Translated from Sanskrit, Pratyahara means ‘withdrawal of the senses’. It’s the fifth limb of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga which make up the path to holistic wellbeing and connecting with your true self.
Pratyahara is, according to yogic tradition, the first step in concentration — with the later steps taking you deeper and deeper into a state of meditation.
What does it mean to ‘withdraw the senses’?
When you practice withdrawing the senses, you give yourself more freedom to become aware of what’s happening within you. The senses, when not being used purposefully, can distract you in meditation. You are pulled away from your focused awareness by sounds, scents and sights.
Pratyahara, then, is a kind of disassociation from the senses; you let go of everything external to you, and turn your attention inward.
When practising sense withdrawal you might become aware of…
Internal activities in the body — the workings of organs, muscles, tissues; the sensation of the breath travelling through the body
The brain, the conscious mind and the subconscious mind
The emotions that appear, roll, ebb and flow
Connections between different areas of the body and mind; and these connections may also extend to your life in general, as you become more calmly alert
These experiences of inward focus, and awareness of the body and mind, lead to the next stage: letting go. Internalising your awareness allows you to recognise the patterns that come up again and again in your thoughts, emotions and reactions.
You become a skilful observer of yourself.
How do you practise pratyahara?
The first way to practise pratyahara is through Yoga Nidra. This deep relaxation practice — sometimes called yogic sleep — allows you to move through deeper and deeper levels of rest and stillness.
Lying on your back, you use the power of your mind in yoga nidra to explore different levels of awareness and rest.
Learn more about Yoga Nidra here!
When you’ve learned how to establish pratyahara during Yoga Nidra, you can move onto a body awareness practice called kaya sthairyam.
This uses twelve stages of body awareness — including body comfort, alignment, visualisation, sensations and becoming completely still — to fully engage the mind. In turn, this makes the mind still. Kaya sthairyam is simple, yet meticulous; each stage requires profound concentration.
My favourite way to work towards pratyahara uses Meditative Toning Practices, including Mantra Meditation. Using the voice, you create extended sounds to create a vibration within the body. It’s a potent way to bring the oscillations of the mind to a state of calm and focus. If you’d like to learn these practices for yourself, click here.
Ultimately, this practice leads to both the body and mind being totally still.
And that stillness makes way for sense withdrawal because there is no physical distraction, and because the mind is focused on the task at hand rather than being pulled in every direction by external stimulus.
What are the benefits?
Pratyahara, and the different practices that lead towards it, is a powerful tool for taming the mind. Its benefits extend far beyond your yoga and meditation practice. It will allow you to bring more awareness into every area of your life — so you can act from a place of peace and impartiality.
Let’s break down the key benefits:
By becoming a skilled observer of yourself (your body, your mind, your emotions) you learn how to regulate movement, actions, and emotions more purposefully.
Through pratyahara the mind enters into a very deep, restful space; creating the optimum conditions for mindfulness and peaceful awareness.
You discover a different perspective which is rooted in true steadiness and impartiality — so you aren’t battered and swayed by external events, because you are still and peaceful at your core.
As with many powerful yoga and meditation practices, simplicity is key. Sense withdrawal can be practiced and established in stages; so never worry if you don’t feel like you ‘get it’ straight away.
We work with pratyahara on the YFTSR Level 2 Yoga and Meditation Course to Conquer Stress and Anxiety. So if you’d like to delve deeper into the philosophy and practice, click here to find out more!