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.

What is the path to enlightenment?

Q: What is the path to enlightenment?

A: According to Putanjali’s Yoga Sutras, enlightenment is attained in seven stages. Including the final stage, these form the Eight Limbs of Yoga:

1. Yamas: Hindrances (Nonviolence, Truthfulness, Nonstealing, Moderation, Non-possessivenes)
2. Niyamas: Oberservances (Purity, Contentment, Self-discipline, Self-study, Surrender)
3. Asana: Poses
4. Pranayama: Control of life-force through breath
5. Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses
6. Dharana: Concentration
7. Dhyana: Meditation
8: Samadhi: Non-dualistic consciousness

The last three limbs are so similar and seamless that Putanjali groups them together as samyama (perfectly controlled). Still, they are distinct stages:

Concentration (dharana) is binding the attention of the mind to a single object, place, or idea. Meditation (dhyana) is the continuous flow of consciousness toward an object. Samadhi is deep absorpotion on the object without thought of the self. Then, the essential nature of the object shines forth. (3.1-3.3) Through mastery of samyamah, knowledge born of intuitive insight shines forth. (3.5)

Even in the workout-focused yoga classes of the West, breadcrumbs that lead you along the path are still there. In public yoga classes, the focus is often on asana, the poses, and sometimes pranayama, the breath, but if you listen carefully, the other limbs of yoga are often threaded through many teachers’ cues. When yoga teachers suggests you avoid pushing so hard that you’re gasping for breath, they are talking about non-violence, one of the yamas. When they remind you to be happy in your variation on the pose, rather than grasping for the variation the person beside you is taking, they are talking about contentment, one of the niyamas. When teachers tell you focus the eyes and the mind on a drishti, a focal point, during balancing poses, they are talking about pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses. When you hear cues about detaching yourself from mental chatter and keeping your focus on your breath during savasana, corpse pose, your teachers are talking about samayama, the last three limbs.

All of this said, Putanjali’s system is only one way to journey toward enlightenment. There are many other paths.