Pratyahara – the Fifth Limb of the Eight-Limbed Path of Yoga...often called the “Forgotten Limb.”

In our over-the-top stressed out culture, meditation is currently being touted as a THE antidote. It decreases stress and anxiety, calms and steadies the mind, lowers blood pressure, turns down the Sympathetic Nervous System and much much more.

Pratyahara is the first stage of meditation. The term pratyahara is composed of two Sanskrit words, prati and ahara. Ahara means "food," or "anything we take into ourselves from the outside." This can also be sound, things we see, taste, touch and feel....and energy from others.

Prati is a preposition meaning "against" or "away." Pratyahara, then, means literally "control of ahara," or "gaining mastery over external influences." It is compared to a turtle withdrawing its limbs into its shell — the turtle’s shell is the mind and the senses are the limbs. (Kurmasana, Turtle Pose, is a deep seated forward bend, where the arms and hands are folded underneath the legs, in much the same way that a turtle would do.)

Pratyahara is usually translated as "withdrawal from the senses," but much more is implied. 

The mind is a gigantic field of impressions. All that is contained in the field of our minds has been input by the five senses. All that we ‘know’ is only what has been fed into the mind by the senses. The mind is like a big computer, if you will, into which all kinds of data has been input. That is all we ‘know.’ (Can you imagine all that we DON”T know?!) The kinds of impressions that are currently in our minds will affect how we think, speak and behave in our lives. Being careful of our associations with harmful people, or negative impressions that we see on our televisions WILL affect how we orchestrate our lives. What we don’t know, we have yet to hear, see, feel, taste or smell. This is precisely where meditation comes in. When we meditate we open the door to our minds, and let new wisdom to enter. We ‘see’ more clearly. 

It is not possible to move directly from asana (postures) to meditation. We first need to ‘turn away’ from the external world. To do this, we quiet the 5 senses (in Sanskrit ‘indriyas’ )- the senses of smell, taste, touch, sight, sound. We practice pausing, being still, sometimes closing our eyes, listening inwardly and intently as if expecting to hear something from within, and most importantly, being relaxed. And we are patient with ourselves. This is called pratyahara….the first stage of meditation. 

The breath is an extremely important instrument in making this transition. The breath is the link between the physical body and the body of mind. Many breath techniques exist in the tradition of yoga to help us move inwardly, and to marry the mind with the body. 

Importantly, the practice of pratyahara can also be explained by not only turning away ... But also by turning toward positive influences and toward making right choices in our lives. Right associations, relationships, right work, right diet, right rest all make for a very peaceful sense of inner calm….as in the old Scottish proverb states “an easy mind is a soft pillow.” 

At this time of year when many yogis reflect upon the 12 months that are passing by, and resolving to do better in the 12 months to come, pratyahara can be considered to be of immense help. 

And WOW.....could we all use a healthy dose of pratyahara these days! “Gaining mastery over external influences.” Hmmmmmm. The media would have us believe that if only we had this...or if only we bought that....we would be complete. More clothing, more food, a new car, bigger house, more and more DEBT. Many of us today live our lives like there is a second one waiting in the wings. Not true.

And guess what?! Even with all the additional ‘stuff’, we would still be the same, only poorer or fatter. 

We ARE already complete, already perfect....just as we the tradition of yoga teaches.