Adventures in Pratyahara 

Last week I mentioned I wanted to look at Pratyahara more closely for the year ahead. I decided that there is no time like the present and began to do some research, and theme my classes this week as such.

Pratyahara is the fifth limb of the eight limbs of yoga, the framework for yoga practice as outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras – Yamas, Niyamas, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhiyana, and eventual Samhadhi. As we practice yoga we incorporate the different elements of the limbs moving from physical “doing”, to more subtle inner actions as we move towards Samhadhi (enlightenment). Pratyahara is considered by some to act as a bridge between the more physical actions and the more subtle internal actions of meditation.

Translated from Sanskrit, Pratyahara is understood as sensory withdrawal. However, rather than a stark abstinence from the senses, pratyahara can be considered to be a “drawing in” of the senses, shifting the focus away from external sources to more subtle internal sources. Take for example right now – as you sit here reading these words, how many of you are aware of the taste in your mouth? The smell on the air? The sounds around you? The points where your bodies are in contact with clothing, or are being supported by furniture? My point is, whilst all our senses are constantly working, we at some point disengage from listening to every single signal our sensory organs are sending our brains. This is of course is not an illustration of Pratyahara, but an example to show that it is of course a very possible goal to achieve. When we begin to gain control over the senses and purposefully withdraw from them, that is when the practice of Pratyahara begins.

Of course, it is extremely difficult to achieve because when our senses are active, it is usually for one of two reasons – namely “like” or “dislike”. Imagine laying down for a good nights rest after a long busy day when your neighbour has decided to throw a party in the flat above you. Auditory senses flood your body – thumping beats, stomping of feet and loud chat. You have an internal judgement – namely dislike as this noise is an unwanted intrusion in your desire for rest. It makes you angry! Conversely, imagine yourself walking down the road and seeing your absolute favourite confection in the window of a shop. Drool. And it’s bought before you’re even aware of what you are doing, the anticipation of taste over-riding the mind. Both of these are examples of the senses running rampant and dragging the mind, body and self along with them. The Upanishads use the following analogy

” Know the self as a rider in a chariot,

and the body, as simply the chariot.

Know the intellect as the charioteer,

and the mind simply as reins.

The senses, they say, are the horses,

and sense objects are the paths around them….

When a man lacks understanding,

and his mind is never controlled;

His senses do not obey him, 

as bad horses, a charioteer.” *

So whilst we should ultimately have governance over our mind and where the senses take us, often we find in today’s sensory driven world our horses have gone wild, dragging us here there and everywhere due to our likes and dislikes. And then of course there is the addictive qualities of pleasurable stimuli.

I can’t not imagine what Patanjali would make of the sensory world we live in today, where gratification lies but a click away. Social media is a prime example of total sensory overload, and in it’s current state sensory addiction gone bad. The irony that I am posting on social media this is not lost on me. Take for example Facebook and it’s addictive qualities. What started off as a simple platform to engage with friends, where each comment initially gave gratification, introducing likes, all of which triggering a pleasurable response – who doesn’t like to be liked!? But over it’s evolution the platform became more of a place where groups of like minded people bandy together to shove their opinions down the throats of those who oppose their views in a pissing contest of who’s moral compass is more right. (Side note, I truly believe that you should stand up for the views you believe in if they are being infringed upon or oppressed, but maybe their are more constructive ways of doing this than leaving a ratty comment on some eejit’s social media post). The result is a hostile environment that is quite frankly depressing – and yet our compulsion lead by earlier conditioning to expect a pleasurable experience online leads us to log in again and again. Much the same could be said for alcohol, cigarettes and drugs addictions – most of us have at least woken up to a banging hangover and literally cried through sweat and sickness “Never again!” only to repeat the following weekend.

But imagine now that through the practice of yoga, you have developed the skills required for success in Pratyahara and have regained control over the mind and the senses, to not react to these external stimuli. Imagine having the presence of mind to not feed the internal trolls. Who cares what’s happening on Facebook? Who needs a delicious but nutritiously void cake? Who cares about the noise pouring through the ceiling, when you can withdraw from the senses and explore internally and find whatever wonders may await therein? Sounds good right?

Pratyahara in a yoga class

I wanted to introduce my students to Pratyahara, which is a difficult and broad topic to grasp. I wasn’t sure where to start and despite having done some research, I was low on information with which to create an asana practice. Over the days I had a few brainwaves and created a class which could be adapted to suit a flow class, a slow flow class and a yin class.

The classes began with a brief explanation of Pratyahara, and asking that students attempt to keep their focus internal throughout each asana, closing the eyes where possible and letting unnecessary sounds wash over them without judgement. We then drew attention to a sensorial “crutch” we each had, focusing on it with intent before telling it firmly that now is the time for yoga, and that we did not want to think about it again for the remains of the day.

Asana practice

When practicing we usually move through pose to counter pose. As the focus of the class was to draw the focus inwards, and the counter to that would be externalising, the classes became very open-and-close in their nature. For example moving from Garudasana to a warrior three variation to an open Ardha Chandrasana, or moving from an energetic low lunge, to drawing the energy back and focus within for half Hamunasana. Below I have listed some of the key asanas that I feel promote an internalisation:

Garudasana, Ardha Padanghustasana, Lizard, Half Hamunasana, Wide legged forward folds, parsvotanasana, vrikshasana, extended puppy, pigeon, fire log, Baddha Konasana, Kurmasana, Balasana, seated forward folds, Halasana and Karnipidasana.

The classes then finished with three Oms whilst using the Yoni Mudra – a little less intimidating for anyone beginning yoga than a full session of hummingbird I hope!

I hope that anyone interested in exploring Pratyahara finds this useful – and if anyone has any creative ideas on Pratyahara in classes I would love to hear from you! Namaste x

*Upanisads, trans. Patrick Olivelle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 238-239. [From the Katha Upanishad.]

Further reading, for those with insatiable curiosity:

https://yogainternational.com/article/view/pratyahara-yogas-forgotten-limb

http://www.yogajournal.com/article/yoga-101/return-stillness/

http://www.claudiayoga.com/2011/03/10-things-to-know-about-pratyahara-the-pivotal-moment-in-yogas-path/

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