by Catherine Madsen
Bliss Crafter, Austin Yoga Tree
The fifth limb of yoga is pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses. A pivotal moment on our journey, pratyahara bridges the gap between the external and internal limbs. Let’s recap the first four limbs so we can understand the importance of turning our attention inward.
The first limb, yama, provides us with ethical standards to live by. These 5 yamas create a foundation for the remaining limbs. The yamas are:
1. Ahimsa – nonviolence
2. Satya – truthfulness
3. Asteya – non-stealing
4. Brahmacharya – moderation
5. Aparigraha – non-possessiveness
Niyama is the second limb. Niyamas teach us the importance of self-discipline by providing us with healthy habits to abide by daily. The 5 niyamas are:
1. Saucha – cleanliness
2. Santosha – contentment
3. Tapas – restraint
4. Svadhyaya – study of scriptures, study of the self
5. Isvara pranidhana – worship of the Lord, surrender of the ego
Asana is the third limb of yoga. There is a common misconception that our poses are the most important part of our yoga practice. The fact that asana is the third limb, not the eighth, demonstrates that the poses we practice are meant to guide us towards something greater and more challenging. Asanas are meant to pave the way for the remaining five limbs by creating openness in our physical bodies. A healthy, adaptable body is necessary to concentrate and meditate, both of which require control. By learning how to control our bodies through asanas, we can effortlessly control our minds during meditation.
The fourth limb is pranayama. In a way similar to asana, pranayama prepares the body for meditation and stillness. By controlling our breath, we are exercising a different form of self-control. This time, we are controlling an internal process. The breath is an action that we often neglect; pranayama forces us to begin to look inward and control what is going on inside us. Focusing inward prepares us for the fifth limb, pratyahara.
Pratyahara can be translated as withdrawal of the senses. It can also mean ‘moving towards the opposite’. Essentially, pratyahara asks us to move away from what we normally do in the external world. The first four limbs all deal with what happens outside us. We start by working on our ethics, refining and putting into practice principles that make us grounded. We then move to our poses; we learn how to use our bodies to quiet our restless minds. Last is the breath. The breath is the key to unlocking the potential for growth that is buried within us. Once we feel connected to our breath, our bodies, and ourselves, we can withdraw inward with ease.
“Pratyahara… the movement of the mind toward silence rather than toward things.”
Not a second goes by where we are not constantly bombarded with information. Our senses are victim to a ceaseless stream of stimulation. So much of our lives take place around us, outside us. The fifth limb of yoga begs us to take a break from the external world and look inward instead.
Our senses are powerful masters. They are good at distracting us from what is important. They demand our attention and give us no other choice but to listen. When the senses take over, we jump from one impulsive action to another, never stopping along the way for a rest. Add to this the continuous barrage of information we are subjected to from technology, media, people, etc. and it’s easy to see how our lives pass us by.
Withdrawal from the senses and from the external world allows us to be capable of two things: detaching and re-evaluating.
In this case, we are detaching from the external world and all the ‘things’ in it that bring us further away from enlightenment. These are things like material possessions, relationships that are no longer beneficial, and beliefs that are no longer true. We must let go of what appeases our senses so that we can begin to silence them.
We must also re-evaluate ourselves. We should take a good look at who we are, what we are doing, and where we are on our spiritual journey. Perhaps some yamas or niyamas have fallen to the wayside while focusing more on asanas. Perhaps we have forgotten why we started this journey in the first place. And perhaps objectively looking at oneself is the best thing you could ever do. Change is good, and pratyahara helps us realize what needs to be changed and how to change it.
Eventually, through detachment and re-evaluation, we will be able to easily withdraw from the world and look inward. We will start to exist inside our bodies and inside our minds instead of just out in the world. Pratyahara brings us back to ourselves and gives us an inexplicable sense of peace.
“What lies before us and what lies behind us are small matters compared to what lies within us.”
Here are a few simple ways to start practicing pratyahara in your everyday life:
Make sure to check in next Wednesday when we delve into the sixth limb, dharana, or concentration.