You may or may not be aware that most modern yoga is based on eight tenets of life called the Eight Limbs of Yoga, or Ashtanga Yoga. Asana, the postures we make in yoga classes, is only one of the limbs.
The first four are considered external practices, things we incorporate into every day life to be good people and live in the world. Others around us can see any changes and shifts as we practice the first four limbs, and may even benefit from our kindness and love. The final four are considered internal practices, practices to work with the inner workings of our mind to transcend the physical plane of existence. Others can’t physically see the effects of these practices, such as meditation, but they again may benefit as we cultivate inner awareness and compassion. There is a whole expanse of yoga still to discover and explore beyond what we are doing with our physical body!
The fifth limb of yoga, pratyahara, along with pranayama, breathing techniques, is the bridge between the physical self and the higher self, the external practices and the internal practices. Pratyahara is the connection between the physical realm and the spiritual realm.
Made up of two root words, prati (back to, retreat, away, against, opposition), and ahara (food, nourishment, procuring) we can infer the meaning of pratyahara as moving away from external influence. In yoga philosophy there are three types of nourishment: actual food we eat, the impressions made on our mind from experience through the senses, and feeding our soul from interactions with others close to our heart.
Typically translated as withdrawal from the senses, pratyahara is more about noticing when we are being controlled by our senses and having the discipline (tapas) to return to a mental and physical state of awareness away from seeking external pleasure or sensory experience. Is it possible to sit still and quiet for five minutes?
Now, we can’t practically withdraw from our senses or terrible things would happen, like not having our eyes open while driving for instance. We need our senses to function in life, to keep us safe, and to offer some joy. We want to begin to notice what impressions are being imprinted on our mind as we interact with our senses. When I see someone cut me off while I am driving, what happens to my mind? Pratyahara offers us the chance to use our external world to shape our internal world into what we want it to be. When I see someone cut me off while I am driving, I wish them well and don’t react. (To be fair, that’s not always what happens, but we’re all human and doing the best we can.)
In a sense (see what I did there), we are learning to become friends with and like ourselves by not defining who we are with our external environment and making choices to support ourselves. We need our senses to function in the world; to see while driving, to feel temperature on our skin, to adequately digest our food, to smell aromas enlivening our digestion, and to hear so we can experience others through spoken word, etc. The effort of pratyahara is noticing when these senses begin to control us and we become a slave to them constantly seeking stimulation. I see chocolate, I must eat chocolate despite knowing it may keep me awake at night so I don’t get enough sleep, or I am not in actuality hungry, etc.
Pratyahara is about recognizing we are good enough, we are worth a damn, and loving ourselves just as we are so our choices become a reflection of this self love. It is about living in each moment fully, and requires a focus on the here and now, whatever the task may be.
Ways to Practice
There are formal meditations one can do to practice pratyahara. For many of us, sitting for an hour and running through our sensory stimulus isn’t practical. Here are some ways you can practice pratyahara every day.
- Take five minutes to sit in quiet with your eyes closed every once in a while.
- Drive without the radio on for one trip.
- Notice when you are eating if you are still hungry and need that second helping, or if your eyes, nose, or tongue are beguiling your mind to get get more.
- Take in a beautiful sunrise, sunset, artwork, or other visually pleasing item and notice how it effects the way your mind moves.
- Notice how you feel emotionally and energetically after watching a movie or tv show and determine if it is something that suits you well.
- Pay attention to the way those around you speak and the way you speak to others and to yourself.
- Caring, physical touch is essential to human life, give a hug to someone you love.
- Take a nourishing bath or use a lotion that feels soothing on your skin.
- Notice aromas around you and do your best not to label them as good or bad.
Our senses are constantly bombarded with stimulation. Taking time to reduce the bombardment of the senses can make a huge difference for reducing stress, depression, and anxiety, may help sleep come more easily, and create a more meaningful relationship with Self.
Take time to choose imprints for your mind that support the person you want to be!