Pratyahara: Withdrawing the Senses
Pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses is the fifth limb of Patanjali's Raja Yoga and the stage which precedes Concentration and Meditation.
Yoga is defined as the ultimate union of the soul with the divine. Sage Patanjali described the eight limbs of Raja yoga as: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi.
The first four limbs - Yama, Niyama, Asana and Pranayama are aimed to provide sequential improvements in the social, physical and psychological life of a person. Pratyahara is the stepping stone for subtler mind based processes like Dharana or Dhyana.
Pratyahara : Refined Consciousness
Pratyahara is derived from the union of two words – “Prati” and “Ahar” which means controlled consumption. Our five senses (smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing) serve as gateways for five types of external stimuli; the sixth sense, receptor and controller of all the senses is the mind.
To stay healthy, it is advisable to control the type of food that enters the body. Similarly, for a healthy and well-controlled mind, one should control the type of thoughts and emotions entertained. Just as ingesting foods that are inadequate for our constitution make us fall sick, in the same way, brooding over inadequate thoughts or emotions make us mentally sick.
Pratyahara is described as moderation of mind and senses. By learning how to become immune to external stimuli we become positively responsive rather than being reactive. For example, someone who feels humiliated can have multiple reactions according to his or her spiritual level. Rage and feelings of revenge may overtake the mind, the mind may get confused and become unresponsive for some time, or one can pay no heed and carry on with life like a child or a yogi would do. A yogi remains in the world interacting with it fully, yet remains calm through the commotions of day to day life.
Pratyahara is a state of refined consciousness. A state in which one’s mind is not affected by praise and insult, comfort and discomfort, pleasure and pain or profit and loss.
The way to Pratyahara
How do we learn to remain in the state of refined consciousness? By observing our thoughts. It is not about suppressing thoughts or emotions. Instead, we simply become aware of their existence and uselessness. By remaining constantly aware of our thought patterns, we will soon realize that thoughts are born inside us and we have complete control over them.
When this is achieved the need for external stimuli ceases and the mind and senses are absorbed into divine consciousness.