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Pratyahara: The Fifth Limb

By Kate Duncan.

This is Blog Post Number Five in our Why You Don’t need a mat to practice Yoga series.

In post one and two we broke down the Yama’s, and Nimayas, which are all about our moral and ethical principals. Then we tackled Asana, which is the physical shapes we make with our body, and then Pranayama, which is how we control the life force behind our breath.

 

In this blog, we will delve deeper into the fifth limb called Pratyahara, which can be translated to sense withdrawal, and is mostly around how when we reduce our attachment to external sensory input.

 

Before we delve too deeply, let's overview the eight limbs of Yoga. When all eight libs are practiced together we create a life in which we experience great freedom from suffering, or in simpler terms… BLISS!

 

The eight limbs

 

  1. Yama (ethical standards or integrity)
  2. Niyama (self-disciple and spiritual observances)
  3. Asana (postures)
  4. Pranayama (breathing techniques, or breath control)
  5. Pratyahara (sense withdrawal)
  6. Dharana (concentration)
  7. Dhyana (contemplation, or meditative absorption)
  8. Samadhi (liberation, bliss or enlightenment)

 

It is worth noting here that the first four limbs of yoga are known as the EXTERNAL limbs, as they are about how we use our body in the world. The last three limbs are known as the internal, and the fifth limb, pratyahara is known as the bridge between the external and internal. It moves the practitioner towards the more subtle arts of concentration, meditation, and to samadhi (enlightenment).

 

The Fifth Limb, Pratyahara

The word 'pratyahara' stems from the Sanskrit prati and ahara. Prati means "against or away," and ahara means “food”, or otherwise understood as anything we take into ourselves from the outside.

 

Another way of understanding Pratyahara is considering how we can withdraw ourselves from external information so we can hear the subtle sounds from within us.

 

I like to think of Pratyahara as focusing from the inside out. In other words, instead of allowing all the stimuli of the world to happen to us, we turn on our light of awareness to be fully present as we intentionally allow a stimulus to come in.

 

Here is an example: we are in a place that feels really hectic and busy. We’re feeling swept away. We might be getting swayed in all directions by what is happening around us, caught in desire about this thing, or that. To apply pratyahara, we might become very conscious, realising that we are like a hungry ghosty, wanting and needing and being driven around the world by our senses.

 

We start to turn inward, we notice instead one sense at a time. We may listen intently to sound, fully awake and aware, without getting swept away by stories about the sound. Or attention is drawn inward to how we experience the stimuli, like the pleasant nature of a birdsong, a warm shower, or a cup of tea.

 

When we do this, we become more conscious of how we react to what we experience. We begin to see how we are simply following around the needs of our human body, reacting with clinging to pleasurable things or reacting with hate and anger around things we don’t like.

 

We notice our patterns and habits, what drives us forward. We are bridging the gap between living an externally guided life to living and internally guided life, by filtering what is coming through to us.

 

From here we may make better decisions around what we take into our precious heart, body, and mind.

 

Practicing Pratyahara

So how exactly, do we practice Pratyahara?

 

For the beginner, we may just look at what we are putting into therefore into our beautiful bodies. Is our diet clean and nourishing, or is it harming us?

 

What is our relationship to intoxicants? Do we value a clear mind that is un-deluded and open?

 

What do we take into our mind through tv shows, books, songs and social media? Are we choosing to educate our mind with kindness and positivity or are we constantly drinking in tragedy, violence and drama?

 

How do we listen to others when they speak? Do we stay around to hear and encourage negativity and gossip or do we refuse to take such unhelpful behaviour in?

 

The key here is that we begin to understand that we can filter what is coming at us from the world and begin to live from the inside out. Living from the inside means we are conscious and aware instead of following around our needs and wants.

 

Pratyahara is an important step toward the internal limbs, the next of which is concentration. It is immensely difficult to grow concentration when we are still driven by the senses of the external world. We need first to withdraw from the heedless desire from earthly pleasures.

 

Withdrawing from sensual desires may not sound like a sexy step in our modern world, and it goes against much of our current conditioning. But this limb of Pratyahara is truly one that leads us to a place of freedom.

 

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