Pratyahara: Yoga’s Forgotten Limb
Pratyahara is often defined as “the conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses.” Yet what does that phrase really mean? Did you know that a massage or even vacationing by the sea can be form of pratyahara? Read on and find out how.
Pratyahara is perhaps the least understood limb of the 8-part yoga system. Pratyahara has two parts: creating positive impressions for the mind and avoiding negative ones. Impressions are all of the things we take in through the five senses. Everything we see, hear, touch, taste and smell.
The ultimate goal of pratyahara is to help us turn inward, by creating a calm, peaceful environment and a sattvic (balanced) mind.
A mind turned outward — a mind bombarded with sensory overload from TV to twitter — cannot meditate. We must learn how to manage our sensory intake — all of the information taken in by our five senses. In other words, don’t put junk food into your mind or into your body.
There are two types of pratyahara: natural pratyahara (think sleep, rest and relaxation) and the pratyahara that comes to us from the practice of yoga.
Sleep is a great example of natural pratyahara. Sleep is where the Soul loves to rest and recharge. All five senses are are silent. Vacations and retreats can also be forms of effortless pratyahara. The simplest way to control the impressions is to cut them off. Treat yourself to a silent retreat. Take a walk in the woods.
Pratyahara also means avoiding harmful impressions — like TV and other “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” media.
Instead, cultivate better impressions. Immerse yourself in Nature. Gaze at the vastness of the sky. Do yoga.
As the fifth limb in the yoga system, pratyahara occupies a central place — a bridge between the physical aspect of yoga, asana, and meditation. Yogic pratyahara includes calming asanas, alternate nostril breathing and types of mindfulness or guided meditation. Another great example of yogic pratyahara is Shavasana — corpse pose. In Shavasana, the energy is withdrawn from the five senses. The eyes are closed. Visual stimuli are absent. The body is relaxed, and turned inward. In a world of overstimulation, the practice of pratyahara can offer us silence, peace and rest.
Pratyahara and Ayurveda
Pratyahara literally means control of ahara or food. Here “food” refers to anything we put into our bodies and minds, both physical and mental.
Examples of Ayurvedic pratyahara are an Ayurvedic diet, aroma therapy, color therapy, Ayurvedic massage, marma point therapy, shirodhara and pancha karma. These are all delightful and beneficial therapies that support the the body-mind and lead to deep relaxation. A natural pratyahara for the digestive system is fasting, or feasting, on kichadi, an Ayurvedic superfood.
Also included in pratyahara are your associations with other people. How do the people around you make you feel? Do you feel lifted up? Filled with love and connection? Or do you feel pulled down by negativity and toxicity? Ayurveda recommends satsang therapy — hanging out with those who are heart-centered seekers of truth.
Summary: Feed Your Head
Pratyahara starts at home. Become aware of the quality of things taken in by your five senses. Turn off the TV. Create your own space — a positive environment that restores you and calms the senses. Nourish yourself with positive experiences by gazing at the ocean, the mountains or the blue sky. Associate with quality people.
You are doing pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga and a gateway to meditation.
Review Question: What are two examples of pratyahara?
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