This week, the fifth of Patanjali’s 8 limbs – Pratyahara: withdrawing the senses or control of the senses
The first four limbs pertain to our external world – how we get along with others and how we manage ourselves (yamas and niyamas), physical poses (asana) and the breath (pranayama). This week, Pratyahara is the turning point from the outer world to the inner world focus which is covered in the next three limbs (concentration, meditation and self-realisation). So asana and pranayama have helped us to prepare the body and the mind for meditation. Pratyahara helps us to focus within by letting go of all the senses so we can focus our attention inwards.
It’s not easy, as our senses tend to be our masters and entice us all the time with distractions that lead us away from our goal or disrupt our balance. It would be easy to decide what you want to achieve and then doing exactly that, if you weren’t distracted and misled by the desires and habits of the senses which take over when our mind isn’t disciplined or focussed. Our senses are driven by past experiences and are also instinctual (desire, fear and craving) and delight in the pleasure of the moment, dismissing longer term benefits and our well-being. We all are affected by this – how else do you find yourself on social media when you have something more important to do, like get to bed or prepare lunch for tomorrow, finishing an important task; or another time eating a whole packet of tim tams or drinking too much wine, when you know you will feel worse for it the next day - this is the power our sense have over our mind. And it might be okay to do these things sometimes, but often they can be at the detriment of other aspects of our lives.
This challenge we face with keeping our senses in check isn’t new. It’s spoken about in the ancient text of the Bhagavad Gita. The metaphor used to describe how attachment to the sense pleasures can derail us is a Chariot. The Chariot (us) is led by 5 horses – the 5 senses. The mind is the driver (with the reins) and the Self is the passenger. If you are to keep the chariot (yourself) on course it is important to control the horses. The various sense objects on the path have the horses pulling on the chariot to careen off course. If we are to stay on course we need to train the horses to stay focussed and the driver (the mind) also needs to stay attentive to what is going on, aware of all the distractions along the way but not affected by them. So, like the chariot driver trying to control the untrained horses, we can suffer from the distractions of our uncontrolled senses and careen off our course.
When we practice Pratyahara we begin to train the mind, so we consciously decide what to pay attention to and then act on that decision rather than be lured by the senses. And we no longer satisfy the immediate needs of the senses at the expense of our physical, emotional, and mental health.
So we continue to experience the senses but they don’t control us. We see them for what they are, name them, and they then have less power over us.
When we are strongly influenced by these sense pleasures it is very difficult to achieve inner peace and calm. You know yourself, how much energy is spent trying to supress unwanted sensations and heighten others. Practicing Pratyahara in our yoga practice through asana, pranayama and relaxation helps us focus more in our day to day lives and keep the distractions and cravings a little more at bay!
One way to practice Pratyahara is to focus on the breath, training the senses through simply conscious breathing, and quiet time in meditation. We can train the senses and create habits that support a balanced body and mind. Inner awareness helps – in asana – we tune in to our bodies which helps give the mind space for resting. The senses tend to suspend their activities naturally through pranayama.
So Pratyahara allows us to integrate the inner and outer worlds and is the limb which provides the transition from the first 4 external focussed limbs, to the last 3 internally focussed limbs of yoga – preparing us for Dharana (Concentration) and Dhyana (Meditation).
Self Enquiry: Reflecting this week on when you tend to be carried away with the senses; time of day; type of activity (work, leisure time); with particular people…
Resolving this week to be aware of when your senses are mastering your actions.