Pratyāhāra translated as “turning inward” or “withdrawing the senses” or “absorption of the senses“. It is the fifth of the Eight āṅga (stages, arts, branches) mentioned in Yoga Sūtras (translated “aphorisms on Yoga”) by Patañjali योगसूत्र.
In the first chapter, Samādhi Pāda, the author describes what Yoga is.
The second chapter, “Sādhana Pāda“, is dedicated to spiritual practice. The author describes the “path” that a yogi can follow to eliminate suffering and reach a “yogic” stage. This path is known as “Rāja Yoga” राजयोग (literally “Royal Yoga”) or also “Patañjali’s aṣṭāṅga yoga” or “the eight stages of Patañjali yoga” meaning as an eight-steps path (stages, arts, branches, elements, limbs). These eight branches are subdivided into bahiraṅga (external, such as more physical practices) and antaraṅga (internal such as more subtle practices). The three internal branches all together, often referred to as “higher”, are called saṃyama (hold together).
The sūtra 29 in the second chapter introduces them all:
Yama, Niyama, Āsana, Prāṇāyāma, Pratyāhāra, Dhāraṇā, Dhyāna, Samādhi (samādhayaḥ) (are) the eight (aṣṭau) limbs or branches, or stages (aṅga) (of Yoga) (aṅgāni)-29
- Yama – five “abstinences”
- Niyama – five “observances”
- Āsana – postures
- Prāṇāyāma – extension of energy
- Pratyāhāra – absorption of the senses
- Dhāraṇā – concentration
- Dhyāna – meditation
- Samādhi – union, enstasis
Further on, Patañjali will describe each one of them.
Pratyāhāra is in fact the bridge of conjunction between bahiraṅga and antaraṅga, it consists in the ability to free the sensory activity from the influence of external objects. During pratyāhāra, instead of projecting towards the object, the senses remain absorbed in themselves, without losing the faculty of the mind to have sensory perceptions. This direct knowledge, no longer mediated by the senses, allows the yogin to know things “as they are“. Thanks to pratyāhāra, the mind removes sensory activity from the domain of external objects, directly mirroring reality for what it is, without using the sensory filter. This autonomy of the mind does not entail the suppression of the phenomenal world, even though detached from the world, the yogi continues to contemplate it.
A translation of pratyāhāra with interesting ideas also for our practice is: “the emancipation of sensory activity from the influence of external objects” or the recollection within us to remove the distractions external to us, maintaining the detached eye of the observer.
Desikachar translates sūtras 2.54 – 2.55 as follows:
“Moderation of the senses occurs when the mind is able to stay in the chosen direction and the senses ignore the different objects that surround them to faithfully follow the direction of the mind. So the senses are mastered”
Thanks to pratyāhāra, mind does not recognize using linguistic and conceptual categories, but observes things as they are directly.
Un altro testo, fondamentale per lo Haṭha Yoga, è la Gheraṇḍa Saṃhitā, datato tra il XVI e XVII secolo. Il testo è articolato in sette lezioni (upadeśa) corrispondenti ad adempimenti (sādhana) ovvero tappe del percorso ascetico proposto. La quarta tappa è proprio la ritrazione dei sensi: pratyāhāra: astraendo la mente dalle sollecitazioni dei sensi, dalle quali è comunemente distratta, la mente torna sotto il controllo del Sé o Ātman.
Another text, fundamental for Haṭha Yoga, is Gheraṇḍa Saṃhitā, dated between the 16th and 17th centuries. The text is divided into seven lessons (upadeśa) corresponding to fulfillments (sādhana) or stages of the proposed ascetic path. The fourth stage is precisely the retraction of the senses pratyāhāra: by abstracting the mind from the impulse of senses, from which it is distracted, the mind returns under the control of the Self or Ātman.
At the beginning of our practice of postures: āsanas, pratyāhāra can also manifests when we actively decide to observe and participate to the posture: by settling down, listening to our body, breath and mind and letting go of the distractions derived from what is external, including our expectations regarding the execution of posture. We can choose to soften our gaze or close our eyes, rest our bodies, taking on new forms thanks to introspection. Allowing the body and mind to develop new sensitivities. Aware of breathing, aware of heart rate, bodily sensations and thoughts, our attention is completely centered in us. We refrain from looking around, from interacting with the outside and from moving to distract ourselves from this exploration.
Be still and listen.
Pratyāhāra 5th Limb of Yoga according to Patañjali’s “Yoga Sūtra”