Pratyāhāra – withdrawal of the senses / directing energy inward at will
“prati” – away from; against + “ahara” – food; things we take into ourselves.
This would translate as “to withdraw oneself from that which nourishes the senses.” The senses are no longer drawn to external things that are created to stimulate them. This includes objects that we are attracted to and averted from. The senses are capable of responding but do not because they have withdrawn. For example, if a practitioner is completely focused on his breath, pratyahara almost automatically occurs. The sounds in the room do not disappear, but there is no response to the sounds. A circumstance is created where the mind is so absorbed in something that the senses are not responding to other objects. Another example of this would be when we are sitting in meditation for a significant amount of time, possibly focusing on a mantra, and not noticing the discomfort in the knees. T.K.V. Desikachar describes this in his book The Heart of Yoga :Developing a Personal Practice “In pratyahara we try to put the senses in their proper place, but not cut them out of our actions entirely.” This step is the bridge between the more external practices of yama, niyama, āsana & prānāyāma and into the more internal experience of antaranga yoga, or internal practices of engagement. Essentially, asana practice prepares the body for pranayama, and a pranayama benefit is having the mind and body prepared for Pratyahara. By using our senses in ways to bring the mind into a more inward focus, the preceding limbs are able to be fully experienced.
Each state of being that precipitates out of pratyahara brings forward a more subtle state of consciousness. The state known as Dharana is a state of objective concentration that allows for the perceiver’s attachments to fall away so that they can go beyond their own limited perception of consciousness. This means the practice of concentration and realizing pratyahara can lead the practitioner to a deeper spiritual understanding. Michelle Young teaches it the following way in My Vinyasa Practice’s 200-hour Tantra Yoga Teacher Training: “When we teach about meditation, we often tell students that meditation is a practice, and that is completely fine. The more that we practice and experience the fruits of our practice, the more we come to know meditation as an experience or a state of being that comes out of Pratyahara.”
How do we as meditation teachers facilitate this journey into the inner world in a meditation or yoga class through Pratyahara? First, we must make sure that students are able to sit for a period of time without focusing on discomfort or needing to move. For example, a starting place would be to sit in an easy seat with the eyes closed and concentrate on the breath. A next step to practicing Pratyahara could be sharing how to cultivate inner silence through the tantric practice of Antar Mouna(inner silence). There are 6 stages of the technique that we will briefly cover here. First, is to be aware of all external sounds and activity around you. Second, to withdraw oneself from the external stimuli and to be aware only of the thinking mind. The third stage is to notice the creation of thoughts. Fourth, is being aware of dissolving spontaneous thoughts, followed by the suppression of thinking. The last stage is not practicable and is spontaneous meditation. This practice is designed to focus the practitioner on the inner landscape.