Pratyahara: The Fifth Limb of Yoga
Pratyahara, the Fifth of the Eight Limbs of Yoga is typically translated as “withdrawal of the senses.” David Frawley describes it as “fasting from the sensory impressions, but it includes all methods of control of the senses and motor organs and the internalization of attention” (Yoga & Ayurveda).
In today’s world, we are constantly bombarded with external stimuli, making it increasingly difficult to focus our attention to concentrate and be still. No wonder people have difficulty with meditation. Our attention has become limited and our “monkey mind” races from one thought to another. Sometimes we are distracted by health conditions like pain or disease. All of these things inhibit our ability to be fully present. In many ways, these external stimuli serve to keep us fractured and separate from our goals and from the deeper meaning of our life. How many times have you reacted quickly to some outside stimulus out of anger or fear (such as a traffic jam) versus taking time to be present, focus and react from a place of calm?
Yoga offers tools to draw sensory experiences inward. Frawley describes the specific practice and purpose of pratyahara, “It is not possible to move directly from asana (the physical forms of yoga) to meditation. This requires jumping from the body to the mind, forgetting what lies between. To make this transition, the breath and senses, which link the body and mind, must be brought under control and developed properly. This is where pranayama and pratyahara come in. With pranayama we control our vital energies and impulses and with pratyahara we gain mastery over the unruly senses – both prerequisites to successful meditation.”
One way to draw our senses inward is to simply close our sensory organs. This is why we typically close our eyes in meditation or draw our gaze to one object, such as a candle flame, and focus on that object. Another way of practicing pratyahara is to simply eliminate negative impressions by turning off the television, computer and radio and taking a break for a while.
We can also replace negative visual impressions with positive ones by using techniques like visualization – imagining being in nature – or actually going out into nature or to some other serene place. These images and places offer respite for the mind. We can also create positive impressions by performing acts of selfless service. By performing “karma yoga,” we create positive impressions within ourselves by creating joy or relief from suffering for others.
Along with pratyahara, pranayama, or controlling the breath through a variety of techniques is one of the simplest tools we can use to focus our attention and everyone has access to it. By focusing our attention on our breathing, the mind has an anchor. For some, it may also be helpful to count the breath: “Inhale 1, Exhale 1, Inhale 2, Exhale 2,” etc. This can be a useful tool to help us prepare for the more advanced practice of meditation.
By eliminating negative impressions and cultivating positive ones, we are able to free the mind and focus on meditation and release. I’m not saying that by practicing visualization and pranayama techniques alone without guidance one can make traumatic experiences go away. It’s not that simple. It’s a practice that should be guided under the care of a licensed mental health provider, and that, over time, can help heal wounds of the mind which can also help to access the parasympathetic nervous system to allow the body/mind to access the relaxation response.
Yoga Nidra is a pratyahara practice that aids in this healing and has been very successful in treating veterans with PTSD. In fact, the origins of the IRest program, developed by Richard Miller, are deeply tied to Yoga Nidra. In 2006, the Dept. of Defense conducted research at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on the efficacy of Yoga Nidra (an ancient meditative practice) in treating PTSD in soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. (For more on this: https://www.irest.us/projects/veterans)
Yoga Nidra classes are offered every week at Lotus Yoga Studio and is open to the public and are led by Veronica Correa, LCSW-C who is also a 200hr Registered Yoga Teacher.
Cheryl Sidwell, 1000 C-IAYT, 500 RYT, E-200 RYT, YACEP