After yamas, niyamas, asana and pranayama comes ‘Pratyahara’, the stage of withdrawal. Yoga is a practice that includes external and internal facets and Pratyahara is the first step to going inward. In this stage of Eight Limbs of Ashtanga, we learn to let go of external events and disengage the mind. The translation of Pratyahara means ‘withdrawal of the senses’. In a literal sense, ‘Prati’ means to withdraw and ‘ahara’ means food, and here food refers to external stimuli that is fed to the mind. There are four types of Pratyahara and they are-
Types of Pratyahara
Traditional meaning of Pratyahara, this refers to having a suitable environment where the mind relaxes. It refers to focusing on withdrawal from the external stimuli you experience via the five senses: hearing, taste, smell, sense, sight, and touch. One way to do this is to focus on the breath, by taking deep natural breaths.
This refers to the need to control Prana, the life force within us, when practicing Pratyahara. This way, there is less energy focused on the senses. The senses follow prana (our vital energy), and unless our prana is strong we will not have the power to control the senses. If our prana is disturbed, our senses will also be disturbed and we will not be able to go inward. The first four limbs of Ashtanga yoga, and especially the pranayama limb prepares us for Pratyahara. Prana is gathered in pranayama and withdrawn in Pratyahara.
Karma means action, and this type refers to surrendering all actions or thoughts of personal reward in favor of acting in service to humanity or the divine. By practicing Karma yoga, we learn that desires are endless and happiness can be achieved when we do not attach it to the results of our actions.
This refers to withdrawal of the mind. By practicing this, we not only withdraw from external stimuli, but also control our reaction to external events and are able to redirect attention inwards.
Pratyahara on your mat
Including Pratyahara in your asana practice can happen primarily by two ways
1. Focusing on the breath and
2. Fixing the gaze on a point.
Breath: While coming into and out of a posture, keep your focus on the breath cues given by your teacher. When in the posture, try to close your eyes and keep your attention on your natural breath. You can also take your attention to specific body parts that are targeted in the pose. For example, if you are doing the Cobra Pose, take your attention to the lower back. Feel any body sensations, the muscles stretching and the breath going to that region.
Gaze: each asana has a point to focus at. For beginners the gaze would be external - ceiling, wall, floor, thumb, big toe, etc. In some specific Asanas, Intermediate and advanced practitioners can slowly shift the gaze to nosetip / eyebrow center. In a meditative pose the gaze is inwards, eyeborwcenter, nosetip, navel, throat etc.
Try to divert your mind from whether you’re doing the pose correctly - your teacher will take care of that for you. Don’t worry about how long you have to hold or which pose is next. Just breathe, gaze at the said point, keep your energy focused on the pose itself and away from the external environment. The Corpse Pose is a great posture to practice Pratyahara, especially if you are doing Yoga Nidra as it takes your attention completely inward.
Yoga Nidra and Pratyahara
Yoga Nidra is a guided relaxation technique that works strongly on the subconscious mind. During the practice, teachers first take our attention to different parts of the body one by one, then a resolve and a visualization process. Visualization is a form of Pratyahara that creates strong positive impressions on the mind. Moreover, during Yoga Nidra, you shut all sense except the auditory sense which is open only for directions from your teacher. Through Yoga Nidra we also become more aware of our own bodily sensations and thoughts in the subconscious mind.
The beginning of an inward journey
Pratyahara is your first step to meditation. As we move our attention inward, we move away from the stressors of the external world. We focus on our internal state and the world within us, freeing ourselves from the distractions by our senses. This is essential, more than ever, today in the modern world when we are overloaded by information and expectations around us. Turning away from the demands of the external world allows us to conserve our energy, keep it free-flowing and thus, keep our mind and body healthy and balanced. When we achieve this, we are able to sit in Dharana (concentration) and Dhyana (meditation), which are the next two limbs of yoga. Over time, we get more comfortable being with ourselves. We find comfort in our inner space, which will gradually take us to a place of self-realization and true consciousness.
Others way to Pratyahara
In today's modern day, there are simple ways to withdraw from the external world and get a taste of real Pratyahara. Many of these tie in with the ways in which yoga improves your well-being and lifestyle.
Take a day or two away from your phone, laptop and emails. Don’t read an email before going to bed or open Instagram first thing in the morning. Instead, use your energy to go for a walk, spend some time in nature, have a hot bath, sit in concentration for a few minutes, spend some time doing slow yoga asana movements on your mat. All of these are ways to remove external disturbances and focus on yourself.
Mindfulness during meals
Make it a point to eat mindfully. Don’t use phones or watch a movie during your meal. Instead, enjoy a quiet meal where you actually taste and chew what you eat. You’ll find yourself enjoying the flavors a lot more and feeling way more satisfied than you do when you finish.
A vow of silence
One of the ways to practice Pratyahara is to go into silence for a little while everyday. It could be more than 15-minutes or an hour, that is completely up to you. Keep your phone on silent. You can do this when sitting on your patio and watching the sunrise or sunset, or walking in your neighborhood park. You’ll soon realize how much energy you spend in talking and constantly communicating with others. You’ll be giving your mind and body a break to enjoy some slow living.
Many everyday activities are also simple forms of Pratyahara. For example, when you’re at your desk working and you take a break for a few minutes. You close your eyes and take a few deep breaths to relax. Lying down in the Corpse Pose for a few minutes is also Pratyahara. Anything that you do to take your mind away from external noises to conserve your energy and focus on your natural breath is a simple act of Pratyahara.
Don’t worry too much about how or when to practice it. Start slow and with simple actions. Give your mind the time to practice. Be patient and gradually, you will find that your mind and body is easily in that space.