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Pratyahara – the 5th Limb of Yoga

An analysis by Glyn Hubbard

Pratyahara is the 5th limb of yoga and is described in Yoga Sutra II.54 as ”withdrawing the senses, mind and consciousness from contact with external objects, and then drawing them inwards towards the seer, is pratchyhara”(1)

II.54 “Svavisaya asamprayoge cittasya svarupanukarah iva indriyanam pratyaharah”(1)

Pratyahara follows the first four limbs of Yoga being Yama, Niyama, Asana and Pranayama. Yama and Niyama can be described as a code of conduct on how we treat ourselves and others. Asana are the postures that we normally associate with our idea of what yoga is, and Pranayama is the control and understanding of the breath. The first four limbs of yoga can be seen as an outward engagement of the physical world in which we live. At the same time it can be said that asana and pranayama are a movement towards the inner self. Asana can allow us to make the mental connection with the physical body and pranayama can help us understand the movement of energy within the body though the study of the breath. Pratyahara then can be seen as a further movement away from the physical external world in which we live as it is a withdrawing from the physical world of the senses.

The senses are the way in which we get information about the world we live in. Without the senses we would not have any information about the world around us and therefore would not have the information needed to understand the physical world. In saying this it seems counter intuitive to move away from the senses as it means moving away from the the world in which live and exist.

How can this be a good thing?

For instance, from the day we are born we are receiving information through our senses and we are asked to make choices based on this information. The senses can provide us with both “good” and “bad” information.

For instance the senses can be good,

  • • Sight – Beautiful view

  • • Sound – Melodic music

  • • Taste – Good cooking

  • • Smell – Flower in bloom

  • • Touch – the warmth of the sun

Also the senses can equally be bad,

  • • Sight – Accident

  • • Sound – Fingers down a chalkboard

  • • Taste – Rotten apple

  • • Smell – a foul odour

  • • Touch – a prickly plant

We learn from this experience of what is good and bad and make our day to day decisions based on this information and in the process evolve and change as we get older. We cannot unlearn what we have learnt through our senses and it is a tool for us to be able to judge and respond to events that happen in the future.

Although the senses provide us with many great experiences it is true that it is a continual bombardment of stimuli that can create a busy-ness in the mind so it is in a state where it cannot rest. It is difficult for the mind to be content due to this continual stimuli as it is constantly processing all of this information from the natural world. Especially in todays world there are not only natural stimuli but also man made stimuli (in the form of technology – phones, computers etc). It seems now that there is more a need than ever to quieten the mind and bring some peace from this continual activity.

It can be said also that the natural world around us is neither good or bad, it is just our perception of it that decides whether it is good or bad. This was particulartly evident during our recent Yoga retreat when we had to deal with the forces of nature (we were unable to leave due to flooding). Ultimately we are not in control of the physical world but we are a part of it. Yoga is saying to accept this fact and withdrawal of the senses can be another way in which to experience or deal with this reality. A move away from the outward physical world to the inward spirtitual world is not a denial of the world. It is a different perspective. A perspective when there is no good or bad.

A move away from the senses can be seen as something beneficial.

If this is the case then how can it be done? It is hard to withdraw from the senses. The Yogas Sutra”s explain that Pratyahara is one of the eight limbs of Yoga

In Sutra II.29 it states that – “Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi are the eight constituents of yoga” (2)

“yama niyama asana pranayama pratyahara dharana dhyana samadhayah astau angani”(2)

And then the following Sutras numbered II.30-II.55 describe the first of these 5 limbs of yoga including Pratyahara.

It is implied that for Pratchyhara to be undertaken requires the first four limbs of yoga to be understood and practiced. Asana practice and Pranayama then play a crucial role in the ability to reach Pratyahara.

The dedicated practice of asana can cultivate a beneficial state of concentration. For instance the asana postures demand that the mind be fixed on the placement of the parts of the body to maintain a certain posture. It is only through continual practice that an understanding of a posture can be gained. For instance Trikonasana (Triangle pose) perhaps one of the most recognisable asanas can be seen as a simple pose that is taught at beginner level. However in reality the more one understands the pose then the more one realises the subtle intricacies and the almost limitless adjustments that are necessary to truly be in that pose. I am only discovering some of these intricacies and details of this posture although I have been doing it for some years now. It can be said then, that the pose is teaching the mind and the body and the breath to work with each other. The shape of the pose can be noticed externally however the experience of being in the pose cannot be seen from the outside as this requires ones attention to be internalised and felt. In this way the asana is teaching the mind to not focus on external things that are happening, but is asking the mind to concentrate on the things that are happening internally to the body. This also means that there is still so much detail in the posture that my mind still has yet to learn and it will only be through continued practice of this asana that a deeper understanding develops. The process of doing the pose (especially under guidanace) has brought about this deeper connection and understanding. However it also means that each time the asana is performed it demands the attention of my mind in order to obtain this deeper connection. The mind is thus trained to connect to the posture and for

a time is not needed to think of other things or react to the input of external events. Although this is not true all the time as the mind continually wants to wander, there is certainly an inwards movement with the body that is experienced for a certain time. However fleeting that may be, we can notice that focus and extend the duration of that inwards connection away from the external influence of the senses.

Asana practice can also assist the mind to become quiet and this quietening of the mind can also help to withdraw from the senses. For instance, Prasarita Padottanasana, we often perform this asana after standing poses. After the exertion and heating actions of standing poses this can be seen as a cooling asana. Although the limbs and body are stretched, the head is lowered and supported and the head position is lower than the heart. The position is held generally longer so the mind has the time then to become quiet. Likewise the other forward bending asanas such as Pachimottanasana can provide a similar quieteness of mind. The activity of the mind is lessened and the mind becomes more inward looking. These asanas are assisting the mind to move inward and prepare the mind to be able to move away from the external sensory information.

Sometimes the asana practice can mean exerting or pushing to ones limits and this can be very rewarding particularly afterwards or during the latter part of the practice. However restorative poses of longer duration have also assisted in the movement towards Pratyahara. Especially with the assistance of props. Recently I have also benefitted from some restorative classes and was able to get a better appreciation of the benefit of being kinder to the body with the use of props. With correct use of props to support the body and to help the body to stay longer in a pose, this allows the mind to slow its constant wandering and to focus inwards to the breath. Sometimes it is just time that is needed to allow the mind to become quiet and I have recently found that supported restorative poses can give this time so that the mind has a chance to withdraw from the sensory world around it. Again this happens in small timeframes before the mind then begins to think of other things that are happening, however restorative poses can provide the time to better understand the path that is needed to reach this state.

Props are also beneficial. Recently I have also been taught to use the head bandage during asana and pranayama practice. This has been particularly beneficial for me. The shutting off of external sight and lowering of external sound has allowed me to shift my attention internally both in the body and in the mind (both of these senses being particularly strong senses that draw my attention externally). The bandages assist the mind to move away from the senses by having the physical barrier there. By lowering the minds attention of the senses then greater attention to the inner working of the physical body and on the movement of breath can be achieved. This allows the mind to not be as concerned with what is happening outside of the body and so for periods of time the mind can have its attention to be drawn more inward.

Salamba Sirsasana – headstand is an asana that we often do for an extended time period. As it is an asana of balance it requires concentration . I remember how difficult this pose was to finally achieve the balance. I remember how exposed I felt trying to do this pose, there was nowehere to hide and it was only through continued practice and small step by small step that the balance could eventually be achieved. I remember how much the mind would wander and fear would take over and I would need to reach my feet to the wall. When I reflect on this, it is only through regular practice and guidanace that the mind is able to dwell in the areas of the body needed to maintain and adjust the balance. So the asana is teaching the mind to concentrate for longer periods of time until the fear of falling can sibside and then the mind can settle and then the breath can be observed and then the attention can be inward away from the senses. Although the sense of sight is needed to perform this

asana, the eyes can still be aware externally and the sight can soften and withdraw and reflect inwards.

Salamba Saravangasana – shoulderstand is also an asana requiring balance in an inverted position and one in which the pose is held for a longer duration. The inverted position and the chin lock both combine to allow the mind to be in a state where it can retreat inwards. The chin lock, Jalandhara Bandha, in particular restricting the flow of energy into the brain so that it can become less active. Although mind awareness and keeping the eyes open is required to maintain the balance the longer duration means that the mind can explore inwardly and find time to empty thoughts and also to internalise and recede from the effects of external stimuli.

In Light on Life, BKS Iyendar says of Pratyahara - “It is the gradual involution of the sense and stilling of the mind with the aid of breath to make the practitioner fit for concentrations and meditation”(3). Pranayama is therefore necessary to achieve the withdrawal of the senses. Iyengar further says “it is in Pranayama that one learns to withdraw the senses and mind from their external engagement”(4)

Prior to practicing Pranayama we often do chest opening asana. Often these asana can be quite physically demanding and I have found that the more effort made in preparation asana for Pranayama then the quieter the mind can become during Pranayama. Perhaps this is due to increased opening and space created in the body especially if the asana can be done with the focus on the movement of the breath. During Pranayama the mind and breath are being united as the mind is used to direct the flow of the breath. This focus of attention to the breath then can draw the attention inwards away from the external environment in which the body is present. During Pranayama the eyes are covered, the body kept warm and the body in an position where the spine can be supported (laid out) or upright and attentive (seated asana). Both of these positions assist the movement of energy up and down through the spine. The chin lock or Jalandhara Bandha is used to reduce the flow of energy into the brain. The attention of the mind can then be in a state where it is internalised and not distracted by being cold or by being uncomfortable. The mind is then as ready as it can be to focus on the moevement of Prana energy through the breath. This concentration towards the breath also helps the mind in its shift away from the external world of the senses to the inner world free of the senses

Sutra II.55 “tatah parama vasyata indriyanam”(5) translated as “Pratyahara results in the abolute control of the sense organs”(5). Thus the effects of withdrawal of the senses is so the senses are controlled. The senses provide our mind and body with stimuli that we interpret as either good or bad. Obviously we move away from what makes us feel bad, however we move towards what makes us feel good. What makes us feel good can have both a negative and positive effect - as we all know ”too much of a good thing can have a bad result” for instance too many Easter Eggs can give me an upset stomach (I think I am suffering from this as I type). However there are many pleasures and temptations that we are attracted to through the senses and by mastering the senses through Pratyahara the Yoga Sutra is saying we can obtain freedom.

As I am coming to a better and deeper understanding of yoga I realise that the 8 limbs of yoga are not a linear progression. That is, it is not Yama that needs to be understood fully before we can move to Niyama and then Asana and so on. When we come to yoga it is normally the asana that are first done and this is the the third limb of yoga. The practice of the asanas then can allow the other limbs of yoga to be understood better. I find in my own practice the truth of this. Understanding of Yama and Niyama has deepened since the start of my practice and it was through the asanas that this understanding has increased. It feels as though the physical release through the body can open up that deeper understanding and awareness by creating space within the parts of the body. The

breath also becomes more understood and allows a better understanding of Pranayama through the practice of asana and also leads to insight into sensory control (Pratyahara) and a better ability to concentrate (Dharana). Through continued practice of asana the other limbs of yoga can be better understood more thouroughly and this happens in a non linear way, but rather works together in a continual movement toward improvement. In withnessing this continual change then is reward for the hard work in continuing with a daily practice of asana and certainly gives the motivation to continue as the benefits are realised.

AFTER NOTE: I did use the word mind a lot in the above – and perhaps there is a further understsanding for me to know the difference between the mind and the inteligence – at the moment I see them as one. I know that Iyengar has explained that the mind can only know the difference between what feels good and what feels bad and therefore is very fleeting – “mind is always drawn outward by the senses into the attractions of the outward world”(6)

Whereas the intelligence can process and learn. Iyengar says of intelligence “it is the quiet, determined, clear eyed revolutionary of our consciousness. Intelligence is the silent or sleeping partner in consciousness, but when it awakes it is the senior or dominant partner.” (7)

In understanding the above then, the mind is connected to the senses and the intelligence is awakened in Pratyahara - It is the intellligence we must cultivate and intelligence is not connected to the senses whereas the mind is.


1 - Light on the Yoga Sutras – BKS Iyengar pg 168 Sutra II.54

2 - Light on the Yoga Sutras – BKS Iyengar pg 140 Sutra II.29

3 - Light of Life – BKS Iyengar – BKS Iyengar pg 102

4 - Light of Life – BKS Iyengar – BKS Iyengar pg 99

5 - Light on the Yoga Sutras – BKS Iyengar pg 170 Sutra II.55

6 - Light of Life – BKS Iyengar – BKS Iyengar pg 153

7 - Light of Life – BKS Iyengar – BKS Iyengar pg 124

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Dawn Mills
Dawn Mills
Jun 06, 2022

Thanks Glyn for your interesting analysis of Pratyahara.

I have spent the past week practicing Vipassana meditation in a home retreat (I have previously completed a couple of Vipassana retreats). As you may know, Vipassana meditation is all about scanning the body and observing the non-stop sensations therein, constantly arising and passing away in response to our mind's non-stop activity, with the aim of developing non-reaction, awareness and equanimity. As you have mentioned, we all develop entrenched conditioned reactions to "good" or "bad" thoughts (usually in relation to external stimuli, past, present or future), which elicit "pleasant" or "unpleasant" bodily sensations, which then feed into the craving and aversion reactions that so often rule our lives. By practicing awareness and…

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