Pratyahara: The Fifth Limb of Yoga (Part 1)

Patanjali’s Fifth Limb of Yoga, Pratyahara, is often described as the practice of withdrawal. While this is an accurate translation, it is a somewhat shallow way of describing the intention of Pratyahara. After all, Pratyahara is an equally important a piece in the 8 Limbs of Yoga as Asana and Yama, it's not to be underestimated.

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In the translation from Sanskrit to English, Pratya means to 'withdraw' or 'draw in', while the second part Ahara refers to anything we as individuals take in, particularly through our senses. To make it easy, think of Ahara as "food". Often we hear people describing Pratyahara as 'switching our senses off', but this is a misleading guide to the practice.

Instead, consider the practice of Pratyahara as 'drawing our focus inward’. Rather than rendering our senses unfunctional. It's a bit like a diet if we think of influencing our bodies with the food we eat it is unrealistic for us to not eat anything at all. Instead, we learn to become selective in what we put into our bodies. The more we do it, the easier it gets, and the healthier we get. Pratyahara is kind of like a yogic diet, only it covers everything from our physical selves to our non-physical selves. 

Balancing internal & external influence 

You may have started to notice the 8 Limbs of Yoga are kind of divided into our internal and external selves, environments, and influences. For example; Yama & Niyama are followed with the intention to cultivate a positive mental outlook, by addressing our ethics, morals and beliefs, as well as practising physical attributes such as cleanliness. Meanwhile, Asana and Pranayama are physical incarnations which work internally in the pursuit of health, happiness and fulfilment.

What is Pratyahara?

As the fifth element, Pratyahara slides in between the borders of the obviously internal and external, physical and non-physical yogic limbs. The ultimate purpose of practicing Pratyahara is to develop a strong connection with our mind, through nourishment.  

As we begin to cultivate the internal and external, physical and non-physical influencers on our mind, we can begin to change our state of mind, our way of thinking, of feeling, from within. Learning to draw our attention in towards what we want to focus on, and not on outside distractions. A developed Pratyahara practice allows us to control our sensory intake and draw in our focus in a myriad of environments. The result, enhanced concentration, self-awareness, mental cognition and positive mental health. 

Withdraw from what exactly?

If we think of the act of Pratyahara like a turtle pulling its head into its shell, we remember that to practice Pratyahara, we don’t have to go blind, we just need to be able to close our eyes sometimes. 

In yogic lifestyle principles, ahara - aka food - is considered to be drawn from three channels. All of which, are responsible for providing us the necessary elements needed to nourish our body, mind and soul. The elements are; earth, ether, air, fire & water. The first source is physical food, which provides nourishment for our physical body. The second is impression or sensations, this channel nourishes our mind, and is fed by our senses; touch (air), sound (ether), sight (fire), taste (water), and smell (earth). 

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The final channel of ahara is our associations, the company we keep, the people we love, the people we don’t always see eye-to-eye with, and everyone in-between. This final channel feds our soul, in Ayurvedic practices, the people in our lives affect the prime qualities of gunas of sativa, rajas, and tamas (harmony, distraction and inertia).

Pratyahara’s four forms

The cultivation of Pratyahara practice and the nourishment of our mind, body and soul through conscious consumption and withdraw can typically be broken into four popular forms.  Indriya-Pratyahara - control of the senses; Karma-Pratyahara - control of action; Prana-Pratyahara - control of Prana; and Mano-Pratyahara - withdrawal of our mind from the senses.

As you can probably tell, the pursuit of Pratyahara practice envelopes a number of the other 8 Limbs of Yoga, from Pranayama to the Yama and Niyama. It is a complex and intricate Limb, so, to do justice by the practice we’re breaking it down into two parts. Stay tuned for Part 2, where we dive deeper into Pratyahara, explore it’s four forms and give you practice tips.