There are total eight limbs of yoga according to sage Patanjali’s classic eight-limbed yoga system, which is known as ashtanga yoga. Among these, pratyahara is the fifth one. It is probably the least known or least talked about limb of ashtanga yoga, though it is as important as the other limbs are. Importance of pratyahara is clear as we see that it has been centrally positioned in the eight-limbed system of ashtanga yoga. Study of classic yoga is never complete if we do not know pratyahara. The ashtanga yoga (8-limbed yoga system) has been explained in detail in ‘Yoga Sutra’ of Patanjali. Ashtanga yoga is a sequence of practices, that begins with the bahiranga (external limbs) and proceeds towards the antaranga (internal limbs). Yam, niyam, asana, pranayama are the first four limbs of ashtanaga yoga which comes in the external limbs category of ashtanga yoga while dharana, dhyana and Samadhi are the internal limbs of ashtanga yoga.
Yoga students often feel puzzled about pratyahara, according to some yogis it is part of external limbs and some claim it to be a part of internal limbs. According to sage Patanjali, pratyahara is a bridge between the bahiranga and antaranga of Yoga. Pratyahara is withdrawal of energy from the 5 senses, these senses are sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. By practicing withdrawal of senses we achieve a heightened state of consciousness and awareness. It is our senses that keep our mind engaged outward while pratyahara teaches us turning inward! Basically, pratyahara is awareness.
Our senses take control over our mind and guide our mind. How we react to external world is what we know about ourselves, our nature and our emotions. But, as we learn from our environment we see our behavior changes if we move to different environment. It means that we do not know exactly how we are internally, what truly our nature and mind is like. We are actually not able to see our mind with clarity. Pratyahar is a technique using which we are able to observe our mind with clarity and awareness.
Pratyahara is mainly divided into four types which are – Indriya pratyahara(controlling senses), prana pratyahara(controlling life-force), karma pratyahara(controlling action) and mano pratyahara (controlling mind).
Indriya Prayahara: In this method of pratyahara focus remains on control of senses. In the current time it is the most required form of pratyahara as we are constantly dealing with things that stimulate our senses all the time. The high level of sensory indulgence makes us hostages of the senses and the allurements it offers. If the senses are not controlled, they dominate our mind with their never-ending demands. Pratyahara teaches us how to discipline our senses, it is not the suppression of senses but the technique and method of strengthening the spirit and mind so that its dependency on the senses is minimized.
Prana Pratyahara: It is the method of controlling prana(vital force or energy). The senses follow prana so it is very important to strengthen vital energy to have power and control on senses. If our prana is not strong, it is impossible to succeed while practicing the other types of pratyahara. The most effective technique of strengthening the vital energy is pranayama. Through pranayam prana is gathered and it is withdrawn in pratyahara.
Karma Pratyahara: Karma Pratyahara means controlling of actions. Our senses and mind instruct our motor organs to perform an action. It is our motor organs through which we get directly involved in the external world. The impulses our body receives from the senses are expressed through the motor organs and it further drives us to be involved in sensory pursuits. Controlling of actions means performing right actions without attachment, it is important to understand that our duty is to act and not to seek rewards for our actions. It has been explained in ‘Bhagwat Geeta’ as karma yoga.
Mano Pratyahara: Withdrawal of mind is mano pratyahara. It is our mind that takes in the sensory impressions and so instructs our motor organs to do a specific action. Mano pratyahara is done by controlling the senses and withdrawing mind’s attention from them. It can be achieved by consciously withdrawing mind’s attention from unnecessary impressions whenever such impressions arise. Senses constantly create such impressions but if the mind is controlled, senses get automatically controlled. It is the most difficult form of pratyahara and we can not control our mind if we have not gained success in the previous stages of pratyahara. It is almost impossible to control mind if senses, prana and karma are not controlled.