The Eight Limbs of Yoga are outlined in The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali. Called the Yoga Sutras for short, this text is a collection of the oldest known teachings specifically about the yoga practice. The Eight Limbs are eight distinct practices that yogis undertake together in order to awaken the state of Yoga within them.
What is Pratyahara?
Pratyahara is the fifth limb of Yoga. It means “withdrawal of the senses.” In order to more deeply explore our inner world, we must first withdraw the energy and attention we give to the outer world. Pratyahara is how we practice doing so.
Pratyahara prepares us for meditation. In our day-to-day life, our senses guide our mind. In order to focus our mind for meditation, we first direct our senses to a single steady point, like the breath. Therefore, when practicing Pratyahara withdrawing our senses does not mean turning them off. Instead, we turn them inward.
More than preparing for meditation!
All of the Eight Limbs of Yoga work together to help us realize Yoga. However, they are also beneficial practices in and of themselves. Pratyahara is more than just a means to get to meditation. It is a practice that empowers us with greater choice as to what we allow and do not allow to stimulate our senses. It teaches us to focus on what is important to us instead of superfluous distractions.
We live in an overstimulated, fast-paced society. We are surrounded by an ever-expanding amount of all that entices and indulges our senses. Not only that, but through the wonder of technology much of it is introduced into our psyche without our awareness and, in some instances, without our permission. In order to maintain mental, emotional, and spiritual autonomy, we must become aware of all that we allow into our minds. Pratyahara is a practice that teaches us to do just that.
Pratyahara in practice.
Believe it or not, Pratyahara is not a practice for disengaging from the world. Rather, it teaches us how to engage more fully in the world by cultivating choice as to what we give our energy. Before we can choose whether or not to give our attention to that which stimulates our senses, we must first become aware that the stimulus is there. In this way, we become less reactive and more responsive. Rather than allowing our senses to dictate our experience, we choose our experience and how we would like our senses to serve it.
Pratyahara cannot be forced. Instead, we invite Pratyahara to occur by creating an atmosphere for it to arise. Start simple. Begin by simply focusing on the breath. From time to time the senses will become distracted from the breath by an external stimulus. Do not become discouraged. That is part of the practice. The key is redirecting the senses to the breath when they have wandered away from it. We are not concerned with entirely withdrawing from the physical world, but becoming more alert and aware of it.
A much-loved practice that helps us realize Pratyahara is Bhramari Pranayama, also known as Bumblebee Breath!
- Begin comfortably seated in a quiet room.
- Close your eyes.
- Create the mudra (hand position). Place your pinky fingers at the edge of your lips, ring fingers at their prospective nostrils, middle fingers at the inner corner of the eyes, index fingers at the brow, and thumbs over the earflaps. Be gentle with your touch in these sensitive areas. The mudra reminds you of the inner-focus you are trying to achieve.
- Breathe in. Breathe out creating a humming sound-like a bumblebee!
- Inhale again and repeat about four to nine times, or however many feels right and appropriate to you.
- End by returning to your natural breathing. Notice how you feel. Take the awareness you have cultivated into your day.