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The Eight Limbs of Yoga - Pratyahara

Welcome to this week’s discussion on the guiding principles of the science of Yoga - the Eight Limbs.

To date we have discussed the first four of the personal examinations, attitudes and physical practices that the aspiring yogi examines and adopts on their path.

With the fifth Limb, ‘Pratyahara’, the practices move away from the external and become deeply internal. It is from this point onwards that we may be considered to enter the true heart of the science of Yoga - a deepening contemplation of the behaviour of our own minds and internal landscape, driving the purposeful dropping of ego-driven false perceptions towards ourselves, and culminating in the pure, clear recognition that we are one and the same with the Divine Source and that there is no separation in our experience of self and other.


‘Pratyahara’ means ‘withdrawal of the senses’, although the literal translation is ‘withdrawal of food’, in which ‘food’ refers to external stimuli.

When the yogi has examined the Yamas and Niyamas, prepared their body for stillness with disciplined practice of Asana and mastered controlling and cultivating the breath/prana through Pranayama exercises, the disciplined attention turns inwards to the personal space of contemplation and training the mind.

The withdrawal of the senses cultivated through the practises of Pratyahara is just that; a withdrawal from and a removal of all external stimuli that would otherwise seek to distract the yogi from the necessary internal reflection that inevitably leads to the recognition of the True Self and our union and connection with the Universe.

Within the yogic tradition, there are two types of Pratyahara and both are intimately connected and support one another. The first type (known as ‘Indriya Pratayahara’), is the literal withdrawal of sensory inputs to the body. By relatively simple exercises, such as sustained concentration of the awareness on the flow of the breathing, connection with and reaction to external sensory stimulation is gradually severed - as the awareness is fully and deeply absorbed in just the breath, there is no awareness of anything else.

Whilst the exercises themselves can appear extraordinarily simple, the practice of these exercises requires a strong will and enormous focus - our everyday mind or consciousness has the habit of continuously moving from one sensory input to another; this is perfectly natural and literally how our minds ‘make sense’ of our external environment, which includes the body.

We recall here how the practice of Pratyahara is not concerned with the external, other than being the method by which sensory stimuli is gradually reduced, but the beginning of the internal cultivation of pure, unified consciousness.

The second type of Pratyahara (known as ‘Prana Pratyahara’), is the control of our senses through the control of our Prana (see the preceding article of ‘Pranayama’ in the April edition).

Prana is the all-pervading and all-sustaining energy of life, consciousness and the Universe itself and a vital ‘fuel’ for our physical body. By bringing the Prana under control and preventing its unrestricted use in fueling the scatter-gun approach of our senses to the external, the yogi is able to cultivate a deep store of this vital energy within the cerebro-spiritual energetic centres of the body, more commonly known as the Chakras.

The practice of Pratyahara within the yogic tradition is firmly seen as the beginning of the journey inwards; the journey that leads to complete self-awareness and recognition of our inherent connection through the removal of duality from our perceptions.

Matt - The Bearded Naked Yogi

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