Our journey moves from outward to inward as we dive into the topic of pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga. Often quickly glazed over or ignored completely, pratyahara is the gateway to what we are looking for. After all the attention and effort applied to the previous four limbs, limb five opens the door to where the magic resides. It is within.
In book two, verse 54, of The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali states: “Pratyahara is the restoration of the sense to the original purity of the mind.” The natural progression of the eight-limb practice that we have observed so far is an act of refinement. We need to calm the senses through pranayama before we can steady the mind. As we climb the limbs of yoga, we continually work from the tangible to the subtle.
The Outward Movement of the Senses
In deconstructing pratyahara, we see it is composed of two words: “prati” and “ahara.” To easily understand the meaning, we need to look at the second word first. Ahara means food or something that we ingest. Usually when we think of food, our minds immediately go to calories, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Let’s not forget kitchari, kale, ghee, and chocolate. Food we consume is an important part of the equation, especially when we mindfully incorporate the six tastes into our diet. However, Vedic sciences are spherical, metaphorical, and poetic, so we need to expand our vision to include all five senses.
WOW! What impact could this have if we applied this knowledge to our everyday life? In this 21st century fast paced lifestyle, our senses are overwhelmed and inundated. Non-stop streaming of visual and audible ahara from our handheld devices, televisions, and computers has us exhausted. A phone will vibrate to alarm us of more ahara we need to immediately ingest. On the road, there are now digital billboards that rotate through five or six ads each minute. It is as if we can never get enough to eat of a diet that Patanjali could never have imagined 2500 years ago. Or maybe he did see this coming and gifted us the Sutras as an alternative menu to stimulate our mental agni or digestive fire.
The question becomes, if we shift our perception of “food,” how would it change what we allow ourselves to watch on TV or what movies to see? What about the music you listen to or the books and magazines you read? What if we recognized all sensory input as food? What would our lives look like if we made conscious decisions about what we were exposed to?
Interpersonal relationships need to be considered as food as well. Hopefully we have people in our lives that “feed” and nourish us. We may also have relationships that feel toxic, codependent, and depleting. It is easy to eat organic and seasonal, but what if we applied the same discernment to our senses of taste, sight, hearing, touch, and smell? How might this impact the decisions around who to spend time with or the environment we choose to live in? Thoughtfully addressing our ahara could be the tipping point of consciousness.
The Inward Movement of the Senses
And now for the other half of the pratyahara equation. Prati means away from or against, as in moving in the opposite direction. When engaged in the practice of pratyahara, we increase our strength to not be influenced by external sensory impressions. This is accomplished from two directions. First, as discussed earlier, we make clearer decisions about what our senses ingest (ahara). Secondly, we learn how to consciously move the awareness inward (prati).
There are several ways to engage in this practice. Given the relationship of the mind, senses, and prana, having a daily pranayama practice is a good place to start. If we have strong prana, we can control the senses instead of the senses dragging us around by the hair. Once we can control the direction of prana, we can then strengthen the mind and draw the awareness inward.
A fantastic way to prepare for concentration is by using Shanmukhi mudra, which is the practice of closing the “six gates” or sense organs of the head. The gates refer to the areas where prana comes in and goes out. There are a few variations, but I was taught like this: with your open palms towards your face and elbows level with your shoulders, place the thumbs over your ears. Next, gently touch the inner and outer corners of the eyes (not the cornea) with your index and middle fingers, ring fingers connect to either side of the nostrils, and little fingers are above the lips. Allow the nostrils to slightly open for gentle inhales/exhales, closing the flow for a few seconds between breaths. While in the silence, draw the awareness inward. Listen for sounds, feelings, and visions in the body. I find this most beneficial to practice Shanmukhi mudra after asana and pranayama and as a preparation for meditation.
If we put pratyahara into an Ayurvedic framework, we know that one of the main causes of disease is the inappropriate or overuse of the sense organs. By having a regular pratyahara practice, we can strengthen and cleanse both our mind and body. We will create a strong container to hold our vital life energy.
The teacher Jnaneshvara said in a translation of verse 55 of the Sutras, “Through that turning inward of the organs of senses and action, also comes a supreme ability, controllability, or mastery over those senses inclining to go outwards towards their objects.” Translation by Lorilee: “My senses and motor organs will no longer have the ability to drag me around by my hair.”
Stay calm and pratyahara on.