Pratyahara: A matter of sense (the 5th limb)

sva-viṣayāsamprayoge ćittasya sva-rūpānukāra ivendriyāṇāṁ pratyāhāraḥ

When consciousness interiorizes by uncoupling from external objects, the senses do likewise; this is called withdrawal of the senses. PYS II.54

Tatah parama vasyata indriyanam 

Then comes the spontaneous, complete and natural mastery over all the senses, that is to say, the natural self-discipline to hold on to I-AM. PYS II.55

turtle in shellWithdrawal of the senses is the traditional translation of pratyahara. Often described as a turtle withdrawing its limbs into its shell, pratyahara can seem a bit esoteric and unattainable outside of a sensory deprivation tank or sleep.

Added to that is science’s ever growing understanding that 1) Our senses are limited in perceiving the true nature of reality (think quantum mechanics and how the computer you’re reading this on is more space than solid) 2) Our senses are intrinsic and vital to our evolution and survival as humans – and therefore are automatic and embedded in the brain:

“The goal of every living brain, no matter what its level of neurological sophistication, from the tiny knots of nerve cells that govern insect behavior on up to the intricate complexity of the human neocortex, has been to enhance the organism’s chances of survival by reacting to raw sensory date and translating it into a negotiable rendition of a world…brain

None of [our] quintessentially human accomplishments would have been possible without the brain’s ability to generate rich, effective, and meaningful perceptions of the world.”
– Andrew Newberg, M.D. (Why God Won’t Go Away)

Yet yoga philosophy insists that pratyahara is not only attainable, but vastly possible.  Science philosophy suggests doing so might allow us to peer closer into the nature of reality. The good news is that both asana and meditation offer concrete ways to encourage* pratyahara.

1) Dristhi – Every yoga pose and transition has a corresponding gaze point (dristhi).  When the breath, dristhi, and intention are connected pratyahara arises.  The tendency and desire of the various senses to search off your yoga mat fade. You become located right in the center of your breath – as if you were looking out with breath, instead of your eyes. As if you were practicing in a breath body, instead of one of touch.  Key to the dristhi practice is an experience of dristhi as a field of vision, rather than a single point.  Dristhi uses a single focusing point to allow the gaze to actually widen – to take in the whole panorama before you.

2) Savasana strings – After your body settles into the pose, tune into your senses. Notice how the world has hundreds of invisible strings that pull at you, even lying still in a yoga studio. Mentally imagine scissors gently snipping the threads circling your body – and they just drop away.  No need to push or shut out or harden around “distractions”. There are no distractions, just strings that continue to exist, no longer tugging on you.

1) Body – Almost every meditation begins with the body. It’s important to set your seat as comfortable as possible, with as much attention to alignment as possible.  Creating ease in the body allows us to settle our minds around it. If you find your foot falling asleep every time you meditate, seek a teacher’s guidance to modify how you sit.  Fine tuning aspects such as relaxing the tongue in the jaw, and letting the eyes release deep in their sockets cue further release of the sense organs.

2) Focus – Sound meditation is one of the best ways to release the ears’ insistence on reaching out to the world.  There are several techniques such as playing intentionally vague sounds in order to “short circuit” the ear into letting go, or working intimately with mind and ear to release the constant chatter between the two that goes into instantaneous naming of sounds.


A few final tips:
*Practice asana without music every once in awhile
*If you live in a city, spend time outside of it. Even the quietest block is filled with over- stimulation.
*Spend an entire evening at home without the TV on, the computer on, or music on
*Walk slowly, fidget less – allow the body to settle more
*Refine all the input to your senses you have direct control over: what you listen to on the TV/computer/ipod/in relationship, what you see around your home, what you place on your body, what you buy and prepare to eat, and what you cultivate to smell.

*There are thought-camps around whether pratyahara is something that can be practiced, or if it just occurs when the conditions are right, like sleep. Whether the tips presented can be thought of as practices or setting up conditions is not the focus of this article.

Om Mani Padme Hum & Visoka Va Jyotismati: Buddhism & Yoga

Om mani padme hum

The jewel is in the lotus. All that needs to be known dwells inside your own heart.

Viśokā vā jyotiṣmatῑ   PYS I.36

Or by concentrating on the supreme, sorrowless Light within.

The first chant is from the Buddhist tradition, the second, from the Yoga tradition.  This is one of many instances where they overlap (although there are also plenty of places where they don’t quite see eye to eye either).

Michael Stone, whose dharma talk podcasts I listen to often, and quote in my classes nearly as often, ties these traditions together well. Finding not only overlaps, but moments that inform each other in the traditions of each.

One of his recent talks on the Lotus Sutra was one of such moments, and called to mind for me the above chants.

He spoke of how in Buddhism, in order to be a Buddha, the requirement is not to get enlightened, but rather to be able to see another person as a Buddha. During my teacher training Davidji and Sharonji would often tell us our most important job as a yoga teacher is to see our students as holy beings. Just as important as our sadhana – our yoga practice, our meditation, our off-the-mat practices, is the way in which we see other people.  And granted, to see another person as a Buddha can be as challenging a practice as sitting for an hour.  However, we are gifted with an amazing imagination, and should call upon it in this case.

I’ve been reading The Brain That Changes Itself– a great book on brain plasticity (which I feel is in some ways the modern science of yoga), and had just read a section on imagination.  There were two experiments discussed where two groups were asked to undertake an activity – learn a piece on the piano, and perform a strength exercise. One group was able to practice physically, the other was asked to practice only mentally. They practiced the same amount of time, the same repetitions, over the same period.  The only difference was that one was physical, and the other purely in the imagination.  The results for both experiments were the same, but the results of the strength exercise are more clearly statistically understood, so I will give those.  The group that did the physical exercise improved its strength (and the brain area associated) by 30%, the group that did the mental exercise improved its strength (and the brain area) by 22%.  To the body and mind the difference between thought and action is not that different.

So take advantage of this.  Imagine someone who you can easily conceive of as a hair’s breadth from being a Buddha – a teacher, a child you know, the Dalai Llama, your local grocer.  Spend time imaging her/him in front of you, in detail. Note the qualities you associate with that state.  Then imagine yourself as that Buddha, infused with those qualities.  Then try practicing your next asana class from that place, and see what happens.

ImagePerhaps you are able to see others as buddhas better.  But anything undertaken once or twice runs the risk of becoming new agey or trite.  Imagination is not just a flight of fancy in this case – it’s a practice. So like all yoga practices, you must repeat, in all earnestness, for a prolonged period of time. And then the magic will arise.