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Five Pillars Yoga

Exploring The Eight Limb Path: Pratyahara

Week Five: Withdrawing The Senses (Without Moving to a Cave)

Over the next few months we’ll #GoDeep into Patanjali’s Eight Limb Path. If you’re just checking in, be sure to read our intro post on the path itself and its first limb, the yamas. So far we’ve also covered the niyamas, asana, and pranayama.

We’ve arrived at the fifth limb, pratyahara, the withdrawal of our senses from the world around us. While this may sound extreme, Patanjali has been building up to this. First, in outlining the yamas and niyamas, he created a guideline for engaging with the outside world; then, by introducing asana, he pointed to a practice designed to balance and purify our physical selves; once the body was sorted, he moved to our relationship with prana, the subtle internal energy that illuminates and guides us.

The gaze of the Eight Limb Path has been shifting evermore inward; pratyahara brings this internal focus to the forefront.

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The Sanskrit, as always, is worth exploring. Ahara means food, or anything we take in from the outside. Prati, a preposition, means against or away. Pratyahara, then, means moving away from, or gaining mastery over, that which we draw on externally for nourishment.

Food, in this context, is multi-layered. On one level it refers to the actual food we eat (dense or light, fat or sweet); to our sense impressions — sound, touch, sight, taste, and smell —  on another; and thirdly, perhaps subtlest of all, to our relationships and interactions with others.

Are we to eschew all food, feelings and friendships, then? No. Despite how it may sound, pratyahara does not need to be practiced in a remote Himalayan cave. Incorporate the practice into your daily life by first making room for the right food, feelings and friendships to enter your sphere. By choosing mindfully you are already gaining mastery over your senses; instead of being ruled or swayed by the outside world you are choosing your reactions to it.

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Incorporate pratyahara into your asana practice by noticing when your mind wanders during a pose. Instead of letting your cravings or senses take hold — I can’t wait to get out of plank. Ooh, what’s that smell? Why is the girl next to me sighing so loudly? Someone farted! — bring your awareness to the energy of the pose itself.

Pratyahara is about choosing where we want our energy to go, and from where we want to withdraw it. 

As a stop on the Eight Limb Path on the way to enlightenment, pratyahara is instrumental. By finding nourishment and contentment within we cultivate a greater understanding of and respect for our infinite capacities. This turns meditation from a bore into a delight. Every path given up is another path chosen.

Photos: Top image from Elena Ray‘s beautiful archives; Kurmasana pose @yogainspiration; pachimotanasana from Tasty Yummies