The Fifth Limb of Yoga: Pratyahara

By Nirmala Raniga
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been exploring the Eight Limbs of Yoga: what they are, how they can help us live more fulfilling lives, and even how they can help those who are recovering from addiction.
If you haven’t heard of the Eight Limbs of Yoga before, they are basic practices for well-being that explain how yoga is not just a physical practice, but a way of life that enhances the body, mind and spirit.
Dating back nearly 5,000 years ago, Yoga was originated from the ancient Hindu wisdom known as Vedanta. While most of the Vedanta was originally shared through oral tradition, it was written about in the second century BCE by the great sage, Pantanjali. He complied the Yoga Sutras and the Eight Limbs of Yoga as a philosophical system, and how these principles can enrich the quality and connection of our daily lives.
Our past few blog posts have discussed in detail the First, Second, Third and Fourth Limbs of Yoga. Now, we’ll move on to the Fifth Limb of Yoga which is known as Pratyahara, and is based on controlling the senses.
Ancient Yoga texts are full of stories about great sages and gurus who renounced the typical “householder” life and retreated to solitary locations, such as caves, in order to spend the rest of their lives in deep meditation. Perhaps this is an extreme example of turning the senses inward— and probably not the most practical choice for those of us who prefer to engage with the world by pursuing careers, raising families and enjoying time with friends.
Still, there’s great value in going within and experiencing the peace and tranquility that resides there, which doesn’t have to involve relocating to a remote cave and saying goodbye to Western civilization as we know it. Even those of us who would be considered “householders” by Vedic tradition can still experience the wonderful, life-changing benefits of Pratyahara.
Pratyahara is derived from the word “pratyaya”, which refers to the basic tendencies we have in our lives. The “seeds” of our individual nature form the foundation for our unique personalities. The word “ahara” is generally translated as “nutrition”. Essentially, our five senses feed us from the world around us. But when we practice Pratyahara, we turn our senses inward in order to feed ourselves from what resides within. Pratyahara can help us understand why stepping away from the world is so valuable to our well-being, and the way we interact with others in our lives.
Our world has grown increasingly chaotic. We are constantly being distracted by sensory input and stimuli. Social media, television, smartphones, computers, video games and other forms of digital communication keep us occupied— and pre-occupied—during most hours of the day. If our minds are constantly being stimulated by technology and become turbulent, this eventually gets expressed in our bodies and can result in mental discomfort and even the onset of disease.
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When we are out of balance and overwhelmed by stimuli from our environments, it not only affects us personally, but also those around us. For instance, when we’re irritable, we can become frustrated with ourselves and short with our colleagues and loved ones.
In his book, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, Dr. Deepak Chopra also explains the importance of these concepts, and wrote about spending time in silence. One of the lines in his books reads:
“Practicing silence means making a commitment to taking a certain amount of time to simply Be. Experiencing silence means periodically withdrawing from the activity of speech. It also means periodically withdrawing from such activities as watching television, listening to the radio or reading a book. If you never give yourself the opportunity to experience silence, this creates turbulence in your internal dialogue.”
But, in a world so full of activity and noise, it can be difficult to know when and how to step away from our usual environments. To begin practicing Pratyahara, we can set aside a short time each day to retreat into a quiet environment, in order to connect with our Higher Self — the intelligent being within us, who is the silent witness to our life.
An ideal time to practice Pratyahara may be right after you finish your work day, as a way to neutralize the hustle of the day, before transitioning into the interaction friends, family and social activities. It can also be helpful to plan time for Pratyahara in advance. For example, it’s difficult to find silence in a crowded shopping mall or while sitting in traffic.
Instead, more peace can be achieved by finding a quiet space for silence, perhaps in nature, which will allow us to fully absorb the spiritual benefits of Pratyahara.
When we think of silence, we may think of just not speaking. But being silent goes far beyond that. As part of silent time, just as Dr. Chopra indicates, we also need to be free from outside noise and distractions from TV, our laptops, smartphones and any other electronic devices. Eating and reading are also activities we would go without while practicing Pratyahara. In the simplest terms, Pratyahara is a time to rejuvenate your mind, body and spirit by simply just Being.
Once our Pratyahara practice ends for the day, and we return to the world of activity, we can also find ways to keep the sense of peace that stems from silence throughout the chaos in our daily lives.
When we return to watching TV or listening to music, working from our laptops or falling into the distractions of our mobile devices, we can choose what stimulates our senses, and what we see and hear. Rather than watching violent movies or listening to negative lyrics, we can choose to only allow more peaceful options in our lives.
We can also choose to decorate our environments with pleasing colors and touches of Nature, such as fresh flowers. If grass and sand is available to you, you may want to rejuvenate your sense of touch by taking a barefoot walk. We can also positively satisfy our sense of smell by lighting candles, incense. We can also choose to eat organic, freshly prepared foods to pleasantly ignite our sense of taste.
Pratyahara is a wonderful way to prepare for meditation, and to become more aware and connected to your surroundings. By withdrawing the senses for a short period of time each day, we can enter more deeply into our own inner silence. However, Pratyahara can also serve as a beneficial practice on its own, which enables us to reconnect with ourselves to rebalance our body, mind and spirit.