Pratyahara — withdrawal of the senses — is the fifth limb of yoga. It is a practice that helps us begin to go within. Pratyahara prepares the yogi for meditation. But why is it important to disconnect from sensory experience? And how can we do it most effectively?
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines pratyahara in sutra 2.54.
When the mind maintains awareness, yet does not mingle with the senses, nor the senses with sense impressions, then self-awareness blossoms.
So, the goal of pratyahara—the reason it’s important to go within—is for self-awareness to blossom. We’ve already learned that our true nature is peace, but we don’t always live peacefully. Pratyhara can help cultivate inner peace.
Practicing Prayahara in the Modern World
When’s the last time you were distracted? Maybe it was just a few sentences ago! There is so much noise in the modern world that it’s not hard to see why practicing pratyahara is both a challenge and a necessity for yogis. Our goal—union (yoga means union)—takes focus, and we can easily become disconnected.
Reverend Jaganath Carrera, who has shared the wisdom of the Yoga Sutras with students for decades, tells us, “Pratyahara neutralizes the mind’s predominant occupation with sensory input.” We’re left with impressions known as samskaras, which are thoughts or memories that don’t depend on input from the world around us.
How, then, can we withdraw the senses? Our minds tend to lean on input from them, so when we practice pratyahara, we practice placing our attention elsewhere. One tool yogis often use is one-pointed meditation in which we focus on an object, such as a candle flame. The eventual goal is to focus on the divine via deep meditation.
When we practice pratyahara, we don’t try to ignore distractions. Rather we intentionally focus on the object of our desire—the truth within us.
Mastering the Senses
The last verse in the second section of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (sutra 2.55) reads:
In this way comes mastery over the senses.
Transcending the sensory world is a big step on the path to enlightenment. Without distractions—what a friend of mine likes to call the “nonsense” of the world—we are free to focus on the inner light that reveals truth.
Another way to say this is we can be still and know. (For those who practice Western religions, the verse “Be still and know that I am God” may come to mind.)
Practicing the yogic disciplines—the yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, and pratyahara—prepares us for the stillness we need for meditation and the quiet we need to hear what is true. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course.
The Four Padas of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
As we’ve seen, the first two sections, or padas, of the Yoga Sutras explain the causes of ignorance and give us spiritual tools—the tools of yoga—for getting past the obstacles to enlightenment. In the next two sections, Patanjali describes the powers of yoga and how yogis can use these powers to achieve enlightenment.
Once we’ve learned to master the senses through right living, exercise, proper breathing, and turning our attention away from sensory distractions, we’re ready for a deeper state of meditation that will lead us further within and closer to enlightenment.