“Withdrawal of the senses; Mastery over external influences”

“The restraint of the senses occurs when the mind is able to remain in its chosen direction and the sense disregard the different objects around them and faithfully follow the direction of the mind.”
~ Yoga Sutra 2.54
Translation by TKV Desikachar

Pratyahara is the practice of harnessing the senses, and directing our awareness inward. Our senses are constantly experiencing the world around us – sights, sounds, smells, temperatures. News, movies, television, music, and computers surround us all day long. These conditions are almost never under our control, and yet with each new sight or experience our thoughts are pulled in a new direction. Reversing this tide is at the heart of pratyahara.

Based on past experience, our senses are constantly seeking out pleasure (nice sensations, yummy tastes, new sights, favorite songs…) and are also constantly seeking to avoid all things unpleasant (unfavorable temperatures, loud sounds…). There is obvious wisdom to this, as the body needs good food and a healthy environment to thrive. However, being pulled about by this constant seeking puts the mind in a state of unrest. This is why BKS Iyengar describes pratyahara as the “act of going against the current of memory and mind.”

By turning our energy and awareness inward, we aim to have our senses support the direction of our mind, rather than act as distractions. Practicing our yoga postures provides us with an opportunity to begin practicing pratyahara. While doing a posture, our thoughts turn to the sensations we are feeling in our muscles and our bones. We may notice that our emotions become excited or dulled. We observe the breath and attempt to be present with all of these observations. This very process is the beginning of practicing pratyahara. Of course, it does happen that some days our minds are distracted by the temperature, by other people in the class, by overly negative (or positive) thoughts about ourselves… Even this is an opportunity to practice pratyahara, by trying to notice it happening, withdrawal from the racing thoughts, and come back into the moment. Especially in the setting of a class, the eyes and ears (and sometimes the chatty mouth!) are usually the most distracting sensory organs. For this reason, it isoften helpful to close your eyes, and to focus on the breath (which will draw the energy of the ears inward).

On the eight-limbed path of yoga, we start with the world around us and gradually work inward. The first “limbs” have so much to do with our physical bodies and the external world we live in: Yama (ethics regarding interactions with others), Niyama (personal disciplines), Asana (practice of yoga postures), and Pranayama (practice of breath awareness and control).

Together, pranayama and pratyahara start to move our efforts and intentions toward our inner worlds. With pranayama, we very literally bring the air around us into our bodies. By doing so consciously, our sense of connection between the external and the internal is deepened. However, pranayama is still a practice of using our bodies to control and experience the breath.

With pratyahara, the transition from external to internal awareness goes one step further. By observing our senses, their activities, and our responses, we can gain an increased understanding of how easily our thoughts can be redirected by the random input from our senses. Gradually, we gain skill at releasing our minds from the current of constant thoughts and drawing them back to our chosen area of focus. Even when a light flickers outside, our gaze stays steady. Even if the train passes by, we don’t start thinking about trains and travel and so on. When practicing yoga postures, each time we realize our mind has wandered and bring it back to our experience in the pose – this is pratyahara.

Sources of inspiration for this handout: David Frawley “Pratyahara: the Forgotten Limb of Yoga”, BKS Iyengar “Light on the Yoga Sutras,” TKV Desikachar “The Heart of Yoga”

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Updated January 10, 2005