Pratyahara


Photo Credit: Atmanism

Photo Credit: Atmanism

YS II.54 svavisaya asamprayoge chittasya svarupa-anukara iva indriyanam pratyaharah

“When the senses withdraw themselves from the objects and imitate, as it were, the nature of the mind-stuff, this is pratyahara.”

—Swami Satchidananda

The last two verses in the chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that describe spiritual practice address Pratyahara, the fifth of his eight-limbed system. This placement is significant because it signals the end of what are known as the external practices and serves as the gateway to the inner practices, which are ever-deepening states of meditation. Through the previous limbs, we moved from the gross, physical body, to the subtler, energic body, and now we’re getting ready to redirect our awareness from the outside world to the inside world.

We begin with the senses, which operate in both worlds. The five senses, which are subtle, are connected to five sensory organs, which are physical: sight/eyes, hearing/ears, smell/nose, taste/tongue, touch/skin. These all play a key role in our survival on this planet. Through the sensory organs, the senses are constantly gathering information from all around us and feeding it to the brain, which then analyzes the data and tells us how to react. This is a primal mechanism designed to warn us of danger and ensure our survival. For example, if we see or smell a saber-toothed tiger, we know we should run. In our contemporary world, this mechanism tells us when it’s safe to cross the road, not to touch a hot stove, to find shelter in a storm, etc.

When we come to our yoga mat or meditation cushion, we create a safe space to practice and the opportunity for not just the body but also the senses to take a rest. Additionally, this provides us with an environment in which we can use the senses in a different way. Instead of the senses being directed outward as usual, we consciously direct them inward and begin the internal journey toward who we really are—far beyond the body and mind—and, ultimately, back to our source.

We start by closing off the sensory organs. We close the eyes and direct our inner gaze (drishti) to a specific point in order to focus, such as the space between the eyebrows or the heart center. We tune the ears to the sound of the breath or heartbeat, and with time and practice, we may hear celestial music (Om), the sound of the universe that dwells within. We touch the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth so we my drink the nectar of our immortality (amrita). When we come to know the teacher within, the air becomes fragrant (sugandhim).

We are so outwardly focused almost all the time that it can be difficult to even imagine any of this. It may sound like a fairy tale or a metaphor. But how often do we actually sit down, alone, and become still and quiet? We are so busy running around all the time, so occupied with our earthly lives, that we are completely out of touch with the lives that flourish within us. French Jesuit priest and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is attributed with the famous quote, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

Many masters over the course of thousands of years have taken this journey deep inside themselves and come back to tell us about it and to invite us to join them. Ancient texts such as the Yoga Sutras and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika are detailed guidebooks on how to get there. They are maps to a buried treasure, to the secrets of the Self and of the universe. You don’t even need to have faith in what they say. All you have to do is try it for yourself.

by Laura Golden