One of the eight limbs of yoga is pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses. It is perhaps the most overlooked of the limbs, but is most definitely worth understanding.
Pratyahara is made up of two words from the Sanskrit language: prati, meaning “against” or “away,” and ahara, meaning “anything we take into ourselves from the outside.” Therefore, pratyahara is control of ahara. Yoga teaches us that there are three forms of ahara: food, impressions, and associations. Pratyahara is the careful practice of withdrawing from wrong food, wrong impressions, and wrong associations.
Everything that we bring into our body is brought in through the senses. Our senses nourish us in every way. And everything we bring in – every sight, taste, smell, sound, and touch – has a vibration. This vibration is going to have an effect on us, because we too are vibrating. It might raise our vibration, or lower it, depending on the purity of the ahara. It might nourish us, or deplete us. It might make us feel good, or disturb us.
If we eat poorly, we feel awful. If our senses are bombarded with garbage, we end up feeling the same way. If we associate with people who are not uplifting, we often get pulled down. Therefore, it is essential for us to bring in only that which will serve our highest purpose in order for us to grow as spiritual beings. Pratyahara teaches us to not only avoid wrong food, impressions and associations, but to therefore open up to right food, impressions, and associations. This might mean making shifts in our diet to eat only the cleanest, purest food possible. It might mean turning off the horrible news before bed, or listening to uplifting music in the morning rather than reading the headlines of war and terror. It means withdrawing from those relationships that are toxic, and instead connecting with others who are working to better themselves.
I was taught that junk impressions are worse for us than junk food. What we bring in through the senses has a direct effect on our mind, and right management of the mind is essential for good health. In fact, Ayurveda suggests that inappropriate use of the senses is one of the main causes of disease.
Once we have raised our vibration using these broader practices of pratyahara, we feel supported and safe to go within, to experience the depths of our own being. As a seated practice, pratyahara gives us the tools to learn to not be distracted by our senses, so that we may enter the state of meditation. In fact, many of the methods of meditation that we are familiar with are not actually meditation at all, rather they are different practices of pratyahara. Chanting a mantra, working a mala in our hands, gazing at a candle; these are all ways to bring our senses to a still point and practice pratyahara. These methods give our mind something to focus on rather than being tangled up in sensory information. After all, meditation is not possible when our mind is distracted by every sensation that comes into our field of awareness. Through pratyahara we are able to begin to go within, which leads to concentration, then meditation, and ultimately, bliss.