As we move further along Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of Ashtanga Yoga, things begin to get a little deeper. We recently reviewed the Yamas, Niyamas, Asana, and Pranayama, and now come to Pratyahara. Sometimes called “withdrawl of the senses,” it’s often more useful for modern yogis to think of Pratyahara as control over the senses.
Pratyahara doesn’t mean we don’t sense things. In fact, this would be quite difficult to do unless we were no longer living! Instead, consider Pratyahara as withdrawing energy from our senses to gain more control over our impulses. It might sound very esoteric, but it’s something we actually do fairly often.
Think about falling asleep in the summer sun while outside. When we first close our eyes, we hear so many things, and any sound at all could trigger us to pop open our eyes, sit up, and investigate. But if we employ Pratyahara, and control how much energy we give to what we’re hearing, slowly we can relax and enjoy a great nap.
Patanjali recommends that yogis practice Pratyahara more regularly than when we’re trying to fall asleep. By working on it as we sit and meditate, we can slowly retrain our impulse-driven minds to hold our ground when distractions arise. It can be difficult at first, but with patience, things begin to change. We can notice what our senses experience without immediately reacting or responding. The withdrawal pf Pratyahara can be very powerful in a world with lots of sensory overload, as it can help us find a space to ground down even while action swirls around us.
To practice Pratyahara in action, next time you head outdoors, try taking a seat for a few moments. Close your eyes and notice what your senses are feeling. See if you can put a little space between a sense and a reaction. Maybe it will just be a moment, but maybe even if you feel a tiny ant crawl up onto your foot, you’ll be able to put enough mental distance between feeling its tiny feet and needing to swat it away. Bugs might gross you out, but try to practice a little compassion for whatever distracts you. Whether it’s a tiny bug or a noisy bird, giving things a little compassion also helps us diffuse the reactions our minds love to push on us.
Another time Pratyhara is practiced regularly by yogis is during savasana, or the rest period at the end of practice. As we let things drift away, we cultivate non-reactiveness to our senses and practice a deep form of Pratyahara.