The 8 Limbs of Yoga act as a guide for yogis on how to behave and as inspiration for how yogis should view the world. The 5th of the Limbs is Pratyhara or withdrawl of the senses. Pratyhara can be broken into two words in sanskrit: prati (meaning away or against) and “ahara” (which roughly translates as things taken from outside to inside the body, like food and air). So pratyhara means control of the external things taken in or withdrawl from the senses.
Ahara can be literal like food and air. Or it can be more figurative like senses of sound or touch, or even as abstract as the people you surround yourself with and situations you put yourself in. It means both avoiding putting negative things into your body or your world AND choosing positive things to surround yourself with, ingest or mentally and emotionally take in.
The Other 8 Limbs of Yoga
Pratyhara is sometimes considered the first of the more internal limbs of yoga and sometimes considered an external limb as it deals with aspects of both. The first 4 limbs (yamas/ behavior in the world, niyamas/ the way we treat ourselves, asana/yoga poses, pranayama/breath work) deal with external aspects of living– either how we relate to the world or how we use our physical body. The remaining 4 limbs all relate more to internally cultivating your true inner yogi and training and focusing your mind (dharana/concentration, dhyana/meditation, samadhi/enlightenment).
Pratyahara in Action
I think pratyahara is most relatable to being in the zone– like if you’re working on your laptop in a coffee shop and you don’t even notice your friend walk up. Or if you’re totally absorbed in the flow of your yoga poses and you don’t notice things going on around you, like the skill levels of those around you in class or the strain in your hamstrings. Maybe you’re meditating and at first all you can hear is a leaf blower or someone on their phone and then slowly these things fade and you’re gone to that place of calm. It’s essentially withdrawal from the stimuli around you. It’s not that yours senses have shut down- you’d still hear a fire alarm- but you’re not reacting to all of the little distractions.
Your body is bombarded with all sorts of stimuli all day long from all of the senses. We’re talking about reducing sensitivity to all of those things so that you can turn within. You don’t have to become a sadhu and do your yoga in a cave to find that blissful peaceful space- you just have to turn down some of your external awareness and responses.
Emotional and Conceptual Pratyahara
Emotionally, this can be toning down your reactions as well- not freaking out when someone cuts you off in traffic, letting that potential emotional trigger pass you by. Not scolding your puppy for peeing in your shoe while you were out- he’s lost the memory and it doesn’t help you to react strongly and introduce anger or irritation to your day. It can also be positive like allowing yourself a moment of total rock-out joy when reuniting with someone you love but not letting that energy consume you the rest of the day– coming back to your peaceful center. Positive emotions are wonderful but they also pull you away from the place of calm and perhaps reduce your presence and awareness in the moments after that bliss.
Pratyahara can also be seen as a choice not to allow your phone, tv, etc to overtake your time for self-care, yoga, meditation or mindfulness. It’s withdrawing from the things that you could surround yourself with that aren’t constructive and mindfully, consciously choosing what serves you best.
It’s a bit like mindfulness in the end– being present in what you’re doing and not allowing other external factors to commandeer your focus. It’s just a matter of reminding yourself what you’re really trying to achieve in any given moment and staying true to your focus rather than following loose thoughts, sounds, and other distractions. Train yourself to turn down the overwhelming world of stimuli. Make conscious choices about what you choose to receive. As in mediation when you mind strays, don’t bother taking the time to scold yourself, just come back to what really matters and let the unnecessary external stimulus float away.
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