Pratyahara: The fifth limb of Yoga
“If a man’s reason succumbs to the pull of his senses he is lost. On the other hand, if there is rhythmic control of the breath, the senses instead of running after external objects of desire turn inwards, and man is set free from their tyranny.”
-B.K.S Iyengar ‘Light on Yoga’
Pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga and the last limb that represents the external quest of yoga. Pratyahara means withdrawal of or gaining mastery over the senses. As we let go of our awareness to external stimuli, we find a heightened inner awareness. When we are able to control or master our senses (sound, sight, smell, taste, touch) then we are able to control the thoughts of the mind and ultimately find stillness. Our senses have an ability to take us out of the present moment. For instance, there may be a certain smell that takes us back to a memory from our childhood, or we hear the sound of cars honking outside and hold onto that stressful active (rajasic) energy. Our senses have an ability to trigger emotional reactions that make us feel disconnected to ourselves and in turn keep us attached to these stimuli.
A verse from ‘The Bhagavad Gita’ explains:
“Even as a tortoise draws in its limbs, the wise can draw in their senses at will. Aspirants abstain from sense pleasures, but they still crave for them. These cravings all disappear when they see the highest goal. Even as those who tread the path, the stormy senses can sweep off the mind.” -Chapter 2, verses 58-60
You can start simply by finding a comfortable position and closing the eyes. Losing the sense of sight may actually heighten our sense of hearing. We may hear things in the room or outside that we were unaware of before. As you begin to tune into the sound of your breath, these noises will soon dissipate. Slow, deep breathing will pull you away from the sense of touch in the physical body and our energy (prana) will start to brighten the heart and rise up to the third eye center and crown of the head where we connect to our higher consciousness. You have begun to meditate. Whether we stay in meditation for one minute or 30 minutes, we are allowing the mind to release stress and we are experiencing a deep sense of Self.
The beauty in Pratyahara is not just disconnecting from the outside world, but the journey back to it. When we return to our senses, we can find so much gratitude and a new appreciation for the beauty of what surrounds us. Maybe you notice a vibrant colored leaf falling from the tree that you’ve passed by a hundred times on your way to work. Maybe you hear the sound of rain or a song in a different way. Maybe food tastes better and we start to slow down and enjoy each bite. Maybe we smell the familiarity of our loved one’s skin. Whatever our experiences are, Pratyahara pulls us in to free our mind and pushes us back out to find a world of endless possibilities.
Practice: Shanmukhi/Yoni Mudra (the closing of the seven gates/womb/the source) The elbows are raised, shoulders backward and the following gestures are executed: •Closing of the ears with the thumbs
•Closing of the eyes with second fingers resting on the eyelids
•Closing of the nose with the third finger
•Closing of the mouth by encircling it with the fourth and fifth fingers
Release the pressure of the middle fingers and open the nostrils. Inhale slowly and deeply, using full yogic breathing. At the end of inhalation close the nostrils with the middle fingers. Retain the breath inside for as long as is comfortable. Try to hear any manifestation of sound in the region of ajna or anahata chakras.There may be many sounds or none at all; just listen. After some time, release the pressure of the middle fingers and slowly breathe out. This is one round.Breathe in again immediately to start another round. Continue in this way throughout the practice. To end the practice, lower the hands to the knees, keeping the eyes closed, and slowly begin to externalize the mind by becoming aware of external sounds and the physical body