Sights, sounds, scents, flavours, texture; Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. These are the 5 senses and the 5 ways that you perceive and interact with the physical world. The senses can also be considered as food for the mind.
You spend your entire day consuming the fruits of these senses. But how much can you enjoy the flavours of the world before you get sick of them?
Pratyahara is the bridge between the outer world and all of its wonders to the inner world and the silence within. It is only when the mind extracts itself from outer world and settles down that you can truly find deep rest. In this article, we’ll talk all about pratyahara: the fifth limb of yoga as enumerated by Sage Patanjali thousands of years ago.
What are the Eight Limbs of Yoga?
Restraint, observance, postures, regulation of breath, substitute food for the mind, ability of the mind to focus, meditation and higher states of consciousness are eight limbs of yoga.
The limbs of yoga develop together; similar to how pulling one leg of a chair results in the entire chair coming toward you, when you practice one limb of yoga, the other limbs begin to develop as well.
The World of Sense Pleasures
Beautiful places, melodic voices and music, soothing scents, rich flavours and soft textures.
The world is full of enticing, sensual pleasures and there is nothing wrong with indulging in them; they are there for you to enjoy.
The issue comes when it’s time to pull the mind away from the sense pleasures.
First let’s look at why.
Why would you want to pull yourself away from something that brings you so much pleasure?
I’ll answer with an example.
How much dessert can you eat?
Only so much right? The first bite of that sweet, succulent dessert sends ripples of joy through you. You smile contentedly and take another bite. Equally delicious. You keep eating and at the end of it, you want another slice. It was so yummy and you so thoroughly enjoyed eating it that you want another.
So, you reach over and take a second round.
It still tastes great, and though you want to relive the deliciousness of the first bite, you’re not so focussed on the flavour anymore. The enjoyment you receive from each bite is less than that you received from the very first bite you took. Nevertheless, you continue eating.
Perhaps a third round. A fourth? Pretty soon, you won’t want to eat anymore. The dessert tastes the same, but it’s just not enjoyable anymore and after a while, you are not even present while going through the motion of eating it.
This implies that you can only enjoy so much.
This also applies to the other senses.
How long can you look at a beautiful place or listen to your favourite music?
How long can you smell your favourite perfume or stroke your favourite fuzzy throw?
Your ability to enjoy the sense pleasures is limited. Regardless what it is that gives you pleasure throughout the day, it only gives you pleasure because you are not constantly engaged in it.
You enjoy settling down onto your couch and grabbing your fuzzy throw. The softness makes you feel cozy, safe and at home. After a moment though, you forget about the throw and get absorbed in something else.
Not all things in the world are as harmless as a fuzzy throw and unfortunately many sense pleasures, when overdone will bring you misery.
Take the example of alcohol, yes, your first beer with friends might be rewarding, but by the eighth you’re only drinking because you haven’t reigned your mind in. It is still caught up in reliving the pleasure of the first beer.
The mind’s desire for pleasure is endless but the body’s capability to enjoy is limited.
People become feverish for certain pleasures, whether it’s food, alcohol, drugs, sex – they make these things part of their identities and suffer greatly. They cannot even sleep because their mind is so caught up in their obsession.
Pratyahara is detaching the mind from sense pleasures
Pratyahara is bringing the mind inwards and away from the allure of the objects of the world. The discipline of yoga provides many techniques and methods to achieve just that.
Think about the body as a gateway to a house and the mind as your children playing outside.
From time to time, you want your children to come inside so they can rest, eat, bathe, be happy, energetic and ready for everything and anything that comes their way.
Now, there are many ways to bring children inside but the key is to have them want to come in on their own; for them to know when it is time to come in and rest. Forcefully pulling children away from their playthings generally makes them cranky, restless and unhappy.
Leaving the children outside all the time isn’t an option either; going to bed while the children are out frolicking about won’t let you have a moment’s rest. Throughout the night, you will be preoccupied and upon waking up, you’ll race out of bed to your children.
So what do you do?
Pratyahara and the other seven limbs of yoga engage your mind in many, many ways to help you become more mindful and aware of what your body needs.
Pretty soon, you will intuitively know when it’s time to come inside and rest. Your mind will come running in for mealtimes, bedtime, and most importantly for you time.
It is necessary to limit the mind
To find deep rest and peace, the mind must be settled and the mind cannot settle while engaged with the outside world. If you have meditated before, you’ve probably noticed that you have many, many thoughts. This is a sign that the mind is, or has been, very engaged with the outer world.
If you become attached to a thought and begin to listen to its story, you will be carried away. The key is to sit and let it pass by. The more you do this, the more the mind will settle and the easier it will be for you to find deep rest, let go of the past and go with the flow of life.
Pratyahara is the bridge between yoga practised in the outer world (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama) and yoga practised in the inner world (dharana, dhyana, samadhi). Pratyahara is restraining the senses by providing alternate food for the mind.
Methods to bring the mind inward
- Start an asana practice
- Practice pranayama (breathing techniques)
- Do guided meditations
- Stop multitasking and engage yourself 100% in what is currently in front of you
- Actively resist your mind’s cravings and tendencies by:
- Practising celibacy
- Observing silence
The benefits of pratyahara are endless. Though in essence, you will gain more from your periods of rest and be more dynamic in your action.
Best of all?
You’ll be able to enjoy every last bite of your favourite dessert without ever getting tired of it.