In the classical yoga system of Ashtanga (the Eight Limbed Path), each limb offers guidelines or “ways of being” that when practiced together equate “living your yoga.” It’s a path of spiritual (not religious, yoga is not a religion and spiritual can mean something different for everyone) unfolding or enlightenment.
Pratayahara is often the most misunderstood and under-taught of the 8 Limbs. Even though Swami Sivananda has been quoted as saying that “Pratyahara itself is termed as yoga…”
So let’s remedy this because to reach Samadhi, the ultimate for any yogi, we can’t skip a path just because we don’t understand it. Each Limb is equally important to our yoga practice as a whole.
What is Pratyahara and how do we practice it?
Pratyahara is central to the inner practice of yoga (which is what these last 4 Limbs address) –it’s like the pathway between the outer aspects (the first 4 Limbs) of yoga and the inner…it’s the connector limb, if you will.
In a literal translation, Pratyahara means to gain control over all external stimuli. The Sanskrit translation for “prati” means to move away from. The translation for “ahara” means food but not just in the literal sense as in what you had for breakfast.
“Food” means anything taken into the body in any form. What you feed your body and soul.
The most basic of nourishments including breath, and yes, food that you eat, are included but it also includes more advanced notions such as touch, sight, and smell, as well as what nourishes our souls—the people we associate with, the things we read, the television we watch, the music we listen to, what we see in our social feeds etc.
Just as we are what we eat, we are what we think. Your subconscious is fed a daily barrage of images, headlines, and Tweets that can have a massive effect on your ability to develop inner peace and clarity.
To practice Pratyahara, first, make note of what your physical intake consists of. Too much junk food will lead to a “junky” existence because…we are what we eat. Are you breathing clean air? Are you drinking clean water? Are chemicals exposing you to physical imbalances (which also heavily affect your mind)?
So what can you do to change what needs to be changed? Give up sodas, drink more water, eat more fruits and vegetables…? All simple things that will help cleanse the body and make way for a peaceful mind. Yes, it’s true.
Then take note of what you are exposed to from a mind sensory perspective. What mass media “junk” can you get rid of? Negative headlines, bad news, skewed views and the like all feed our subconscious with unnecessary, unfulfilling and heavy impressions making anything remotely like meditation that much harder.
The absolute best way to control this barrage and allow the path to inner peace to be cleared? Turn off the TV. Seriously.
Put the smartphone down. Limit your social media exposure and edit who and what you are exposed to. Become a life-long learner. Engage in community groups that have positive effects. The effect this will have on you and your health will astound you. We don’t give enough credit to the power of “junk impressions.” They are truly toxic to the mind—what you feed your mind, you become.
One of the best ways to develop sensory control is to practice a hobby or take up a skill that requires your total devotion to attention. Your entire focus. Such as…asana and pranayama, the two physical aspects of the 8 Limbs. When you are matching movement to breath and fully experiencing growth in a pose, your mind can’t help but be focused and present and un-distracted—a foundation of Pratyahara.
The importance of Pratyahara
The importance of this Limb cannot be overstated. Every other Limb in the 8-Limbed Path contains aspects of Pratyahara. From practicing non-violence to gratitude or asana with pranayama, pratyahara provides the foundation for success.
For those who have practiced meditation for years (peaceful meditation is the end goal of the whole of yoga), with vague results or little of what we expected, are probably not fully practicing pratyahara which is what prepares the mind for meditation.
“Trying to practice meditation without some degree of pratyahara is like trying to gather water in a leaky vessel.” –Dr. David Frawley
Take control of your life, and find your peace.