pratyāhāra : a turning point
The 5th limb of Aṣṭāṅga Yoga is Pratyāhāra.
यम नियमाअसन प्राणायाम प्रत्याहार धारणा ध्यान समाधयोऽष्टावङ्गानि
yama niyama-āsana prāṇāyāma pratyāhāra dhāraṇā dhyāna samādhayo-‘ṣṭāvaṅgāni
– pys II.29
restraints (yama), observances (niyama), postures (āsana), expansion of life energy (prāṇāyāma), sense withdrawal (pratyāhāra), concentration (dhāraṇā), contemplation (dhyāna), and meditation (samādha) are the eight limbs [of yoga] (aṣtav aṅgāni)
Restraints, observances, postures, expansion of life energy, sense withdrawal, concentration, contemplation, and meditation are the eight limbs of yoga.
Pratyāhāra is often translated as “sense withdrawal”.
The word itself can be seen as a combination of “prati” or “opposite” and “āhāra” or “bringing near to”. The opposite of bringing near to is thus bringing away from, hence: “withdrawal”.
In the yoga sūtras of Patañjali, pratyāhāra is described with even less specificity than āsana. It receives just 2 sūtras in the context of explaining Aṣṭāṅga Yoga. However, it is a distinct turning point in the whole practice!
Pratyāhāra is the stage whereby the first 4 stages (or the bahiranga, the external limbs) of Aṣṭāṅga Yoga transition into the last 3 stages (or the antaranga, the internal limbs).
More about the internal limbs in the page about saṁyamaḥ.
The practice of pratyāhāra is said to bring power over one’s senses in order to perceive beyond the fluctuations of the phenomenal world into one’s innermost being.
Personally, pratyāhāra is the stage that I feel most intrigued by in my current relationship with Aṣṭāṅga Yoga. It seems to me to be the missing key to unlocking the next level of my practice. That said, I also feel there is a lot for me to learn from all the preceding stages, especially niyama and prāṇāyāma, before I can really recognize stability in the practice of pratyāhāra.
Side note: I think in Tibetan Buddhism, the Vajrayāna, pratyāhāra may be a key component in the visualization of tantric deities by withdrawing one’s conventional perception and identification with a limited self/sense perception. A practitioner can then surrender their experience of the senses to the enlightened perception of an unlimited, internalized deity in order to cut through attachment/aversion to their sensorial experience. In this way, pratyāhāra could also be considered intimately connected with the practice of iśvara praṇidhānā (from the 2nd limb, niyama).
Let’s look at pratyāhāra according to the yoga sūtras :
svaviṣaya-asaṁprayoge cittasya svarūpānukāra-iv-indriyāṇāṁ pratyāhāraḥ
– pys II.54
the senses (indriyāṇāṁ) withdraw (pratyāhāraḥ) their own forms (svarūpa) like an imitation (ānukāra) of the heart-mind consciously (cittasya) uncoupling (asaṁprayoge) from its own projections (svaviṣaya)
The senses withdraw from their own forms like an imitation of the heart–mind consciously uncoupling from its own projections.
– pys II.55
from that (tataḥ) emerges the highest obeisance (paramā-vaśyatā) of the senses (indriyāṇām)
From that emerges the highest obeisance of the senses.
To summarize pratyāhāra according to the yoga sūtras :
1) The senses withdraw from their own forms like an imitation of the heart–mind consciously uncoupling from its own projections. (pys II.54)
2) From that emerges the highest obeisance of the senses. (pys II.55)
Translations for the yoga sūtras of Patañjali by Sandi Higgins, synthesized with thanks from the following sources:
Books : The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary by Edwin F. Bryant (2009)
Patanjali Yoga Sutras by Swami Prabhavananda (1991)
Light On The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali by B.K.S Iyengar (1993)
The Science of Yoga: The Yoga-sutra-s of Patañjali in Sanskrit with Transliteration in Roman, Translation and Commentary in English by I.K. Taimni (2007)
SHANTI WITH SANDI © 2021