Pratyahara – Withdrawing the senses

School of Yoga explains pratyahara – Concept

Introduction: The classical definition of pratyahara (retreat in Sanskrit) is withdrawal of the senses. Since practice of prayahara results in isolation of the Self, it can be called a bridge between activity-based yoga or bahiranga (outside arm) and reflection/ meditation-based yoga or antaranga (internal arm). 

School of Yoga explains – revisiting the concept;

  • Everything we do is for our sense of identity (asmita).
  • Our sense of Identity exists because someone acknowledges our existence.
  • Hence, with these entities that acknowledge us, we build an existential bond to ensure that we get continuous confirmation of our existence (maya).
  • To sustain our sense of existence, we build multiple bonds and this framework of bonds that conditions our behaviour and ultimately define our identity. This is called dharma or conditioning.
  • Within our bonds, we either find congruence or dissonance of dharma or conditioning in the bond and this causes and movement towards or away from the other entity. This is karma or action.

School of Yoga explains more on dharma or conditioning;

Dharma or conditioning covers more than just human conditioning. It covers all existence. Dharma is the “rule of natural state” which defines the existence and role of each entity in the universe.

Let us start by looking at the dharma of a few entities.

  • A waveform – a wave is an oscillation, vibration or disturbance pattern, each wave having a different connotation. Waves can be mechanical, electromagnetic or gravitational but each is different. However, each can be shown to exhibit a unique manifestation of an identity by way of different amplitude, frequency, wavelength and speed.
  • Elements – all matter comprise of elements, each having a unique identity. For example – Hydrogen’s identity is known by its atomic number 1 and atomic weight of 1.007. It behaves in a manner particular to an element having the above atomic weight and number. Should the atomic number become 2, the element will become Helium, having completely different behaviour.
  • Combination – when elements combine, they form molecules. Water, the most abundant of resources, is a combination of two Hydrogen and one Oxygen atoms. The resulting water molecule is nothing like its constituent elements, but water has a unique identity and its behaviour is unique. This is its natural state or dharma.
  • The body – within the body, the heart is built in a particular manner and performs a function which cannot be replicated by another organ, such as the kidney, stomach or liver. The heart functions in the same manner, whether in a pig, goat, frog or shark. This tells us that the heart has a dharma, as does each organ in the body.
  • The organs of the body cannot function outside the body, the body cannot function outside the earth. Similarly, the earth cannot function outside the solar system because it is held in place by the relative position of the Sun and other planets. Each of these entities, no matter how big or small have an identity and a function which is inviolate. The lion will always be a predator, a deer always a prey. The roles can never be reversed, this conditioning of each entity is dharma. Since this concept is so universal and all-encompassing, it is called sanatana-dharma (universal natural state).

School of Yoga explains pratyahara:

Raja-yoga is a philosophical exercise in regression where we move from current state of existence to the root of our identity by slowly isolating elements that make us dependent on outside stimulus for our sense of identity. 

The classical definition of pratyahara (retreat in Sanskrit) is withdrawal of the senses.

Why is this stage important? Raja-yoga consist of 2 major stages –

  • kriya-yogawhere person lives in the material world but practices goals that slowly make him independent of outside influences. While fear of loss of relationships is managed through yama and niyama, physical, physiological and psychological fitness is managed through use of asana and pranayama. Finally, this is consolidated through pratyahara which is isolation of the senses from stimuli.
  • samyama-yogawhere a person consolidates the above found independence and focuses on complete renunciation of materiality (maya), which is samadhi.

Therefore, serious practice of pratyahara will make the practitioner withdraw from society and evolve spiritually with a deeper understanding of the self.

For normal people, pratyaahaara becomes important because it generates an internal retreat, a place where they are in full control of themselves. Also, it provides the most appropriate platform for meditation (dhyaana) because the Self gets cleansed by asana, praaNayama and pratyaahaara, therefore becomes a fitting vehicle for meditation (dhyaana).

School of Yoga explains consolidating behaviour using yama and niyama

The journey begins with kriya-yoga which has the following components;

Yama – control of one’s interaction with the environment. This increases awareness of the Self (pragnya) in various situations. As a result of this awareness, there is increased control over behaviour in all interactions. As a result of increased awareness (pragnya) and control over free-will (sankalpa), our conditioning (dharma) begins to change so that we understand our Self (asmita).

NiYama – yama results in altered awareness (pragnya) owing to discipline in response to stimuli. However, this effort to increase awareness and control over free-will brings with it experience of fear, anxiety, conflict with conformance, pain of redundancy in relationships and other emotions which will need to be managed using niYama.

One of the major outcomes of niYama is removal of baggage or residue of experience. When that happens, we are able to recalibrate ourselves (asmita) and retain equilibrium or homeostasis in any situation.

However, this is not easy, but over time the ability to conform to yama rules, yet staying in homeostasis becomes easier. Consequently, as this change occurs, niYama becomes part of our awareness (pragnya), conditioning (svadharma) and identity (asmita).

School of Yoga explains pratyahara – the role of asana and praaNayama

Asana – Behaviour without a healthy body is like a car without a good engine or a rusted body. It will fall apart when subjected to the stress of changes induced by yama and niYama. Asana aligns the various elements of the body to keep it in a condition of homeostasis. This element removes illness and makes the body fit to take on the stress of everyday living and change.

PraaNayama – Breathing is critical to regaining balance in any stimulus-response. In any stress situation, breathing is hampered. Breath control maximises oxygen absorption, ensuring tissue regeneration, healthy oxygen balance in the blood and better left-right brain activity. Hence, this is a critical aspect of one’s development.

Pratyahara practice:

In pratyahara, one tries to minimise the impact of stimulus on the Self. This is done by not reacting with duality (dvandva). (like-dislike, good-bad, right-wrong etc). This increases the buffer between the Self (asmita) and the stimulus, thereby increasing awareness (pragnya) and allowing of the person to work independently (svatantra).

So, it is obvious that pratyahara is the crossover point from material existence to spiritual consciousness. It is an exercise in the negation of existence and experience of the residue of that which remains after that negation.

The process is in 2 phases –

  • Kriya-yoga is where we neutralise the impact of external bonds and conditioning on our sense of Identity (asmita). As as result of yama and niyama we are able to negotiate the quagmire of change and increase discrimination (vivekam) and dispassion (vairagyam). Next, we cleanse the movement of praaNa within the body through asana and pranayama. Finally, isolate our sense of Identity (asmita) from external influences through pratyahara. This results in true independence (svatantra).
  • Samyama Yoga is where we try to merge our identity with the source, Brahman.

Implementing pratyahara in daily living:

  • Treat all creation equally (sama-drishti). Don’t judge!
  • Perform action (karma) as a sacrifice (yagnya). What does this mean? Remember this line “Om-tat-sat”. This means that all action emanates from nothing (Brahman), which is “tat” or “that”. Sat means “value”. So, when action is performed without attachment-to-outcome and with the intention of adding value, then that action becomes a sacrifice.
  • Avoid duality (dvandva) of like-dislike, good-bad, right-wrong etc.
  • Be a spectator, not a participant. Be engaged in everything that happens, but keep observing yourself for bias.

Throughout the process, the key experience which we will need to tackle is fear and its opposite emotion, exultation. Pratyahara is not for the faint-hearted. It’s hard and there will be pain as well as grief.

School of Yoga explains pratyahara – conclusions

Pratyaahaara is one of the least understood aspects of Raja-yoga. Most teachers simply skip this step and move on to meditation (dhyaana). But this is a critical step, because it enables the individual to isolate the fragile identity which is changing as a result of yama, niYama, asana and praaNayama from external influence and pressure. It makes the personality independent (svatantra).

Since this process is universal (sanatana), this step is also relevant for societies, countries and civilisations.

Editor at School Of Yoga
School Of Yoga is a single point resource for all aspects of Classical Yoga practise. We try to achieve this by placing Yoga's traditional methodology in front of the reader and eliciting his or her experience. We value everyone's Yoga experience and would like you to share and enrich other practitioners so that everyone benefits.
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[…] it enforces an element of discipline in the individual. Sandhyavandana includes pranayama and meditation; pranayama ensures equalisation of left-right brain thinking and control over emotions […]

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