Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati
Pratyahara is a method by which we can internalize our awareness and discover what is happening to us mentally. We are not able to observe our mind with clarity or awareness. The way we see ourselves is how we react to the external environment. According to these reactions, we develop an understanding of how our nature or mind functions, and what its qualities and attributes are. We evolve many superficial ideas about ourselves, our emotions, our feelings and our behaviour.
If I am able to react in a positive way when somebody says something negative to me, then I will think that I am better able to handle conflicting situations. If I react in a negative way then I will develop a self-image related to my negative reaction. I will begin to think that I am like that, or that the other person has hurt my sensitivity, and begin to act according to that person’s negative projections.
We are very good at creating stories about our self-image, but is the image which we create the real one? Is the image which other people create for us the real one? This is what we have to discover. Human society revolves around these two images. It is one reason why we are not able to come to terms with ourselves, our mind, nature, feelings and emotions. This is the yogic concept of how conflict and confusion actually begin in one’s life.
When we are mentally and emotionally stressed out, what can we do? We can adopt some methods to help us relax physically, mentally and emotionally, or we can take some tranquillizers to remove the symptoms of anxiety and stress from our nature. To whatever extent they do, well and good. Or we can begin to practise certain techniques, whether from yoga or another tradition, in the hope that we will gain a better understanding of ourselves.
Developing awareness of the mind
The most common yogic technique we adopt to find some form of balance and clarity within our minds is the meditative technique, without specifying any particular one. Just the basic concept of meditation attracts us. We feel that by practising meditation, we will be able to attain concentration, inner peace, harmony and tranquillity. But if we attempt the actual practices of meditation without having learnt the basics, we fail.
For the uninitiated, meditation is just sitting down quietly, closing the eyes and trying to still the inner activities. Some people may feel satisfied that they have made some progress; others simply condition themselves to feel a different form of reality which is non-existent. The way we practise meditation is definitely not the solution to the problems that affect our mind and inner nature. In fact, I would even say that until today we have not practised meditation at all.
There are three major components of meditation. The first is developing awareness, the second is developing concentration, and the third, a combination of awareness plus concentration, leads us to the experience of unity, harmony and peace. From the yogic point of view, awareness is pratyahara, concentration is dharana, and a glimpse of harmony, of the unifying qualities of the human personality, is dhyana. So although we try to internalize our attention to become aware of what is actually happening in the depths of our mind, pratyahara says begin with developing awareness.
Patanjali’s eight-fold path
In asthanga yoga, the eight-fold path of yoga, Patanjali has described a sequence: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. In this structure very little emphasis has been given to the physical or material aspect of life, and a lot of emphasis has been given to the mental or inner aspect of life. Pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi are the four approaches taken to have the experience of the inner mind, which is free from the conditionings and influences of the external, sensorial world.
Yama and niyama deal with human life, expression and behaviour, and as aspects of attitudes and living they also relate with the mind. So, in the eight-fold path of yoga, six techniques deal with the human mind, and two, asana and pranayama, deal with the human body. This is the emphasis that yogis have given to the proper expression of our nature during our lives.
What do these eight systems of yoga mean in relation to our nature and personality? Patanjali has, of course, defined yama and niyama as the first two stages of yoga, asana and pranayama as the third and fourth, pratyahara and dharana as the fifth and sixth, and dhyana and samadhi as the seventh and eighth. However, I define these practices in a slightly different way. In the new Yoga Sutras of Niranjan, asana and pranayama come first, then pratyahara and dharana, then yama and niyama, and dhyana and samadhi.
In ashtanga yoga, asana and pranayama have a specific purpose. Even in the traditional texts, asana is defined as a posture in which one can sit for an extended period of time with total comfort and ease. That is the classical definition of asana. There are many kinds of asanas, dynamic and passive. Dynamic postures, which aim at providing absolute control over the functions of the physical body, have been described in yogic texts such as the Gherand Samhita, Shiva Samhita and Dattatreya Samhita.
However, in the Yoga Sutras, the postures which have been defined are meditative, because they aid the process of meditation. We sit down to meditate and we concentrate on a symbol, a mantra, the breath, a thought, a vision, an idea, a yantra, a mandala. If pain occurs in the body at that time or a mosquito bites us, then our concentration is shattered. We have to learn how to be at peace with the body, so that the distractions of the body and the senses do not affect our mental concentration. Asanas are the first step.
The second step is pranayama. Pranayama means to regulate the flow of energy throughout the system. Prana is energy which manifests and is responsible for the action and motion of the physical organs, and of the mind, in the form of thoughts, feelings, emotions, behaviour, attitudes, inner activity. The Yoga Sutras define pranayama as the process of inhalation, internal retention and exhalation.
Inhalation means to receive energy, retention means to channel that energy, and exhalation means to eliminate or remove the excess energy. When we inhale we take in prana. When we hold our breath in we harmonize, channel and balance the prana which we have received. Then we exhale. Inhalation, retention and exhalation simply represent a process that affects our pranic body, our pranamaya kosha. The Yoga Sutras do not describe pranayama practices such as nadi shodhana or kapalbhati; these have been described in other texts, other Samhitas. Therefore, we should understand that inhalation, retention and exhalation are not breathing techniques, but activities of energy in relation to our pranic body.
Pratyahara and dharana
Pratyahara is the third stage. When the energies are balanced in the external body and also in the inner mind, then the practice of pratyahara, the extension of the senses outside, begins. After perfecting pratyahara comes the fourth stage of dharana. Dharana is absolute fixation and one-pointedness of mind, focusing the mind so that it does not deviate from the object of concentration.
Yama and niyama
After dharana comes the fifth stage of yama. The five yamas, which have been defined as the moral code of conduct, are simply the expression of a harmonious, balanced and tranquil mind. They are satya, truthfulness, ahimsa, absence of violence from within, asteya non-possessiveness, and brahmacharya, being established in the experience of inner reality or higher truth. They are natural expressions of your self, when your inner being is free from the roles of ego, free from imposed masks, so that you can look at yourself functioning in the world in different guises.
The sixth stage is niyama. The five niyamas have been defined as inner disciplines. Shaucha, or cleanliness, represents the state of purity. Santosha, or contentment, represents the ability to flow in life and not struggle. Tapas, or austerity, means an effort we make or a process we undergo to experience purity of self, inner transformation, burning off the samskaras and karmas, and becoming pure at the deepest psychic level. Swadhyaya is self-study, awareness of how we function according to the gunas, the predominant nature, and the interaction of the gunas in the external world. Ishwara pranidhana is trust, belief and confidence in oneself, recognizing that the self is not distinct from divinity. These are also the expressions of a person who is able to channel the flow of the mind, to harmonize the activities of the inner mind.
Dhyana and samadhi
The seventh stage is dhyana, meditation, experiencing the true nature of life. The eighth and final stage is samadhi, merging of the individual identity with the cosmic identity. This merger is not death, it is the true experience of life as it should be. One does not become lost to the world; rather one becomes very much a part of the world. One lives recognizing the needs of others and how one can help those needs. I am telling you this in order to clarify the subject of pratyahara which we will be discussing and practising during this course. Because ashtanga yoga is a system of looking at ourselves and making the necessary adjustments so that we can express the deeper, inner qualities in a better way.
Pratyahara – first stage
In pratyahara we begin to develop awareness. The classical, traditional description of pratyahara is withdrawal of the senses. It is said that just as a turtle is able to withdraw all its limbs into the body, in the same way a yogi should be able to pull back all the extensions of the senses and mind from outside to inside. This is the description which people give of pratyahara. However, if we apply common logic to this process, we will understand that it is not a simple matter of pulling everything in and shutting ourselves off to the outer world. Rather it is becoming aware, at first, of what is happening externally and how we are reacting. So, in the first stage of pratyahara, the senses are fully extended outside so that their activity can be fully experienced, whether it is the sense of touch, taste, sight, smell or hearing.
In the next stage we observe our reactions to those sensory stimulations. For example, if there is suddenly the beautiful smell of a rose in the room, most of us sitting here will take a deep breath in and say, “Wow!” It is only a smell but that smell triggers off many different reactions inside. A feeling, an expression, a recognition is associated with the sense of smell. So many different reactions suddenly manifest altogether at the same time that we are not even aware of all of them.
If we smell rotten flesh we will get up, stick our heads out the window and say “Yuck!” The same thing has happened again. If something is soft and cuddly we have a sensation of pleasure. If something is hard and rough we don’t want to touch it. These are common reactions, but at the same time there are deeper reactions to the external sensory stimulations. In the second stage of pratyahara, after extension of the senses externally, we have to learn how to maintain our equilibrium, how to develop immunity to the influences of the senses, which are external in nature.
In the third stage of pratyahara, we withdraw our awareness from outer to inner experience of the senses. We begin to see the link that a sensory experience has with our inner mind. How does a smell trigger off memories? How does a smell trigger off sensations of pleasure or aversion? How does it touch or affect a feeling or memory? Recognition and awareness of the mental process associated within the senses is the third stage of pratyahara.
Fourth and fifth stages
The fourth stage of pratyahara is recognition and harmonization of the inner activity. After having recognized what we are experiencing externally and internally, and after having attained immunity, we come to the fifth stage of pratyahara. This is the experience of shoonya, nothingness, void, gaining control over the unconscious actions and reactions of the senses and mind, and stopping the interaction. Shoonya is only a transition from one state of meditation to another, from awareness to concentration, and concentration begins with dharana.
This is, in brief, to give you an idea about the basics of pratyahara. Once we are able to gain mastery over the process and techniques of pratyahara we can do many things with our mind. The mind becomes awakened, and the awakened mind is a fantastic and beautiful thing to have.
published in Yogamagazine september 1996