Pratyahara is the 5th limb of the 8 Limbs of Yoga, as described in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It’s translation means “withdrawal of the senses”, but I prefer a more practical and modern view of it as Mastery of the Senses.
Modern yogis live embedded in the world, and very seldom live as renunciates. However, controlling our appetites, our urges, and our carnal desires is very much a part of living our hatha yoga.
Let’s take a practical look at Pratyahara, and see how we can incorporate this Limb of yoga into our practice, and into our lives.
Mastery of the Senses
Pratyahara is inseparable from discipline. Without discipline, you cannot obtain pratyahara, and the pursuit of this limb marks a turning point in a yogi’s path. Where the first 4 limbs (Yamas, Niyamas, Asana, & Pranayama) could be approached and explored nearly simultaneously, pratyahara is elusive to most yogis who do not cultivate discipline in their practice of the first 4 limbs.
Here is a brief overview of the first 4 Limbs of the Yoga Sutras:
Yamas are described as ethical observances, or rather ways in which we should behave in the world in order to maintain a clear conscience. Adherence to yamas requires a yogi to consider if their actions cause harm, their intentions or words are truthful, they are considerate of others’ time and possessions, they are overindulgent in sensual pleasures, and to be aware of not taking more from this world than what is necessary.
Niyamas are about how a yogi views the world from an internal perspective. Adherence to niyamas requires a yogi to consider if their thoughts and intentions are pure, to practice being content, to strive for self discipline, to spend time with inner study & self reflection, and to surrender that which is out of our control unto something greater than our own immediate needs – to see beyond ourselves, and to a bigger picture.
Asana is the poses or the physical practice of yoga. Asana is the first foray into yoga for most Western yogis. At first we wrongly assume that yoga is about the perfection of these poses, and we spend a great deal of time trying to become stronger, more flexible, and more open in these shapes. However, after many years of practice, we start to understand that asana is more about the discipline of returning to our mats day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. We strive to gain control of our ego, which is a double edged sword. When we struggle in our shapes, it tells us that we are not good enough, that we are less than, and inadequate; and when we excel in a posture, the ego suggests that we are special, advanced in our practice, and defined by what shapes we can attain. We have to be diligent not to fall into this trap. The key point that we can learn from asana is that we must show up on our mats and in our lives – To Simply Bring Your Best Effort to All That You Do!
Pranayama is yogic breathing practices, and more specifically, control of our life force. Through practice of pranayama, a yogi learns about subtle manipulation of energy, and begins to understand the relationship of all living things. Pranayama allows us to see that our actions and the energy that we extend from ourselves affects others, just as the actions of others affects us. This allows us to observe that what we do and how we react to what others do, matters.
When you can live with a clear conscience, and develop strong self discipline, you truly cultivate self control.
In B.K.S. Iyengar’s insightful, and masterfully translated take on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”, he asserts that “Through the practices of yama, niyama, Asana, and pranayama, the body and its energy are mastered. The next stage, pratyahara, achieves the conquest of the senses and mind.”
Patanjali goes on to describe that once you cultivate pratyahara as a result of the practice of the first 4 Limbs of Yoga, then you lay the foundation for accessing higher aspects of your consciousness. This is true sadhana – spiritual exercises aimed at the ultimate expression of life in this reality.
When the yogi understands themselves fully, they are uninfluenced by pleasure or pain, and they can allow their awareness to flow with peace and poise in a state of virtue.
With absolute synchronicity of thought and action, the yogi is freed from material limitations of time and space, and this can generate extraordinary powers.
Mystical Yoga Powers
In my 200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training, I give several lectures on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I love to talk about Pratyahara, and describe these powers that Patanjali refers to. It never fails to captivate my students’ attention.
As I describe this list of powers, one remarkable thing that will stand out is that these powers are not unique to yoga. We have all heard stories of miracles and fantastic abilities. Some people are born with them, and others are displayed by prophets, mystics, saints, and holy men. According to Patanjali, we can unlock some of these as we access higher aspects of our consciousness through adherence to the practice of yoga.
Siddhis - Mystical Abilities
These powers are certainly extraordinary, and the appearance of any one of them is an indication that a spiritual seeker is on the right path. However, one should not mistake these powers for the goal of their search.
If a yogi gets carried away by supernatural powers and uses them for fame, they will fail in their search for a higher purpose of self. By getting carried away and showing off their mystical powers, a yogi will develop a pride around these accomplishments.
Patanjali encourages the yogi to renounce these accomplishments so that instead of getting carried away by ego, they can continue their pursuit of a higher and more noble path.
Adherence to the practice of yama and niyama will ensure the yogi does not get caught up in these powers, or misuse them.
The Practical Lesson
That list of powers leaves us starry eyed and bewildered by the possible abilities that could be bestowed upon us through our yoga practice. Let’s bring all of that into something very practical that we can relate to…
It takes many years for most of us to get beyond the idea that yoga is about more than yoga poses. Many Western yoga studios do not even mention anything besides a sweaty flow and a nice groovy music playlist.
As a result, it is very common for us to get carried away with our attitudes and opinions about our yoga shapes.
Let’s use handstand as an example. I’ve come across many students who feel that they are not “good” at yoga because they cannot master this challenging pose. I’ve also met many students who spend a considerable amount of time perfecting their handstands.
Handstands are in essence amazing powers. It would surprise me if a Yogi who is fixated on handstand even practices meditation a quarter of the time that they do on handstands (ego). They may not even practice meditation at all…
The ancient yoga texts are nearly universal in their advice to meditate in order to know the true nature of yourself, and your purpose. But I get it – meditation postures aren’t going to get Instagram likes.
Pratyahara In Practice
Here are a couple of things that you can do to cultivate Pratyahara into your practice, and develop a mastery of your lower sense urges:
Develop discipline around this one thing. Your practice doesn’t always need to be a 60 or 90 minute class. It can be asana, as well as pranayama, meditation, or reading and studying yoga or spiritual texts. However, you have to make some time to do one of these things daily, regardless.
You will always have excuses not to practice: I don’t feel well, I don’t have time, my moon is in retrograde… Broaden the scope of what you think your practice is, and you will find more possibility for practice.
Consider the things that you indulge in: sweets, alcohol, cell phone usage, and consciously work to limit their control of your choices and decisions.
In my yoga classes, I’ll often provide a moment for my students to sit quietly and focus their minds. What I will see instead is that they take these moments to drink water, to straighten out their clothing, and to look around the room. They will do anything in order to avoid being in their own stillness. Recognize any habits that you may have developed that help you to avoid your stillness. You will not die if you do not have your water bottle for 90 minutes.
It is these very things that make meditation so hard: You have to drink, you have to scratch an itch, you have to shift in your seat, you have to look and see what made that noise… Practice resisting these things, and they will become easier with practice. Master your senses.
One of the wonderful things about this practice, about yoga, is that there are many facets and layers to be explored and discovered. There are over 5,000 years of exploration and of insight into the human condition, into our potential and our purpose. Any effort towards this is worthwhile. Make time for your practice! Namaste