How do I practice withdrawal of the senses?

Q: How do I practice withdrawal of the senses?

A: Pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses, is the fifth limb of yoga, as defined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. In the sutras, it says,

Pratyahara is when the senses withdraw themselves from the objects and imitate, as it were, the nature of the mind. As a result of this withdrawal, there is supreme mastery of the sense organs. (2.54-2.55)

Sometimes withdrawal of the senses is restated as non-attachment to the senses. When practicing pratyahara, we notice sounds and sensations from our environment without letting them perturb us. For example, you may notice your nose itch during a meditation session. You let the sensation register, but instead of automatically scratching your noise, you distance yourself from the experience, observing it with curiosity as if it were happening to someone else. As Ludith Lasater writes in a Yoga Journal article on the subject:

To me, practicing pratyahara doesn’t mean running away from stimulation (which is basically impossible). Rather, practicing pratyahara means remaining in the middle of a stimulating environment and consciously not reacting, but instead choosing how to respond.

Here are some ways you can practice pratyahara in public classes or in your home practice:

  1. During breathing exercises, allow the sound and sensation of your breath to hold your awareness. Allow the length and depth of your breath to fill your awareness. When you’re really focusing on your breath, there isn’t room for much else in your perception.
  2. During balancing poses, direct the eyes and the mind to a drishti, a focal point, and allow all other sensory experience to melt away.
  3. Once you can balance with the eyes open, soften the gaze and direct your awareness to your third eye (the space between the eyebrows) as your drishti. Eventually you may be able to close the eyes, letting go of reliance on vision entirely.
  4. During savasana, the final resting posture, allow your breath or the beating of your heart to be your focal point. You may have moments of mental chatter, and you may have moments of distraction, but allow your breath or your heartbeat to seem so much more interesting than those things that they don’t hold your awareness. You keep returning to your drishti.

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