sense withdrawal

The fifth step of Patanjali's 8 limb path is called pratyahara and is defined as "the conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses." We'd like to think this means a little more than blocking sensory experiences as we cannot live our lives in sensory deprivation chambers. 


The yoga sutras teach us:

2.54 Sva-vishayasamprayoge cittasya sva-rupanukara ivendriyanam pratyaharah. (Pratyahara: withdrawing; indriyas: senses; iva: seeming; anukara: take on; sva-rupa: very nature; citta: mind; a-samprayoga: withdraw; sva-vishayas: their own objects.) When the senses withdraw themselves from the objects and imitate, as it were, the nature of the mind-stuff, this is pratyahara.

Yoga defines the mind as manas, which stores the information collected through the senses; eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin. These are collectively titled jnanendriyas. The organs of action; feet, hands, mouth and organs of elimination are called karmendriyas, which put our thoughts into action. Together these are called the indriyas

Practicing pratyahara is acting with indifference to what the senses are perceiving. This may be a smell or sound which will invoke a distant memory with all sorts of embedded emotional attachments. This then triggers all the same responses as if we were in that moment all over again.

Yoga tells us our subconscious mind is constantly reaching out through the senses seeking attachment, which results in patterns repeating themselves over and over. Pratyahara is a way of breaking attachments through watching the information the senses collect, while acting with indifference.

You may have experienced pratyahara before, for example, in Savasana, Corpse Pose; we become comfortable lying on the floor, there is first an awareness of the muscles gradually relaxing, then the breathing slowing and finally the body generally letting go of tension. The next stage pertains to the mental sheath or level. There becomes a sense of withdrawing from the external world without loosing contact with it. The sounds that occur both in and out of the room where we lie are registered, for example, these sounds do not create disturbance in the body or mind. It is this state of non-reaction that is pratyahara. The actual registering of input by the nervous system still occurs but there is virtually no interaction with that input. There seems to be a space between stimulus and response.

Ultimately, the practice of pratyahara —in fact, all the practices of yoga— are ways of controlling the mind allowing us to choose our responses instead of merely reacting. We can choose to dance with any stimulus that comes our way, or we can choose to step back and not respond to that stimulus. The variable is not what's around us, but how we choose to use our energy. If we retreat to a cave in the mountains, we can still agitate our nervous system; we can still generate thoughts and relive past reactions. Practicing pratyahara doesn't mean running away from stimulation (which is basically impossible). Rather, practicing pratyahara means remaining in the middle of a stimulating environment and consciously not reacting, but instead choosing how to respond.

Pranayama is an important precursor for pratyahara. The mind or manas is activated by prana, or the breath. When practicing breath retention, the activity in the mind (chitta) falls away, and the mind becomes still.

The practice of pratyahara leads to dharana or holding the mind towards a single point. Without first practicing pratyahara the mind will be drawn constantly from one thought to the next.

Becoming a master of the mind is true freedom. The happiness we receive lasts longer than temporary joys. We become fearless. If we have this control we can do whatever we want, find peace and love within and share the same with all humanity.  

2.55 Tatah parama vashyatendriyanam. (Parama: supreme; vashyata: mastery; indriyas: senses; tatah: thence, from that.) Then follows supreme mastery over the senses. 

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