Pratyahara: The Lost Limb Of Yoga
The method of Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali can be subdivided into the outer limbs: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama and the inner limbs: Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. So then, while discussing the practices of Yoga, we can very well explain the outer limbs quite easily and we also know a few things about concentration and meditation. In fact, we can also scientifically measure and evaluate the effects of asanas and pranayama and they’re indeed beneficial when practiced in a systematic manner.
However, we seldom discuss pratyahara and samadhi. Today we will discuss pratyahara as this is the missing link, the switch between so called external and internal limbs of yoga, still touching on the other inner limbs and integrating them in our practice. Pratyahara is normally translated as “Sense withdrawal” but what does that even mean? In my opinion words can only convey shared experiences and language conventions. It is difficult to understand what pratyahara means, as sense withdrawal doesn't mean anything to anyone in this age, does it? And yet we all experience pratyahara at least twice every 24 hours, so it is far from an inaccessible state.
The word “pratyahara” is composed of two Sanskrit words, prati and ahara. “Ahara” means “food” not just physical, also energetic and psychological food, in other words, anything that delights us. Yogi’s say that delight is the true food of humankind, humans live for pleasure and food, status, money, power, intimacy all these are just the means for that pleasure. That way pleasure derived from touch, sight, smell, taste, sound and intellectual pursuit is the true food whether we produce these sensations or merely experience them. “Prati” here as a prefix means to “turn away or withdraw” and from this we get the analogy that pratyahara is like a tortoise drawing its limbs back into its shell.
We all have experienced this at least once in our life that meditation or even the control of emotions can’t be forced, psychologists have also warned us of bottling up the emotions. That’s the most certain way that they will spring back and over power the individual. And even if the individual successfully suppresses them, they will come out as physiological and psychological ailments. And yet I see in various books on yoga sutras and yoga teachers teaching yoga as “Suppression of mental modifications” (Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodha), they translate “nirodha” as suppression or cessation.
The psychology of yoga doesn’t believe in forceful cessation or oppression. Pratyahara is rather the opposite. It is not oppression but redirection of the tendency of the mind to constantly seek pleasure. In yoga, it is said that the energy moves from the higher planes of consciousness to the mind, then through the spine and through energy vortices called chakras into the sense faculties and organs of action. Here the energy is expended constantly, so the practice of pratyahara captures each stream of energy (called nadis) flowing outward and downward and slowly collects it and redirects it inward and upwards towards the thousand petalled lotus.
Now without resorting to metaphors and in the language we all can comprehend; sense withdrawal simply means achieving theta brain wave state. The bridge between what psychologists call conscious and unconscious. It is simple as that, the transition between sleeping (or dreaming) and waking state called sandhi (bridge) in Sanskrit. And we all experience it once at night just before sleep and once in the Morning right before we wake up. Some people experience a spectrum of it in lucid dreaming. Pratyahara is about accessing that state consciously and yogis such as Swami Rama (founder of Himalayan Institute) have shown in labs, in front of doctors and scientists, the capability to produce theta brain waves not just voluntarily but also with eyes open.
What psychologists called unconscious has been categorised into three groups by yogis:
- Subliminal: A vast part of consciousness we don’t explore and what we call as our thoughts, feelings and emotions are just the tip of this vast iceberg
- Subconscient: The part of our consciousness which houses the tendencies and experiences of evolutionary processes of the past.
- Superconscient: The evolutionary and divine potential in humans and a vast spectrum of higher consciousness, not accessible to humans at this phase of evolution.
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Pratyahara is the first and foremost withdrawal into this subliminal part in order to eventually access the Superconscient. Now let me be very clear that there are many ways of approaching it, some dealing with manipulation of vital force or psychic currents called prana and some dealing more with guiding the mental awareness gradually inward and systematically as a turtle draws its limbs. We will focus on one of the most direct and most accessible method to all. Pratyahara can’t be done without the aid of outer limbs and inner limbs because pratyahara by itself is nothing but the process of transition from outer limbs to inner limbs.
First of all, just relax, you can do it by asana practice or massage or tension-relaxation exercise. This helps the mind calm down and focus better, also releasing physical tensions. The next stage is to guide the awareness, usually one’s awareness is scattered in a number of things and events, it may be work or relationships or anything else. So, we can bring it first to the body by a body scan meditation (focusing on posture or the marma points), aligning and relaxing each joint, muscle, tension and organ one by one.
We usually tend to hold a lot of tension in the eyes and in the jaw by clenching it, so this might be a good time to release that tension by loosening the jaw and allowing the mouth to stay close by gently touching the lips. Eyes can be relaxed by circling, opening and closing, focussing on objects and different distances from a distant landscape to the tip of the nose. Eyes have a close association with the limbic brain, so gazing and different distances and peripheral vision aids in getting out of fight-or-flight.
In the next step we divert our focus to controlling our breath, which releases internal and emotional tension. There are again many methods for this, the easiest one is allowing a passive inhalation and active unforced exhalation like heaving a sigh of relief. The important thing here is not to force the breath and not allow the attention to move out to the body or objects of sense indulgence. But it will move out and one has to bring it back over and over. The process of pratyahara is like training a stallion.
After controlling the body and breath, in the next stage of pratyahara we go to mind and try to be mindful. As one comes to the mind, one may find a turmoil of thoughts, feelings and emotions waiting for him, whatever one does, there are two things one should never do. Never indulge in them and never fight them. Both of these things make them stronger, simply let them fade away by non-resistance. So, these thoughts, feelings and emotions are like waves of an ocean, however the mind is the ocean itself, so no matter how huge, powerful and scary these waves may appear they have no power over the mind in reality. There’s no possibility of them conquering the mind, no threat at all and as one realises this fact these waves naturally and effortlessly subside, that can truly be called nirodha (at least a temporary one). It is not a result of forceful oppression, it is the realisation that no force was required in the first place as the threat was a mere phantom, just a shadow void of any reality, a sterile procession of images on a canvas screen.
However, there is another method and may lead one to conscious theta eventually prajna and nirvikalpa state (spiritual wisdom gained in conscious delta and to what yogis tell beyond the confines of space and time). This method is so simple that one can practice it every night effortlessly while going to bed, as we have already discussed that theta is the bridge between the waking and the sleeping state. One can practice being aware of that bridge, each day expanding the awareness little by little and eventually one will be aware of dreaming and sleeping. So even when the body and grosser layers of mind are asleep, the deeper and subtler layers are present in the eternal now. One also goes through theta while waking up and the yogis will utilise those periods very well when they are just coming out of slumber to meditate. Traditionally the time between 4 AM to 6 AM is considered best because the environment allows one to slip into theta.
Several Aids in pratyahara:
- Sound: One can focus on the sound of breath, the outer sounds as that of a fan, air conditioner or traffic and the inner sounds of thoughts and feelings. After a time, one may experience that in the world of pure sound (without arbitrary distinctions our mind makes) there is no distinction between any of these sounds. Does it apply just to the sound?
- Touch: A string of beads can be used to guide our attention to the present moment and move each bead in conjunction with breath and mantra, As the touch is relatively less stimulated faculty than others it can be very powerful to guide the awareness.
- Breath: As one focuses on breath one realises that breath is such a mind-boggling thing as at once it is voluntary and yet at the same time it's something one does not need to control. When one experiences this, it may cause one to inquire, who or what keeps the breath flowing when I am not making it flow?
- Direct Inquiry: Who thinks through thoughts but thoughts think him not? Who sees through mind but mind sees it not? Where do my decisions originate? If the decisions originate in the mind, where does the decision to decide come from?
I think that’s a lot to digest in one article so I will leave you guys here, please don’t mistake the finger pointing towards the moon as the moon. This article on pratyahara is just a pointing finger. Thank you all for reading. May all be auspicious, may all be peaceful, may all be joyous free from diseases, wickedness and sorrow. Aum. Peace. Peace. Peace. Namaste!
Authored by: pratilomyoga.com
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February 5, 2021
by: Nancy Murdoc
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