This is the fifth limb of yoga, where the practitioner learns the art of diverting his senses and mind from external objects and bringing them under conscious control. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines Pratyahara as follows: “In the absence of communication with their objects, senses follow the internal form of consciousness. Thus, we achieve their full submission.”
Senses, pleasures, desires, suffering
Our senses constantly seek pleasure and avoid that which is unpleasant. The escape from discomfort is quite natural behavior for the human body, originating in the depths of the self-preservation instinct. The senses’ call is strong. Moreover, our memory retains good experience much better than bad experience; it is always willing to provide our senses ready-made templates of pleasure.
Thus, spurred by the nature of our psyche, this process becomes an eternal pursuit of various pleasures: gustatory, visual, auditory, sexual, mental, etc. Inevitable collisions with negative results unleash negative emotions and hurt us. But, again and again, our inner nature throws us to the forefront of the battle to satisfy endless desires. Thus, our consciousness becomes a prisoner, captured for pleasures by the chains of our own senses. The famous painting The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch highlights this issue.
Mind, consciousness, soul
What is our mind doing during this time? Our senses are more primordial than the mind. The mind isn’t as strong as our ancient senses, nor is it as stable. Senses engage the mind in their game and impose their rules. Finally, we have already found ourselves with a book in our hands while our eyes are running over lines and our thoughts are wandering somewhere far away. Our mind is occupied by dreams or memories; however, the essence remains hidden. Furthermore, the information flow from the outside world places an additional workload on our mind, while our memory is recording new pleasant versions.
Although the past is gone and future is not here yet, there is only now. Only the “power of now” is needed for our consciousness. Therefore, it is necessary to gain control over our senses and mind. Why? According to yoga teaching, this control is what directs the consciousness into its internal source, which is our soul. In ordinary life, Pratyahara frees the mind for more constructive action and returns us the ability to focus on our real goals and values.
Yogis, who have mastered the art of Pratyahara recommend practicing concentration on specific senses. For example, immediately after waking, while lying still in bed, try to be aware of all your senses separately using the active volitional effort. Focus your attention on each one singly, then in pairs and next, all together. Afterwards, try the same exercise when you are engaged in a simple activity; while eating, for instance. Of course, try to practice Pratyahara in yoga asanas. Besides, at the end of your first class while lying in Savasana, you will likely hear something like this: ‘Relax all parts of the body alternately. Now, relax the whole body at the same time. Dissolve your thoughts. Finally, direct the inner gaze into your heart.”
Pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga, is still working with external factors. Therefore, it belongs to Bahiranga. But all its power has been already directed inward; it leads the yogi to a purely internal practice, namely Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi.