Pratyahara (Samskrit: प्रत्याहारः) is the most important limb in Yoga Sadhana and refers to the 5th stage in the path of Ashtanga Yoga propounded by Maharshi Patanjali. It is preceeded by Yamas, Niyamas, Asanas and Pranayama and is followed by Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. The article provides an introduction to the concept and practice of Pratyahara and its benefits.
परिचयः ॥ Introduction
Yoga is a discipline to improve or develop one's inherent power in a balanced manner. It guides and offers the means to attain complete self-realization. The literal meaning of the Samskrit word Yoga is 'to enjoin'. Yoga can therefore, be defined as a means of uniting the individual atman with the universal brahman. Maharshi Patnajali through his Yoga Sutras establishes an eightfold path towards this goal that is termed as Samadhi. And Pratyahara is the 5th step in this path known as Ashtanga Yoga.
प्रत्याहारः ॥ Pratyahara
The term Pratyahara is derived from the Samskrit words 'Prati' meaning ‘away’ or ‘against’ and 'ahara' meaning ‘nourishment’ or ‘food’ or 'anything we take into ourselves from the outside'. Therefore, the word literally denotes 'a withdrawal from what nourishes the senses' or 'gaining mastery over external influences'. In other words, Pratyahara means ‘withdrawal of the senses’. The Yoga Sutras describe Pratyahara as,
स्वरूपानुकार इवेन्द्रियाणां प्रत्याहारः ॥५४॥ svarūpānukāra ivendriyāṇāṁ pratyāhāraḥ ॥54॥
Meaning: When the senses cease conjunction with the objects in their realm, they thereby become, as it were, assimilated with chitta's nature. And that is called Pratyahara.
Explaining this further, when the senses are in the state of non-contact with their objects, they simply remain themselves in their own form and nature (ie. svarupa). And because the senses have broken contact with their objects, the chitta too can no longer contact the sense-objects. It now dwells as itself, in its own form and nature (svarupa). The senses then in non-contact with their objects turn towards such a stilled chitta and thereby somewhat resemble the state (svarupa) of the chitta. Such a control of senses together with that of the chitta is Pratyahara.
This is referred to by Shri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita while describing a Sthitaprajna when he states,
यदा संहरते चायं कूर्मोऽङ्गानीव सर्वशः । इन्द्रियाणीन्द्रियार्थेभ्यस्तस्य प्रज्ञा प्रतिष्ठिता ॥२.५८॥ yadā saṁharate cāyaṁ kūrmo'ṅgānīva sarvaśaḥ । indriyāṇīndriyārthebhyastasya prajñā pratiṣṭhitā ॥2.58॥
Meaning: When, like the tortoise which withdraws its limbs from all sides, one withdraws the senses from the sense-objects then one's wisdom becomes steady.
The word Pratyahara is also widely used in Yoga and Tantra literature to describe a special system of using the breath for withdrawal of the senses. These breathing practices do not come under Pranayama. The breath is used only as a pretext for connecting with the Vayu (the flow principle) in the Pranamaya Kosha. When the flow principle is channelised then it begins to touch the Manomaya Kosha and all the sensations and experiences of the senses, that were being carried along with the flow principle are merged into the becalmed mind.
योगोपनिषत्सु प्रत्याहारः ॥ Pratyahara in Yogopanishads
A group of 20 Upanishads amongst the 108 Upanishads enlisted in the Muktikopnishad are designated as Yogopanishads as they delineate Yoga darshana as part of their subject-matter. Consequently, expositions on Pratyahara, a vital limb of the Ashtanga Yoga Darshana, feature in these Upanishads. Some such explanations of the term Pratyahara from select Yogopanishads are enlisted below.
The Trishikhi Brahmana Upanishad describes Pratyahara as an inward-tuned state of mind.
चित्तस्यान्तर्मुखीभावः प्रत्याहारस्तु सत्तम ॥ २.३०॥ cittasyāntarmukhībhāvaḥ pratyāhārastu sattama ॥ 2.30॥
Mandala Brahmana Upanishad and Yoga Chudamani Upanishad describe Pratyahara as detachment of senses from their respective sense-objects.
विषयेभ्य इन्द्रियार्थेभ्यो मनोनिरोधनं प्रत्याहारः ॥१.७॥ viṣayebhya indriyārthebhyo manonirodhanaṁ pratyāhāraḥ ॥1.7॥
चरतां चक्षुरादीनां विषयेषु यथाक्रमम् । यत्प्रत्याहरणं तेषां प्रत्याहरः स उच्यते ॥ १२०॥
caratāṁ cakṣurādīnāṁ viṣayeṣu yathākramam । yatpratyāharaṇaṁ teṣāṁ pratyāharaḥ sa ucyate ॥ 120॥
The Tejo Bindu Upanishad describes Pratyahara as that pleasant state of the mind that is achieved when one observes the atman in the sense-objects and states that it should be practised repeatedly.
विषयेष्वात्मतां दृष्ट्वा मनसश्चित्तरञ्जकम् । प्रत्याहारः स विज्ञेयोऽभ्यसनीयो मुहुर्मुहुः ॥ ३४ ॥ viṣayeṣvātmatāṁ dr̥ṣṭvā manasaścittarañjakam । pratyāhāraḥ sa vijñeyo'bhyasanīyo muhurmuhuḥ ॥ 34 ॥
The Shandilya Upanishad describes Pratyahara in a fivefold manner as follows:
- Forcible withdrawal of the sense organs from the objects of sensual pleasures with which they interact.
- Looking upon everything one sees as atman, the true self.
- Giving up the desires to attain the fruits of one’s actions.
- Turning one’s attentions away from all material things and thoughts.
- Projection of Pranic (vital) energy and mind on the 18 vital regions of one’s body (marmasthanas) by shifting attention from one point to another.
... विषयेषु विचरतामिन्द्रियाणां बलादाहरणं प्रत्याहरः । यद्यत्पश्यति तत्सर्वमामेति प्रत्याहारः । नित्यविहितकर्मफलत्यागः प्रत्याहारः । सर्वविषयपराङ्मुखत्वं प्रत्याहारः । अष्टादशसु मर्मस्थानेषु क्रमाद्धारणं प्रत्याहारः ... ॥ १.८॥ ... viṣayeṣu vicaratāmindriyāṇāṁ balādāharaṇaṁ pratyāharaḥ । yadyatpaśyati tatsarvamāmeti pratyāhāraḥ । nityavihitakarmaphalatyāgaḥ pratyāhāraḥ । sarvaviṣayaparāṅmukhatvaṁ pratyāhāraḥ । aṣṭādaśasu marmasthāneṣu kramāddhāraṇaṁ pratyāhāraḥ ... ॥ 1.8॥
प्रत्याहारस्य महत्त्वम् ॥ Importance of Pratyahara
Pratyahara is primarily a condition of the senses (Indriya dharma). In Asana and Pranayama, the exterior layers of the mind-body relationship are brought under control. In Pratyahara, the senses are mastered.
It is a powerful way to master the mind, cultivate inner peace and boost one's focus and concentration. However, before learning to control one's senses, it is important to understand why it is required to do. Pratyahara is considered important in Yoga as it helps the practitioner progress to Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and eventually, to the goal of Samadhi (union with the Divine). Because, by withdrawing the focus from the senses and the external environment, the mind can turn inward, deepening Yogic practice. So, the main objective of Pratyahara is about training the mind to withdraw from the senses. Therefore, the prime benefits of Pratyahara include
- Allowing the mind to be peaceful so that good concentration can be developed.
- Helping to stay away from distraction or disturbance
Furthermore, whatever the chitta mentates on internally, whether a form, sound, touch, etc. the senses become endowed with that very experience of sight, sound and so forth. Whereas formerly the senses conveyed the experience to the mind, now the mentation determines or induces their experiences. This is one of the results of perfecting the practice of Pratyahara.
Describing the effect of Pratyahara, the Yoga Sutra says,
ततः परमा वश्यतेन्द्रियाणाम् ॥५५॥ tataḥ paramā vaśyatendriyāṇām ॥55॥
Meaning: Through Pratyahara the ultimate controllability of the senses is achieved.
So, when Pratyahara is practised the senses come under control and they no longer produce Vrttis of their respective realm. Even if they are pulled outwards by the force of forms and so forth, they no longer proceed in that direction. And the controllability here means untremulousness (nishchalata), total and final withdrawal from extending oneself into the sense-realms. Because only such a control serves as the means of realizing the direct validation of reality.
प्रत्याहारस्य भेदाः ॥ Forms of Pratyahara
There are four main forms of Pratyahara.
- इन्द्रियप्रत्याहारः ॥ Indriya Pratyahara ie. control of the senses
- प्राणप्रत्याहारः ॥ Prana Pratyahara ie. control of prana
- कर्मप्रत्याहारः ॥ Karma Pratyahara ie. control of action
- मनोप्रत्याहारः ॥ Mano Pratyahara ie. withdrawal of mind from the senses.
इन्द्रियप्रत्याहारः ॥ Control of the Senses
As a result of constant bombardment from television, radio, computers, newspapers, magazines, books, etc. there is sensory overload. And the problem is, the senses have their own, largely instinctual, Will and they dictate the mind. Thus, people run after what is appealing to the senses and forget the higher goals of life. Therefore, Indriya-pratyahara, or control of the senses, is the most important form of pratyahara. It provides the tools to strengthen the spirit and reduce its dependency on the body. However, such control is not suppression that causes eventual revolt. It is rather proper coordination and motivation.
According to Ayurveda, sensory impressions are the main food for the mind. They bring in the subtle substances necessary to nourish the mind like the sensations of sound, touch, sight, taste and smell. They also build up the subconscious and strengthen the tendencies latent within it making people who they are. Therefore, trying to meditate without controlling the impressions prevents the development of inner peace and clarity. And control of sensory impressions frees the mind to move within.
Sensory Withdrawal techniques:
Pratyahara provides many tools for managing sensory impressions. The simplest being spending time away from all sensory inputs by sitting to meditate with eyes closed, taking a retreat away from sensory bombardments, observing a "media-fast". Just as the body benefits by fasting from food, so the mind benefits by fasting from impressions.
Yoni mudra is one of the most important pratyahara techniques for closing the senses. It involves using the fingers to block the sensory openings in the head the eyes, ears, nostrils, and mouth and allowing the attention and energy to move within. It is done for short periods of time when the prana is energized, such as immediately after practicing pranayama.
Another method of sense withdrawal is to keep the sense organs open but withdraw the attention from them. The most common method, shambhavi mudra, consists of sitting with the eyes open while directing the attention within. This redirection of the senses inward can be done with the other senses as well, particularly with the sense of hearing. It helps control the mind even when the senses are functioning.
Another way to cleanse the mind and control the senses is to put the attention on a source of uniform impressions, such as gazing at the ocean or the blue sky. This technique is often helpful after a period of fasting from impressions.
Another means of controlling the senses is to create positive, natural impressions by meditating upon aspects of nature such as trees, flowers, rocks, etc. or visiting temples or other places of pilgrimage which are repositories of positive impressions and thoughts. Positive impressions can also be created by using incense, flowers, ghee lamps, altars, statues, and other artifacts of devotional worship.
Another sensory withdrawal technique is to focus the mind on inner impressions that can be created through imagination thus removing attention from external impressions. Visualization is the simplest means of creating inner impressions. In fact, most yogic meditation practices begin with some type of visualization, such as "seeing" a deity, a guru, or a beautiful setting in nature. While more elaborate visualizations involve imagining deities and their worlds, or mentally performing rituals, such as offering imaginary flowers or gems to imagined deities. They clear the mental field off external impressions and create a positive inner impression to serve as the foundation of meditation.
Laya Yoga is the yoga of the inner sound and light current, in which the focus is on subtle senses inorder to withdraw from the gross senses. This withdrawal into inner sound and light is a means of transforming the mind and is another form of indriyapratyahara.
प्राणप्रत्याहारः ॥ Control of Prana
Control of the senses requires the development and control of prana because the senses follow prana or the vital energy. If the prana is scattered or disturbed, the senses will also be scattered and disturbed. Prana is gathered in pranayama and withdrawn in pratyahara. Yogic texts describe methods of withdrawing prana from different parts of the body.
Perhaps the best method of prana-pratyahara is to visualize the death process, in which the prana, or the life-force, withdraws from the body, shutting off all the senses from the feet to the head. Ramana Maharshi achieved Self-realization by doing this when he was a mere boy of seventeen. Before inquiring into the Self, he visualized his body as dead, withdrawing his prana into the mind and the mind into the heart. This complete and intense pratyahara, is the reason for the success of his meditative process.
कर्मप्रत्याहारः ॥ Control of Action
The impulses coming in through the senses get expressed through the motor organs and this drives further sensory involvement. Thus, the sense organs cannot be controlled without controlling the motor organs. And it is right work and right action that gives control of the motor organs. This involves karma yoga ie. performing selfless service and making life a sacred ritual.
Karma pratyahara can be performed by surrendering any thought of personal rewards for what the actions performed, doing everything as service to the Supreme Being or to humanity. The Bhagavad Gita says,
कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन ।
It essentially refers to one's duty to act without seeking a reward for the actions. This is one kind of pratyahara. It also includes the practice of austerities that lead to control of the motor organs. For example, asana can be used to control the hands and feet that is needed while required to sit quietly for extended periods of time.
मनोप्रत्याहारः ॥ Withdrawal of the Mind
Mind is responsible for coordinating all the other sense organs. The sensory impressions are taken in only from where the mind's attention is placed. And the mind's attention is limited. So, attention is placed on one sensory impression by withdrawing the mind from other impressions. In that sense, one is always practicing Pratyahara.
The senses are controlled by withdrawing the mind's attention from them. According to the Yoga Sutras,
स्वविषयासंप्रयोगे चित्तस्य स्वरूपानुकार इवेन्द्रियाणांप्रत्याहारः ।। २.५४ ।।
Meaning: When the senses do not conform with their own objects but imitate the nature of the mind, that is Pratyahara. More specifically, it is Mano Pratyahara ie. withdrawing the senses from their objects and directing them inward to the nature of the mind, which is formless. Vyasa's commentary on the Yoga Sutra notes that the mind is like the queen bee and the senses are the worker bees. Wherever the queen bee goes, all the other bees must follow. Thus mano pratyahara is less about controlling the senses than about controlling the mind, for when the mind is controlled, the senses are automatically controlled.
Mano Pratyahara can be practised by consciously withdrawing attention from unwholesome impressions whenever they arise. This is the highest and the most difficult form of pratyahara. Without gaining proficiency in controlling the senses, motor organs, and pranas, it is unlikely to work. Bacause prana and the senses can easily overcome a weak mind. Therefore, it is preferred to begin the journey of Pratyahara with more practical methods.
अभ्यासः ॥ The Practice
The prerequisite for the practice of Pratyahara is refinement of the chitta with Yamas, Niyamas, Asanas and Pranayama. Only when the chitti reaches the stage of being conquered and brought under control through Pranayama does the practice of Pratyahara begin. Because, that facilitates the practice of intentness and absorption (Samyama).
The basic Practice of Pratyahara involves
- Reducing the physical stimuli as much as possible. This is crucial, especially at the beginning.
- Sitting comfortably on a chair, on the floor, or in any other comfortable position of one's choice except lying down as the posture may induce sleep. Because, Pratyahara is not relaxation, it is an exercise of awareness. And the idea is to remain conscious and not sleep.
- Closing the eyes and not moving the body or moving as little as possible for about 10 minutes.
प्रत्याहारः स्वास्थ्यं च ॥ Pratyahara and Health
All mental illnesses are connected with the intake of unwholesome impressions. Pratyahara therefore, is an important first step in treating all mental disorders. Similarly, it is very helpful in treating nervous system disorders, particularly those that arise through hyperactivity.
Over expression of emotions leads to tremendous loss of energy. Pratyahara trains one to hold the energy within and avoid dispersing it unnecessarily. This conserved energy can then be drawn upon for creative, spiritual or healing purposes as needed and can provide the extra power to do the things that are important.
As for physical disease that mainly arise from taking in unwholesome food, Pratyahara lends control of the senses that curbs the craving for wrong food. Thus, when the senses are controlled, everything is controlled.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 David Frawley (1999), Yoga & Ayurveda, Wisconsin: Lotus Press.
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Yoga - Level B (Chapter 4), Open Basic Education Programme (Bharatiya Jnana Parampara), Noida: National Institute of Open Schooling.
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 3.2 Patanjala Yoga Darshana, Pada 2 (Sadhana Pada)
- ↑ 4.0 4.1 Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2 (Sankhya Yoga)
- ↑ The Bhagavad Gita, Gorakhpur: Gita Press.
- ↑ 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Swami Veda Bharati (2001), Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Volume II Sadhana Pada), Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.
- ↑ 7.0 7.1 T. R. Srinivasa Ayyangar (1938), The Yoga Upanishads, Madras: The Adyar Library.
- ↑ 8.0 8.1 8.2 Ashish Pandey (2022), Lecture Presentation on Yoga and Positive Psychology for Managing Career and Life (Session 18 - Pratyahar as the Intervention for Managing Self and Career).
- ↑ Trishikhi Brahmanopanishad
- ↑ Mandala Brahmanopanishad
- ↑ Yoga Chudamanyupanishad
- ↑ Tejo Bindupanishad, Adhyaya 1
- ↑ Shandilyopanishad