% theory.

The following essay is the less academic and more experiential version of how I stumbled across my own baby understandings of pratyahara. The yogis who helped me in this realisation also made me realise how much of a baby (if not a fetus) I am and many of us are on the yogic path, scratching just the tip of the iceberg and having yet to dive into the water and explore the true depths of this system. (Hint: pratyahara is one sure way into the water!) The yogis I speak of are those that are typically considered to be myths or legend. Or, at least, a calibre of yogi that in this modern age are all but extinct. But, they exist, hidden away in the caves of the high Himalayas where they can focus on their yoga practices and spiritual pursuits. When I say yoga practices I do not necessarily mean ten surya namaskara A and B followed by standing postures, seated, and finishing postures. These yogis have basically graduated, shall we say, from asana practice and spend most of their time (at least eight hours a day) sitting in samadhi, preparing for sitting in samadhi, or entertaining the occasional inquisitive baby yogi like me. In reading this essay  perhaps those who appreciate the technicality of my last essay but still can’t quite grasp the tangible and experiential aspects of pratyahara can discover a little something extra in the shared experience of another baby yogi.

I had been faithfully and consistently practicing and studying Patanjali’s eight limbed system of yoga and the subsequent Ashtanga Vinyasa system of yoga for five years. In my own study and practice of the Yoga Sutras and the eight limbs I found I was able to make the first four limbs (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama) comprehensive and practical enough to at least work on, but was always stumped by what Patanjali meant by learning to withdraw my senses. Most teachers I had asked over the previous years usually regurgitated some commentary on the Yoga Sutras, but I never really got what withdrawing my senses was all about. Some told me that it would come, as all the limbs grow and blossom with practice. But, how would I know when it arrived? All this baby/fetus yogi confusion until one day the beginning of understanding pratyahara found me in the Indian Himalayas.

I had made my way to Rishikesh, India to study Ashtanga yoga with Yogi Kamal Singh. One month into practice we had a week off to rest. But, I didn’t feel like resting and something else seemed to be calling me. I was in Rishikesh, the yoga capital of the world and the gateway to the great Himalayas. It was the whisperings of these mountains that beckoned me to venture into their depths. Early one morning instead of sleeping in I was riding in a bumpy collective jeep, squished between several Indians, winding up into the mountains on our way to the sacred village of Gangotri, where the great river Ganges begins. Eighteen hours in jeeps and one cold sleep in Uttarkashi later, I arrived in the little hamlet of Gangotri, a quiet and simple village lulled by the rushing jade waters of the baby mother Ganga and cradled by the snowy peaks of the high Himalayas.

My first evening I dined on noodle soup with my neighbour, Tomas, who happened to be the only other foreigner in town. While filling me in about the four hours of electricity a day, buckets of hot water for bathing available to purchase for 100 rupees, shockingly freezing nighttime temperatures, the one place to eat in town, and what I would need to trek the 18 kilometres to Gomukh (the glacier where at every moment the Ganges is born), he also mentioned to me something about hidden cave yogis. Hidden cave yogis!? It was true. Spiritual practitioners who had renounced the world and receded to the caves of the Himalayas in this holy place to dedicate their lives to the study and practice of yoga. Who were they and where could I find them? As it turned out, Tomas had been in Gangotri for several months for the purpose of learning from and meditating with these yogis, and was thus the perfect man to direct me to them. (Or, at least, to the ones that would talk to us baby yogis, as there are apparently many adult yogis who won’t even come out of samadhi to talk to teenager yogis!)

The next day I set out on my mission to find and talk to these mythical cave yogis. Though I could write an entire book relaying my experiences and learnings from these brilliant human beings, for now I will focus on the subject of this essay, which is pratyahara. Though I asked each of these sadhakas to summarise for me each of Patanjali’s eight limbs, I emphasised pratyahara, as I felt I was on the precipice of stumbling upon pratyahara in a more tangible way than regurgitated yoga sutras.

Later one night, a wiry and thickly bearded yogi with oversized shoes and orange robes led Tomas and me through the darkness, along the humming river to meet one of his well spoken teachers. There was no moon, and the frigid night was pierced with stars like diamonds poured across the sky.

We entered into a cave like stone hut and sat down on folded wool in the dimly lit space. Our host, the well respected yogi, prepared hot chai for all of us as we sat silently in the near freezing darkness. “So,” he began while pouring steaming chai into small cups, “how may I help you?” Tomas asked his usual questions about meditation and I asked my usual interrogation about the eight limbs. The little wiry yogi sat and listened as his teacher and friend share his wisdom with us.

We spoke about many aspects of yoga; and I even thought I saw him smile when I sheepishly told this being who had been meditating in these caves for decades that I had been doing asana practice for five years. After lightly scolding me for not being able to recite the one yoga sutra about asana in Sanskrit off the top of my head (scold-able, even for baby yogis), he continued: “ah, asana,” he laughed and then sighed, “the limb that distracts so many from the complete experience of ashtanga yoga. Such an obsession you have in the west with the body and asana.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “and that is why I have come to talk to you. To learn about the other seven limbs of Patanjali’s yoga.”

“Each limb arises out of the others,” he said simply.

“Yes, so far that has been my understanding. Most of the limbs I can at least grasp the theory of, but I just can’t make any sense of what pratyahara is and how to practice it.”

“Can you feel your prana?” he asked.

“Sorry?” I was surprised by the seemingly unrelated interest in life force energy.

“Are you aware of your energy body?” he rephrased the question.

I thought for a moment before replying, and then answered that I was.

“Good. So you already practice pratyahara.” He smiled and offered more hot chai, which was the only elixir for our frozen limbs. I pondered his words and sipped the chai through its comforting steam. “You are not understanding,” he said.

“No, I’m afraid not.” I admitted, “I still don’t understand how one withdraws the senses.”

“Pratyahara Sense withdrawal. It means to maintain the solidity of the connection with God within you, so that your attachment or aversion to that which you understand and cognate with your senses in the outer world does not disturb you. When you experience awareness of your pranic body, you already have the function of turning inwards. You see, the experience of the limbs all arise spontaneously with the practice of the preceding limbs. And sometimes without our intellectual knowing, we experience them.”

Suddenly, in a flash, I understood the beginnings of pratyahara. And this cave yogi was right, I had been practicing it without even realising. Even in simple ways in every day life. Every time I had stubbed my toe and not reacted to the pain shooting up from my foot, every time I had smelled something delicious cooking and had not let it distract me from whatever I was doing, or every time I remained undisturbed in the face of commotion on a busy street or in the metro. These are all very simple but real life manifestations of pratyahara. He must have seen the look of epiphany on my face because he started laughing and said “very good.”

He told me I could practice at any moment in time, beginning by closing my eyes, regulating my breath, and tapping into my pranic body. Prana is, after all, the life force or god force that moves inside and through us. This can be done through visualisation and by using visualisation as a tool for exploring the inner and subtle body. Also, via the tool of visualisation, we can visualise a membrane around us where any external distractions slide off of us and our internal world, and the solidity of our connection to god and ourselves, remain undisturbed. These are simple real life baby step practices for baby yogis to learn more about their capacity for pratyahara.

We continued to talk with the cave yogi until even my brain had gone numb with the mountain cold. I walked back to my guesthouse in the darkness, still buzzing with  revelation.

Over the next days I trekked 40 kilometres into the high Himalayas to and from Gomukh, sleeping in a frozen goat cave like ashram where one evening I listened amusedly to a swami try to convince a geologist of the existence of God. The entire excursion, through all the discomforts of exhaustion, hunger, back pain, backpack straps rubbing the skin off my shoulders, sleeping on a stone floor, feeling the coldest I had ever felt in my life, losing toe nails, and destroying my feet, I maintained a connection to that solidity which is inside all of us. And in doing so none of these  discomforts bothered me, allowing for my little adventure to be a rudimentary baby yogi practice of pratyahara, to be an unexpected experience of going inwards, and to be a humbling act of devotion. In a funny way, my trek to the origin of the Ganges was basically a really great extended yoga practice, and one of the happiest experiences of my life.

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Pratyahara Sense Withdrawal

yoga meditation

Pratyahara often seems to be the neglected and misunderstood limb of Patanjali’s eight limbed system of Ashtanga yoga. With the other limbs either being more tangible, easier to conceptualise, or so far off we don’t even bother, Patanjali’s vague fifth limb can be easily overlooked. Patanjali himself only dedicated two sutras to pratyahara in his Yoga Sutras. But, regardless of its obscurity, pratyahara is a very fundamental aspect of yoga.

Different yogic texts and different schools of yoga offer a variety of approaches to pratyahara, but its essential meaning remains consistent. Pratyahara is defined as the withdrawal of the senses or the independence from external stimuli. Focusing on Patanjali’s eight limbed system of aśtanga yoga, Patanjali places pratyahara as the fifth limb and the gatekeeper from the outer limbs to the inner limbs. Patanjali still considers sense withdrawal (pratyahara) to be an outer limb while listing concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and absorption (samadhi) as the inner limbs. Pratyahara is our bridge to higher practices of yoga. As long as we remain  dependent on external stimulus and our senses remain scattered rather than bound, our yoga practice shall remain externally oriented within the first four limbs: yama, niyama, asana and pranayama. Though with consistent and faithful yoga practice the limbs will eventually unfold themselves, pratyahara is so essential to our yogic development that it is deserving of more attention and practice than it typically is given.

Patanjali does not elaborate on how to practice or achieve pratyahara. In fact, the only limb he does describe in detail is samadhi. For the remaining seven limbs he only describes the results of these limbs once they have been achieved and does not give insight into technique or their practice. In Sutra 2.54 Patanjali states in Sanskrit sva vishaya asamprayoge chittasya svarupe anukarah iva indriyanam pratyaharah, which can be translated as “when the mind is withdrawn from the outside then the senses follow and disengage from the sense objects. This is pratyahara.” When we turn our attention inwards and detach from the stimulations and distractions of the external world then this is sense withdrawal. Patanjali continues in the next sutra 2.55: tatah parama vashyata indriyanam, or, “from that comes supreme command over the senses.” When we are no longer attached to or distracted by external gratification and stimulation, then we have achieved command over the senses and can focus the mind inwards. Therefore there are two aspects to pratyahara. The first aspect is the detachment from external aversions or desires by reigning in our wandering senses and withdrawing from the outer world. The second aspect is the going inside and realising that everything we need is already inside us.

As long as we believe we need external sensory stimulus the longer we continue to be a slave to our senses, our desires and the external world. This is not to advocate shutting out or negating the external world, as the world is our road to freedom. It is also not the say we shouldn’t enjoy the external world or sensory pleasure. Instead, it is to assert that the more we believe we need sensory stimulation and the more enslaved we are to external pleasures or aversions, the more difficult it will likely be to discover the inner world of consciousness and freedom. This is why we practice pratyahara.

Prana goes where the mind goes and it is no shock to say that the mind is generally unfocused. Therefore when our senses are unregulated, our mind follows our senses outwards, we attach to objects, and our prana becomes dispelled. When the senses reach out and we identify ourselves with the external world, we are pulled away and prana can not be accumulated and arrested inside the body. By pulling the senses inwards we begin to steady the mind fluctuations and retain prana. The accumulation and retention of prana is fundamental to practicing the higher limbs of yoga.

Seeing as pratyahara is quite important, as it leads us from the outside to the inside (which, as Yogi Sunil Sharma always emphasises, is a defining factor of yoga); how does one practice it? As mentioned above, Patanjali describes the effects of achieving the limbs but not their practice. As with most yogic traditions, practical technique is meant to be taught by a qualified teacher according to the capacity of the student. Even later more instructive texts, such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, are meant to be taken in conjunction with a guru’s teachings. Just as there are delineated techniques for the practice of asana, pranayama, and meditation, so there are also described techniques for the practice of pratyahara. Where asana works on a physical level, pranayama on an energetic level, and meditation on a mind level, pratyahara works on all three levels and thus is practiced in asana, pranayama, and meditation.

An important technique to withdrawing the senses is to bind them to something else. We do this in our daily ashtanga asana practice, sometimes without realising. As we breathe and move through our postures we remove our attention from the external world, beginning by focusing on our body alignment and movement. The sense of sight is bound by the practice of dristi, or, the prescribed focal point of the gaze. The sense of hearing is bound by listening to our ujjayi breath. The tactile sense is bound by our body in asana and by the consistent activation of bandha. As our asana practice becomes more advanced so does our capacity for pratyahara and we become more adept at disengaging from environmental stimulation.

There are also specific asanas that help to induce sense withdrawal. Supta kurmasana, or bound tortoise pose, is an excellent example of this. As a leg over head posture (and the first leg over head posture of the ashtanga vinyasa system), it functions as a very deep forward bend. Forward bends themselves function as the first steps on the path inwards. Supta kurmasana is compared to a tortoise  withdrawing its limbs into its shell from the outer world. The shell is our mind and the limbs are our senses. This asana is a direct practice of the faculties of sense withdrawal.

In many of his thorough and well researched books on yoga Gregor Maehle prescribes inversions (headstand, shoulder stand, etc.) as a direct practice of pratyahara. Citing many yogic texts and scriptures, Maehle states clearly that by accumulating and arresting amrita, the nectar of immortality, in the cavities of the skull associated with our highest chakras, then pratyahara will be achieved. This is done by the correct and responsible practice of inversions. He even suggests that in our daily asana practice we should extend our practice of inversions and  recommends that 60 minutes be spent on asana and 30 minutes be spent on inversions and closing postures. Maehle’s in depth and clearly explained research on inversions and pratyahara can be found in his book on yogic meditation.

The breath is a powerful vehicle that brings us from our outer world into our inner world. Through the consistent practice of breathing exercises and pranayama we are using our faculty of pratyahara by binding our attention to our breath. Assuming we have become sufficiently competent in the elementary practices of pratyahara from proficient asana practice, we can now practice binding our senses to the finer aspects of our breath and subtle bodies. By focusing on evening the force and length of the breath, counting the length and number of our inhalations and exhalations, using proper yogic breathing cycles and breath waves, and becoming aware of our breath and prana moving through our subtle body, we are practicing an intermediate level of pratyahara.

 The practice of Bhramari pranayama (humming bee breath) as outlined in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika can also be considered a direct practice of sense withdrawal. During the practice we use the fingers and hands to pull in and close our senses to the outside world. The fingers cover the eyes and close the ears to external awareness. By humming like a bumble bee we are aware only of the buzzing sound, bringing the agitated mind to a tranquil state and bringing the senses from the external to the internal.

A yogic meditation practice for pratyahara, though outside of the traditional ashtanga system, is yoga nidra meditation. Yoga nidra, meaning psychic sleep, is a practice that uses body awareness to withdraw from the external world and enter into the subconscious and unconscious realms of the psyche. Instructions are given during this guided meditation to bind the senses to various things such as sounds and points on the body. Through the process of binding the senses they are  automatically withdrawn, allowing the practitioner to completely relax and access the deepest parts of the internal world. Yoga Nidra meditation is a powerful practice that effectively trains and strengthens our capacity for pratyahara.

 As pratyahara is the gateway from the outer to the inner limbs, and dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) are the limbs that subsequently follow pratyahara, it is to be assumed at this point that as a yoga practitioner our capacity for withdrawing the senses is sufficiently developed as these practices are more advanced. Again, as with asana and pranayama practice, there are also systemised techniques in ashtanga system for the practice of meditation. Though many understand the practice of meditation to be simply sitting still and watching the breath, that method functions more as a practice in relaxation and self awareness rather than a meditation practice. While it is a good preparatory exercise for meditation and will fine tune the capacity for pratyahara, we are unlikely to get very far by just watching the breath. As we have learned to control our breath and have become more familiar with our energy body and our flow of prana, we can use pratyahara practice during meditation to begin to train the mind to bind. By removing our senses inwards, listening to our breath and feeling the sensation of prana  moving through the subtle body, we can begin to focus our attention on our shoshumna (central energy channel) and chakras (central energy centres). This is the beginning of learning to bind and suspend the mind, which is the beginning of yogic meditation.

The sixth and seventh limbs are when the ability to bind the senses transmutes into the ability to bind the mind. Once all the activity of the mind is bound during meditation, the mental fluctuations suspend, and the eighth limb samadhi (of which there are eight sub-limbs), or absorption, can be experienced and practiced. This is how the mastery of pratyahara will ultimately lead us from the outer limbs to the higher practices of yoga and internal exaltation. As is written in the Maitri Upanishad: “if the fuel of the senses is withheld, the mind is reabsorbed into the heart.” When the senses are withdrawn through the practice of pratyahara, the inner limbs of yoga begin to blossom and a whole other universe is placed at our fingertips.