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.

States of Consciousness & AUM

There are either 4 main states of consciousness, or 3 main states of consciousness and one of superconsciousness, depending on how one decides to draw the line*.  These states correspond to the physical symbol of AUM, as well as the vibrational chanted AUM.

Jagrat (the “3” part  the symbol) (the A part of the chant)

This is our waking state.  The state where time and space prevail and we identify with our sense of “I” (ahamkara).  This is an outwardly directed state, based around an external world. This is the state where we are entrenched in the illusion of maya.

Often in yogic philosophy and commentary this state is referred to as the “mundane” “gross” or “bodily” level.  There is a tendency to write-off this level, negate its importance or validity as a state in favor of “higher” states of transcendence.  I prefer Michael Stone’s concept of “horizontal” transcendence which does not create a hierarchy, but instead urges the yogi to encompass multiple states simultaneously, and bring that awareness to our relationships in the Jagrat state.  It’s an expansion to include, as opposed to a moving up to cast off.

Swapna (the “handle” part of the symbol) (the U part of the chant) (waning citta)

This is our dream state, or REM state.  Time and space also prevail here, but often in a warped sense not possible in the waking state. This is an inwardly directed state, but also based around impressions from the external world experienced during Jagrat.

Yoga’s penchant for interesting dualities and paradoxes can be found in looking at Jagrat and Swapna.  We are asked to see these not as separate states, but much the same as likes & dislikes, attachment & aversion, as opposing perspectives of the same reality.  Accordingly, our faculty of awareness that we cultivate so assiduously in our waking life, would well serve the dreaming state as well.  This is not to say yoga philosophy is an advocate of lucid dreaming (although shamanic beliefs are not incongruous).

I was given a simple yet powerful sadhana during my teacher training.  We were instructed to be very aware of the last thought we had before sleeping, in order to encourage this thought in our other states, as well as to be very aware and write down our first thought upon waking.  In lieu of describing my personal experience, I encourage yogis to try this themselves.  Every night and day for a month.  Yoga is based on shraddha (faith) built on personal experience.  This exercise is a simple way of building shraddha in relation to these states of consciousness.

Sushupti (the “swoosh” part of the symbol) (the M part of the chant)

This is the deep sleep state.  There is no time or space.  We are unconscious, and can only be aware of having been in this state by the results afterward of feeling refreshed and nourished.  Accessing this state is essential for physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

In describing this state, the Mandukya Upanishad says, “there is no separateness, but the sleeper is not conscious of this. Let him become conscious in this state and it will open the door to that state of abiding joy.”

Turiya (the dot part of the symbol) (the silent beat after the vibrational chant has ended, but before taking an inhale)

This is the superconscious state.  There is no time or space.  We identify with the oneness of being (hence the singular dot).  This state lacks the duality of either wakefulness or sleeping, conscious or unconscious, inward or outward, aware or unaware, and is all of it and none of it at the same time.  Oneness of being.

In the Mandukya Upanishad this state is represented as the entire mantra of AUM, or thinking of it another way, as all of the previous 3 states combined.  Without this combination of awareness and unconsciousness, Turiya is not possible, or rather, this is what defines Turiya.

“We enter this state regularly, if only we could be aware of it: every night we are ‘like someone unknowingly walking back and forth over a buried treasure’” – Michael Nagler (commentator on Eknath Easwaran’s The Upanishad’s)

The key then, is to discover the treasure.  Every asana class affords the opportunity to do just that with savasana.  If you think back to the beginning of your practice and your first savasanas, you might recall either feeling very sleepy, or experiencing very “deep” savasanas, where you slipped into another space completely.  It is interesting to contrast those memories with the savasana experiences you have now, which might involve more of a struggle to access such relaxed deep states.  This is actually a good sign.  It shows progress. Initially it was easy to slip away because savasana sets us up to experience Turiya, however, without the skills of awareness that come with consistent yoga practice, Shushupti is what happened.  As we gain greater awareness on multiple levels, our savasana begins to incorporate that awareness, and thus begin the shift to a state of Turiya.  Instead of looking at savasana as a chance to relax after a physical practice, allow it to be a place to slip into deeper states of consciousness, while maintaining a light touch of Jagrat awareness around it.

This is also a practice than can be done in meditation.  During meditation, we either choose to actively “work” on a certain practice (such as a meta meditation) or part of ourselves (staying with our arising conditions), or we approach it like savasana, a place that is designed to allow us access to Turiya, if we are able to bring that special combination of awareness and unconsciousness.

Understanding these states of consciousness, and their correspondence to AUM, infuses our opening and closing chant with a fullness and potential that enhances the meaning of the experience for us.  Understanding these states also gives us encouragement.  All of this already lies with us, we touch on it every night, and every class.

“So the Upanishad first gives us an inspiring picture of “that which is”, reassuring us that reality is not limited to the world of changing phenomena, and then hints at an everyday, doable way to reascend the orders of being and regain our spiritual home in the changeless” Michael N. Nagler


Sharon Ganon & David Life ~ Teacher Training 2007

Mandukya Upanishad ~ This is the briefest of the Upanishad’s.  If you were to study only one of the Upanishads, Shankara recommends it be this one.  Rama (incarnation of Vishnu in the Ramayama) offers similar advice to one of his students. ~Eknath Easwaran’s translation

*Sharon & David teach the latter, and the Mandukya Upanishad the former.  I have used the terminology for the states as taught by Sharon & David.  The Mandukya states are termed as follows: Vaishvanara, Taijasa, Prajna, and Turiya.  Iyengar looks at the states in a slightly different way, viewing them as movements of the mind (citta), and names them udaya citta (rising), santa citta (calm), ksaya citta (waning) and turya.  It is interesting that in all three naming systems the fourth state is Turiya (which literally means ‘the fourth’).

Savasana ~ corpse pose

Pattabhi Jois is quoted by Michael Stone in “The Inner Tradition of Yoga”, as saying that savasana is the one pose you should do, if you can’t do any others.  This might surprise some yogis who have heard that sirsasana (headstand) is the king of all poses. The ONE to do, not only if short on time, but also as a palliative. October seemed a fitting month to explore the pose and the concept of death in its yogic context.

Besides respecting the words of Pattabhi Jois, why else should we study death?  First, consider that no matter what lineage, what style, what teacher, what location, what day time or other variable, every yoga class will include savasana.  We study intently, over long periods of time, our alignment in trikonasana (triangle pose), the depth of our exhale, our meditative seat, the correct prop to modify a pose, along with multiple other aspects of the practice.  In the same way, savasana, and therefore death, deserve the same treatment.

Second, it is not only what we are inevitably born to do, but it is what we currently are.  In the Buddhist tradition, impermanence is one of the three basic characteristics of existence.  To study death is not only a study of the future, but of the present moment.

Third, it cultivates a respect for the present moment from which blooms gratefulness. Also from that cultivation arises a reminder to savor and live each moment fully.

How, then, do we work with becoming intimate with impermanence, with death?

1)      Become intimate with the breath. The breath is a precious and vital yogic tool which aids the yogi in multiple ways. With the repetitive birth-death cycle (inhales & exhales) of the breath as guide, certain insights may arise about the nature of birth and death on a larger scale.

2)      Become intimate with all the “tiny deaths” that surround our daily life, such as the cycle of a day, the life cycle of clothing, the cycles found in the food you eat, the balance of your bank account, the ink levels in your printer, the pens you use to write, the technology that surrounds you, the blink of your eye, teachers and teachings.  All of these express impermanence.  It is a yogi’s challenge to refute Yuddisthira’s observation* in the Bhagavad Gita, by remaining aware of these little deaths, and, just as with working with the breath, begin to allow the seeds of insight to dig in your awareness.

3)      Death meditation. There are various ways to practice a death meditation.  Locations can range from your living room to a cemetery to a loved one’s hospital bedside.  Methods can include visualizations, reading literature on the stages of death (scientific, or in such philosophical texts as “The Tibet Book of Living and Dying”), contemplating the world you have created around you without you in it, or any of several other techniques.  The basic work in this kind of meditation to fully confront your (specifically and uncomfortably) death.

4)      Let Go meditation.  Set aside a time that will allow you to wander through each room of your living area completely.  As you move, contemplate each belonging. Stay with that belonging, keep it in your gaze, until you become comfortable with it no longer being in your life.  Do this with everything from the new computer you bought, to the hand-me-down couch that needs to be donated, to the ring your grandmother passed to you, to your collection of music, to your photos, to whatever you have on you at that time.

5)      Contemplate during asana, meditation, or quiet reflection the Yoga Sutras, Tao Te Ching, or other texts’ passages on death. For example: Tao 50 “…He holds nothing back from life; therefore he is ready for death, as a man is ready for sleep after a good day’s work.” This passage speaks to how practicing savasana after asana is a practice for dying after life, bring this to your next practice, both the asana and savasana portions.

6)      Pull from your own experience. As with all yoga practices, make it relevant to you and your life.

Allow these practices to be uncomfortable, disconcerting, frustrating, upsetting, uplifting, freeing, joyous, exhilarating, or boring.  Recall the “This too shall pass” popular yoga story:

A student was struggling in his meditation practice. His body constantly called him away through pain or other distractions. His mind wandered. He saw himself as foolish for wasting time sitting around. Frustration and anger resulted from every session. He considered quitting. He went to his teacher and told him this.

His teacher considered and replied, “It will pass.”

The student returned to his practice. Time went by.  His body began to settle and fall away from his mind’s eye when he sat. His awareness was steady. Soon he began to feel subtle shifts in his perception. Elated, he returned to his teacher to share the good news.

His teacher considered and replied, “This too shall pass.”

Inspirations for this post include:

Michael Stone (especially his chant “Life and death are of supreme importance…”)

Tao Te Ching

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

Jack Gilbert “Tear it Down”

Tias Little‘s dharma talk at the Shala, NYC, 10/11/2009

*When asked, “Of all things in life, what is most astounding?” Yuddisthira replied, “That a person, seeing others die all around him, never thinks that he will die.”