“The restraint of the senses occurs when the mind is able to remain in its chosen direction and the senses disregard the different objects around them and faithfully follow the direction of the mind.”
- Yoga Sutra 2.54 Translation by TKV Desikachar
The fifth limb of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga is called “Pratyahara,” or withdrawal of the senses. In a time when Americans check their phones an average of 46 times a day (Time), the ancient practice of pratyahara is paramount to maintain balance and find mental concentration. We constantly battle with distractions in the form of technology, food, talking, noise and visuals that pull us out of our inner experience.
To practice pratyahara does not mean to abstain from the outer world that includes these distractions; it entails working on one’s inner world in order to “unclutch from the senses” (Nithyananda). To unclutch entails a step beyond simply unplugging. If one turns one’s phone off, yet is still immersed with concerns about emails or texts one is not checking, this is not fully practicing pratyahara. To unclutch from the senses means to not engage and also let go of one’s attachments to them.
In “Pratyahara: The Forgotten Limb of Yoga,” David Fawley explains pratyahara as the following:
The term pratyahara is composed of two Sanskrit words, prati and ahara. Ahara means "food," or "anything we take into ourselves from the outside." Prati is a preposition meaning "against" or "away." Pratyahara means literally "control of ahara," or "gaining mastery over external influences.”
Our external influences are boundless and often times not in our control. These influences frequently leave us thinking, processing, and feeling. To practice pratyahara is to detach from not only the senses but also the attachments we have to them and how we allow them to influence us.
If our senses experience the world around us, how do we experience the world within us? By turning our experience inward, the senses can act as aids to help us concentrate. For example, in meditation instead of dwelling on any physical sensation such as mild pain in the back, we can thank the sensation for coloring our experience, and allow it to act as a reminder to come back to the breath, and back to focus. By acknowledging the sensation, we can again, withdraw. The practice of pratyahara strengthens the process of returning. We return to the breath. We return to ‘not thinking.’ We return to our higher self.
Through observation, we learn to master our senses and the attachments we have to them. The practice of pratyahara is not about a blank mind; it’s about mind control and mastery. Though the term “mastery” might imply some sense of having permanently arrived, this is a practice. The only way to strengthen how we withdraw from our senses is to frequently practice disengaging and closely observing the mind around the practice. Over time, the attachments and thoughts that arise may lessen.
Through self-reflection and awareness, one can easily determine the sense(s) one is most attached to. Take these observations as an invitation to disengage. A few suggestions are: unplug from technology at least an hour a day. Practice silence when you don’t need to talk. Do not eat when you are not hungry.
Though we cannot change our external reality, we can always work on our responses to it. When we withdraw from external influences, we move closer to the self that is true, not the one the senses identify with.