"Just as a tortoise withdraws its limbs, so too when a man withdraws his senses from the sense objects, his wisdom becomes steady." -Bhagavad Gita
The fifth limb of Patanjali’s esteemed Yoga Sutras is what’s referred to as pratyahara, which can best be translated as "a withdrawal of the senses." It is also sometimes described as a turtle withdrawing into it's shell. In this metaphor, the shell of the turtle can be seen as the senses and the head of the turtle the mind. This limb is essential because we need to practice it as a precursor to meditation.
What Is Pratyahara?
In essence, it’s a method of moving our attention to the world which lies within us. It is bringing our focus to our internal state of being that’s free from the distractions of life as well as the distractions of our five senses. This practice of moving our awareness towards ourselves is essential – not only for the serious yogi, but also for the modern human being. We all need to withdraw our attention from the modern world of sensory and information overload if we’re to experience any kind of peace.
Finding Your Inner Landscape
In practicing the fifth limb, we create a safe space for ourselves. A kind of DIY retreat where we reside within the landscape of our inner self. The more we practice this sense withdrawal, the safer and more familiar our internal landscape becomes. We get more and more comfortable traveling to this place. We also become more comfortable with ourselves in general, where self-trust and self-knowing seeps more deeply into our consciousness.
Each and every limb of Patanjali’s Ashtanga yoga guides us in a very organized way towards the end goal of samadhi. What's really fun to see is the order in which the limbs are set forth. Pratyahara comes after pranayama and before dharana, for good reason. We need to master each limb in the order they come. This sense withdrawal that we cultivate in pratyahara serves not only as a prerequisite to dharana, but also as a way to balance the fact that our attention is constantly being driven toward the external world during our day-to-day existence, especially in a culture where contemplative practice isn’t a regular aspect of life. (Learn more in Why Contemplate?)
This turning away from the busy-ness of the world and towards the calmer landscape of our inner self helps us conserve the precious energy needed to live a healthy life. It’s essential to take a break from the constant energetic expenditures life calls for if we want to evolve as sentient beings and as yogis. We’re looking for an inner sense of poise here, and the practice of pratyahara helps us achieve this.
We can practice pratyahara in many, many ways. For example, taking a "digital detox" is a powerful one. Imagine spending a couple of days away from the Twitter feed, slew of emails, Facebook messages, texts, telephone calls and so on. By replacing all that time we spend letting our energy leak out, with a quieter state of being, we can conserve and build our energy. Imagine long walks in nature, hot baths, lighting candles and listening to beautiful music – there are so many activities we can do, free of the computer, smart phone and constant buzz of technology. (Read more in the Joys of Unplugging.)
Killing the Noise
Another way to practice pratyahara is by enjoying a meal or two in total silence. Rather than eating while watching a movie, reading a book or chatting with a loved one, see what it’s like to simply focus on your food, chewing it slowly and taking pleasure in a nice home-cooked meal.
Instead of watching the evening news on television or online, eliminate it altogether for a few days. While it’s good to stay informed, most of the news isn’t all that pleasant. It’s blaring and violent and clutters our mind with unhappy images and negative words. Read some spiritual literature instead and when you feel out of the loop, simply ask a friend what’s going on in the world. You might find that’s all you need to feel adequately informed.
Playing the Silent Game
Another fun way to cultivate pratyahara is to play around with silence. Simply stop talking for a while. See if you can go for 15 and then 30 minutes without opening your mouth to communicate with words. You will discover how much energy you expend through talking and how much energy you can conserve by simply watching and witnessing life with a quiet smile. Start small and then increase the amount of time you remain silent. This is a fun practice, and one that allows your body and mind to take a break, to slow down the pace of life, and ease into a greater sense of calm. (Learn more about Taking Silence Breaks Throughout Your Day.)
Pratyahara All Day
Whenever you lie in corpse pose, or savasana, at the end of your yoga practice, you’re practicing pratyahara. Whenever you take a break from your work to simply close your eyes and relax for a few moments, you’re doing pratyahara. Pratyahara can be regarded as an essential act of self-care, which you can weave intermittently into your days and nights in small ways to relax your body, your mind, and conserve your precious energy. Take the time to get really intimate with this limb of Patanjali’s Ashtanga yoga. You’ll find it to be one of those simple pleasures you can turn to at anytime.