“Pratyahara” is the sanskrit term for “sense withdrawal.” Sense withdrawal is one of the essential features of meditation (along with concentration and relaxation) “Meditation” is a state of relaxed concentration that is endlessly nourishing and replenishing to the spirit. “Yoga” is a state of mind in which we are identified with the supreme power of the universe, whatever our understanding of that power may be. “Yoga” also refers to any practice that cultivates restraint for the purpose of accessing a higher level of knowledge and happiness.
It is necessary for us to unplug from the bombardment of stimuli generated through our contact with the world at large. Even when we sleep, the mind is active much of the time in dreaming. If we don’t master “pratyahara,” we are constantly at the mercy of outside forces.
A literal reading of “pratyahara” would mean a disconnect between awareness and information streaming into our sense doors. (There would be a sound, but no hearing of it.) There are deep states of concentration in which this actually happens. However, most of us are unable to turn off our sense of hearing, sight, smell, touch, etc. at will while in the waking state.
Fortunately, extraordinary levels of concentration are not required to master “pratyahara.” We all have the capacity to focus on particular sights, smells, touches, tastes, sounds and thoughts to the exclusion of others. In fact, we are doing this every single moment. Think of conscious awareness as a flashlight and its beam. Whatever is illuminated by the beam in any moment constitutes the sum total of our conscious experience in that moment. All other possible thoughts and sense phenomena remain in the dark, unknown to us. What we don’t often realize is that we control the flashlight. In everyday experience, we are unaware of this process of choosing. Our mental habits are so ingrained and automatic that we can’t see ourselves shining the beam. Life feels like it’s just coming towards us, moment after moment.
We all long for lasting inner peace and security, yet the world as we know it provides us no sanction. When we feel that life is happening to us, we are caught up in samsara, being pulled up and down with the pairs of opposites: pleasure and pain; fame and ill–repute; gain and loss; praise and blame. We feel good and then we feel bad. Up and down, over and over, according to our circumstances. We are riding the wheel of fortune. Our bodies, minds and emotions suffer and sicken.
Yoga helps us remember that the locus of all our experiences is internal. Thought is arising “in here,” sound is heard “in here,” sights are seen “in here,” etc. Yoga also reminds us that we can stem the tide of stressful mental and physical experiences. The first step is to seclude ourselves from the world. Throughout history there have been yogis who have chosen to live apart from society, spending years in extreme seclusion. Yoga students living in the world go on spiritual retreats that can vary in length from a few days to a few years. We also create a period of seclusion every day. So we go into a quiet room to do our practice, or go to a yoga center to take a class. While there we choose to focus again and again on very simple things. In hatha yoga practice, we use body sensations and movement. Every time we let go of an outside thought during practice we are strengthening “pratyahara.”
In Yoga we are learning how to take control of our emotions and our life by accessing our innate ability to attend to things. This helps us to get off the wheel of fortune by becoming its hub. We detach from the outer conditions of our life (pratyahara) and come to rest in the center(concentration); our inner self. Unlike the out world, our center can be stable and reliable. This part of ourselves can be our sanctuary, always available for rest and renewal. Cultivating our ability to touch, know and dwell within the still center is what all yoga practices are about.
Ultimately, “pratyahara” can’t be isolated from the other conditions of yoga: concentration, relaxation, mental absorption. The everyday mind loves to name and categorize everything. But in yoga practice, definitions and boundaries are only rough guides; concentration, relaxation, and withdrawal are all intertwined. It is necessary to withdraw awareness from the pull of ever–changing thoughts/feelings/sense phenomena (pratyahara) in order to focus awareness on a single object (concentration). Relaxation must be present so that our habits of pushing and striving won’t interfere with the peace, nourishment and bliss of yoga.
We can recognize the effects of “Pratyahara” on at least two levels. The first level happens when we do formal practice, and we have the sense that we are concentrating. The second level is that of daily life and a decreased concern regarding the pairs of opposites. This second “sense withdrawal” means being less worried about outcomes, about what might happen in the future. Being unconcerned about what others think of you right now. This comes from knowing you can trust yourself. It means being less in love with the pleasures of the world because you have come to know the pain associated with them. You have also come to know and trust another source of pleasure that is much greater and wells up from within. You don’t have to try to let go of sense pleasure, you’ll just find you are less willing to seek it out. You find yourself spontaneously making surprisingly new choices based on a new and greater sense of security.