Pratyahara: The Art of Sense Withdrawal
Tired of having a distracted mind? Learn to rein it in through the pivotal practices of pratyahara (sense withdrawal), which help you unplug, replenish, and move forward.
“Bring attention to your left knee…now the left ankle….” Ten minutes into a guided relaxation practice, 25 students lie as motionless as corpses. Suddenly, a hand floats up off the floor, slips into a pocket, and pulls out an iPhone. Without a ripple of movement from the rest of the body, the thumbs flit over the tiny keypad, replying to an incoming text in a private parallel universe somewhere far removed from the left knee and ankle. Ironically,we had just spent several hours extolling the virtues of deep relaxation and withdrawing the mind from its usual pursuits, an ancient practice yogis call pratyahara. Perhaps She-with-Smartphone-in-Hand wasn’t convinced—at least not enough to resist an insistent summons from the cyber world.
Pratyahara practices lead to a profound state of relaxation, expanded self-awareness, and inner stability. They help us master both the body and the mind.
It takes skill to step back and disengage from the forward momentum of life long enough to deeply relax and replenish. With an acute sense of hearing and two thumbs eager to respond, poor Ms. Smartphone simply couldn’t shut out the goings-on around her long enough to let her nervous system relax and her attention turn inward. The world that beckoned to her as she lay in shavasana is what yoga calls the small slice of reality that we engage in courtesy of our 10 senses. The five cognitive senses (jnana indriya) bring information to us through our sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin); the five corresponding active senses (karma indriya) allow us to act upon that information through speech, movement, manipulation, procreation, and elimination. In Ms. Smartphone’s case, her ears picked up a signal from the outside world that she immediately acted upon, without even thinking, by moving her hand to reach for her phone.
The problem, of course, isn’t that we inhabit a world in which we are keenly aware of, and often act upon, what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. After all, from a spiritual perspective, our actions and what we experience through the senses are of utmost importance—they are the vehicle for achieving our purpose in life and giving us what we need for self-knowledge, spiritual wisdom, and, ultimately, true and lasting freedom (moksha). The problem arises when we can’t let sensations go, and we get swept away by the sensory world, only to wash up on its shores exhausted and confused—still texting in spite of our best intentions.
The Untethered Senses
Although smart phones, e-mail, and 24/7 worldwide access make no appearance in the Katha Upanishad, this ancient text uses a metaphor to describe how attachment to sensation can derail us.
Sensory overload is hardly unique to modern times. Although smart phones, e-mail, and 24/7 worldwide access make no appearance in the Katha Upanishad, this ancient text uses a metaphor to describe how attachment to sensation can derail us. The body is a chariot carrying the Self as a passenger pulled by horses (the senses), and driven by our innate intelligence (buddhi), using the sensory mind(manas) as reins. The sense objects are the path on which the horses pull the chariot. If the horses are poorly trained or the chariot driver is inattentive or unskilled, the chariot careens off course. In other words, without a disciplined mind and right understanding, we suffer from the distractions of our uncontrolled senses, just as a charioteer suffers from trying to control untrained horses.
Instead of deciding what to pay attention to and then executing that decision, the undisciplined mind lets itself be led by the desires and habits of the senses. The untrained senses, run by past experiences and instinct (desire, fear, cravings), latch on to the pleasure of the moment and don’t consider the bigger picture or our long-term well-being. How else do we find ourselves Facebooking when we intended to finish the report that’s due by the end of the day, munching cookies when we resolved to lose 10 pounds, or becoming attracted to a philandering six-pack of abs when we already have a loving life partner at home?
“When the mind is guided by the wandering senses, then it carries away one’s understanding, as does the wind a ship on the water,” warns the Bhagavad Gita in a poetic description of the relentless pursuit of sensation at the expense of our physical, emotional, and mental health. But how can we take control of the proverbial rudder before we run aground or are swept out to sea?
Most spiritual traditions recognize the problems that arise from wayward senses and the overpowering attraction of the sensory world. Over the millennia they’ve countered with practices as varied as fasting, silence, and celibacy, as well as more extreme approaches like lying on a bed of nails, wearing a hair shirt, or standing on your big toes with your gaze and arms lifted to the heavens for 100 celestial years.
Creating Positive Habits
In the yoga tradition these types of practices fall under the definition of tapas, usually translated as “penance, austerity, or self-discipline,” and the yogic literature teems with descriptions of the fantastic achievements of this sort of concentrated effort. Five minutes in vrikshasana will be enough to convince you that 100 years on your tiptoes is unlikely to work out, so you may want to take a more practical approach toward sensory discipline and consider adopting a few simple lifestyle changes to tone down your habitual response to stimulation. These include going to bed on time and being mindful in thought, speech, and action, to occasionally refraining from food, speech, sex, and entertainment, as well as actively restraining the senses and focusing the mind in guided relaxation practices (pratyahara) and meditation. This training of the senses creates habits that support a balanced and healthy life.
Asana practice and pranayama exercises, which can awaken inner awareness, also support us in tuning out and turning in. Asana balances energy flow. It releases tension and puts us in touch with inner sensations, giving the mind space and an internal resting place. The body naturally becomes more still, and when that happens, the mind can come to rest. We feel grounded, more at ease, and able to steer the chariot down the right path.
Asana releases tension and puts us in touch with inner sensations, giving the mind space and an internal resting place.
The senses tend to suspend their activities naturally through pranayama. When the breath flows evenly in both nostrils—which occurs through various pranayama techniques—the mind no longer attaches itself to what’s going on around it and moves inward. Many pratyahara practices incorporate breath awareness for this reason, using the physical breath to awaken awareness of the movement of prana through the body. Pratyahara, often translated as “sense withdrawal,” lies on the threshold between external practices like asana and pranayama, and internal ones like dharana and dhyana(concentration and meditation) that lead to samadhi (spiritual absorption).
Sense withdrawal and relaxation are synonymous not with a blank mind but with a well-focused and well-controlled one (the chariot driver needs to stay awake!). Pratyahara exercises require concentration and the ability to focus on the inner sensory and energetic experience of the body. The point is, if you lose focus, either the mind drifts to its usual preoccupations (What are the kids doing? Let me text them…), or you simply fall asleep—and neither option expands awareness or breaks up deep-seated patterns of tension that can zap your energy and send you reeling off course.
Sleep, which is a natural form of pratyahara, occurs as our consciousness spontaneously detaches itself from the sensory and motor channels of experience. It’s not the same as true pratyahara because during sleep we lack conscious awareness and the ability to integrate the inner and outer worlds. The systematic yogic relaxation practices of pratyahara train the involuntary systems of the brain to avoid falling asleep as the subconscious mind begins to surface.
The Light of Awareness
When we consciously withdraw from sensation by turning the mind inward, the light of awareness falls on the mind itself instead of on the activities of its organs of perception and action. We mentally cease moving forward (or backward) in time and space. And, because the senses are naturally divisive, bifurcating, and dispersive, our energy becomes more concentrated and focused—the way ordinary light becomes a laser by synchronizing its various wavelengths. “Just as the tortoise withdraws its limbs, so when a man withdraws his senses from the sense objects, his wisdom becomes steady,” explains the Bhagavad Gita.
"Just as a tortoise withdraws its limbs, so when a man withdraws his senses from the sense objects, his wisdom becomes steady." -Bhagavad Gita
Consciousness becomes far more sensitive when it detaches from the senses. As the senses withdraw, the intuitive mind awakens. Thus the practices of pratyahara free our conscious awareness from old patterns and habitual thinking. The creative solution to a problem, the aha moment, the burst of creativity all come from the part of the mind unconstrained by what we already know—a mind that is less fragmented, more receptive, and more whole.
Truth be told, everything goes better when we’re relaxed, and a regular practice of deep relaxation and withdrawal of the senses will break up stress patterns and flood the body and mind with healing energy. But, as our texting friend discovered, it’s not that easy to dial down the demands of the day and overcome the momentum of our habits. Being profoundly and unconditionally at ease at the deepest level in all situations, and able to turn the mind wherever you want, requires a trained mind. One that holds steady during the storms of life and their onslaught of desires and provocations, and one that can assimilate unfortunate truths about yourself. Such resilient equanimity is not the gift of a genetic predisposition or accidental good fortune. No, it comes from training.
8 Ways to Explore Pratyahara
Restricting habitual engagement of the senses is a powerful way to check and control your desires. These few suggestions may help you replenish your vitality and quiet your mind:
- Skip a meal once a week or give up a favorite food.
- Observe silence. Sign up for a silence retreat, stay quiet for a day or two on a regular basis, or observe silence for a set period of time every day, say from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m.
- Avoid gossip and negative remarks.
- Practice periods of voluntary celibacy.
- Observe compassion in your thoughts, speech, and actions.
Moving Into Stillness
A balancing asana like vrikshasana reveals the interaction between the body, mind, and senses. Start with your feet parallel and hip-distance apart. Rotate your right knee out to the side and place the right foot on the inner left thigh. Press the sole of your foot against the thigh, the thigh into the foot. Draw the right knee back and your tailbone down, pressing the standing foot into the floor as you stretch the arms up alongside the ears. Lift through the crown of the head and fix your gaze on a point on the floor.
As the senses withdraw, the intuitive mind awakens.
Refine your breath and focus your awareness on the vertical axis through the core of the body, holding the pose as you become steadier mentally and physically. Notice how stabilizing the active senses, which are responsible for the activity of the body, makes it easier to still the mind. Also notice that fixing your gaze, which stabilizes vision, the most active of the cognitive senses, helps to focus both the body and the mind.
A Seated Pratyahara Practice
Awareness is an attribute of buddhi, the intellect, or pure intelligence. The word itself is derived from the root bodh, which means “to be aware of, to have experience, to know.” Buddhi is a quality of consciousness itself, and the pivot point between sensory awareness and awareness that expands beyond the limited range of the senses, memory, and ego-bound self. Buddhi directs our attention, consciously or not.
Try this: Can you feel your sit bones on the chair? Do you hear sounds in the room? Sounds outside the room? What do you see in your peripheral vision? Most likely you are not aware of any of these things until buddhi calls your attention to them—even though they stream continuously into your mind. The senses follow the mind like bees follow the queen bee, explains Vyasa in his commentary on the Yoga Sutra.
In our usual waking state, the senses perceive whatever external objects the mind is fixed on. In the practice of pratyahara, the senses no longer perceive external objects because the mind is fixed on an internal region.
A Pratyahara Practice in Shavasana
For a deeper experience of pratyahara, lie down in shavasana (corpse pose) and listen to an 11-minute guided pratyahara practice.