Pratyahara is one of the limbs of the yoga practice. This Sanskrit term is made of two components. Prati is a preposition that means away, and ahara refers to that external thing that we consume. Pratyahara is often translated as control of the senses or withdrawal from the senses.
In our contemporary lives, we seem to practice the complete opposite of pratyahara. We look at our phones while spending time with our friends, we watch TV while writing our grocery lists, and even when we practice yoga asana we look around and observe what other practitioners are doing. We are so used to multi-tasking that the idea of a single focus seems alien and makes us feel uncomfortable.
To practice pratyahara is to control what we take in. It could mean selectively watching TV shows to include only those that inspire us and inform us. It could mean we hide the feeds in Facebook that tend to gossip and put down others. It could mean we spend a few minutes each morning in silent meditation.
In yoga asana practice, we can be more conscious of our breath, using the sound to guide us through the movements. We can cultivate focus by the use of dristi or fixing our gaze. We could even close our eyes at appropriate times. We could use silence instead of music.
Here are some exercises that we can try to consciously incorporate the practice of pratyahara:
- In one round of surya namaskar, close your eyes and let your internal consciousness guide your movements.
- Use sounds of nature such as cricket sounds as a constant background while practicing asana.
- In seated poses, close your eyes when the body has folded forward to the fullest extent of the stretch.
- In karnapidasana or ear pressure pose, notice what happens when you tune out external sounds.
After a yoga asana practice of tuning inwards, we may feel the benefits of having more peace and steadiness. We may notice that as the world outside turns and remains chaotic, there is that part of us that stays the same. We may experience that our reactions can be observed and controlled, and they do not have to run the show and make us fall victim to self-inflicted suffering.
If we find that the short period of practicing pratyahara in yoga class has helped us quiet down, we can consider prolonging this sense of peace by not speaking for a while and not rushing unnecessarily, making all of our movements slow and conscious. We can also look into forming a habit of practicing pratyahara through meditation, mindful walking exercises, or eating in silence a few times a week.
Pratyahara is control of the senses, to be selective in what we put into our consciousness. Just as we have a choice in the food that we eat, we also have a choice in the external reality that we consume. If our motivation is to be liberated from suffering, then we do not purposely inflict negativity into our lives. If our interest is in our freedom, then we do not enslave ourselves by preoccupation with mundane things. If our goal is yoga, then we do not try to "do things", we just let ourselves be.