Pratyahara, a misunderstood concept?
Pratyahara is often very misunderstood and overlooked as a vital part of the Ashtanga yoga system and deserves its place as the 5th limb of yoga.
Patanjali’s system of yoga has 8 limbs and begins with the Yamas and Niyamas, which set out codes of universal and personal conduct. An awareness and understanding of Yamas and Niyamas is vital to Pratyahara which will be explained later.
The 3rd limb is Asana, or body posture, which realigns the body making it possible to sustain the seated practices needed for meditation.
The 4th limb is Pranayama, sometimes called breath control. Taking control of the respiratory rate will lead to a calm and meditative state of mind.
The 5th limb is Pratyahara, often called sense withdrawal. This stage of Patanjali’s 8-fold is often neglected and discounted. Pratyahara is a vital step along the path towards meditation, or Dhyana, or the 7th limb of the Ashtanga yoga system. The 8th limb is Samadhi.
The stage of Pratyahara, or the 5th limb of yoga, is where the mind is purified to sustain the prolonged levels of concentration needed for meditation. The mind will subconsciously and continuously reach out to whatever the senses are perceiving. We may not be aware on a conscious level, but it is said the mind will attempt attach itself constantly. This can be a very useful tool if we need to flee danger or situations where we need to react first and think later. Though if we are trying to focus the mind in one place for long periods, it will be a hindrance.
Fortunately, there are several methods of training the mind to be more discerning so that we can distinguish between danger, and for instance, just noise.
Yoga meditation is useful here, as segregating your meditation practice into four levels will inexorably lead towards Dhyana in a progressive way.
You can begin with a breathing exercise, which can be as simple as watching the breath at the tip of the nose. Once you have established this then introduce an even counted breath, or the practice of Anuloma Viloma (alternate nostril breath) Pranayama will calm the mind easing the constant noise and chatter.
Now begin to purify the mind for Pratyahara, by acting with indifference. You become indifferent to your surroundings, and what the senses are picking up. Try focusing on each sense in turn, such as what you can hear. Be aware of the sound but treat the sound with a level of indifference. If you have trouble deciding how to be indifferent, first think of a situation from the past that contains no issues for you. You have no opinion now about the situation either way. It has no Karmic hooks that cause you to become emotionally involved with the thoughts generated by the sound.
Use this method for each of the five senses, until you become proficient in acting with indifference to what your senses perceive. This will prepare the mind for the next stage of your practice, the 6th limb of yoga, Dharana, which is the practice of holding the mind on a single point. Without first preparing the mind this stage will be impossible.