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the fifth yogic limb: Pratyahara...plus practices and writing prompts to draw the senses inward

The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are essentially a roadmap to the Enlightened state of Samadhi - being in oneness with all of creation. It is taught that every human is capable of achieving this state. What is required is dedication to the hard work necessary to remove the many layers of obstacles that lie in the way of clear seeing.  

The focus of exploration of this post is the fifth limb, pratyahara, which deals with the sense organs and overcoming the obstacles that are created when our attention is directed outward. 

The first two limbs, the yamas and niyamas, outline a moral and ethical code Yogis should adopt to address the emotional and societal obstacles associated with living in community with others. The third limb, Asana, addresses the obstacles of the physical body - mainly toxicity and discomfort. And Pranayama, the fourth limb, focuses on the breath and the obstacles caused by the disturbed flow of life force energy. The aforementioned limbs have been more deeply explored in previous chattra posts.

Sense Withdrawal 

Pratyahara is derived from two Sanskrit words : Prati is a preposition that means away or against and ahara refers to anything taken into ourselves, such as food.  Together the terms are understood to mean sense-withdrawal. Sutra II.54 describes pratyahara as a state, “when the senses withdraw themselves from the objects and imitate, as it were, the nature of the mind-stuff.”  Essentially this is the technique of withdrawing the mind from the outside world and into itself by controlling the senses. 

An Antidote to Over-Stimulation

The five senses are taste, touch, smell, sight and sound. Left to their own devises, the senses draw our attention outward toward the many sensory impressions available in our modern lives including television, the radio, the Internet, social media, industrial noise, and lively urban environments. 

Clinging to this web of ever-changing external reality often creates sensory overload which we experience as over-stimulation, restlessness and anxiety. Drawing the five sense organs inward and calling attention more deeply into the physical body can have a very calming effect that is a welcome antidote to our over-sensitized modern lives. 

A Beginner's Practice 

For some the thought of shifting attention from the outer world to the inner can seem enormous and overwhelming. It can be helpful to recall that these teachings are not for the faint of heart:  tThey are designed to challenge us to overcome layers of obstacles and we can only expect to meet resistance. You are not expected to master pratyahara immediately or even in a lifetime;  yet there are very simple and effective ways to explore the practice and gain great benefit.

For example, if you live in a hectic urban environment, you could consider retreating to solitude in nature and/or focusing on an aspect of your surroundings:  the sky, a body of water, even a house plant. This practice can be used to calm the sense impressions and allow the attention to move gently inward. 

Alternatively, you could practice savasana wrapped completely in a blanket “cocoon” style with an eye pillow on. Consider taking this a step further by focusing on one sense, perhaps sound, consistently. At a certain point the mind will likely tire from focusing on the sense of sound and attention will move within. 

One final option to consider is lying in savasana and alternate awareness through the different sense organs. For example, focus on all the sounds you can take in near and far; then the touch of your body against whatever is above, below and around; draw attention then to the tastes present in your mouth; and then to the eyes and whatever image or color is coming through. Once you have tuned into every sense, notice that part of you that is aware of each sense and practice residing there, in the place of awareness itself. 

All of these practices are beginner-friendly ways to explore this very advanced practice.

Reflect on Pratyahara

  1. Perhaps the teachings of pratyahara are brand new to you. If so, consider thinking about what first comes up for you in response to this idea of drawing attention inward. Does it seem like something that would be easy or challenging for you? And how does it build off of the other limbs of Ashtanga Yoga?
  2. Perhaps you have explored pratyahara before and already incorporate it into your practice. How does sense withdrawal enhance your asana and pranayama practice? Can you remember a time if your daily life when your relationship to pratyahara benefited you in a challenging situation or circumstance? 

about chattra blogger Jillian Bobowicz

Jillian is a yogini based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She leads weekly public yoga classes for adults and specializes in yoga for kids and families. Her studies have led her to complete trainings at YogaWorks, Karma Kids and Yoga Playgrounds. Jillian feels blessed to practice and teach yoga and is particularly passionate about empowering her students with tools to navigate the modern world with ease.

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