Going out on a limb: Pratyahara, The fifth branch of Ashtanga Yoga (continued)

Yoga as Life — By on July 1, 2009 9:00 PM

By Miriam Stollar

If asana is the opening of the door, and pranayama is the going through the door, pratyahara is the first step on the other side of the door, onto the subtle ground of the way of yoga.

Pranayama is the key to the door, that which lets us experience for ourselves the direct linking of mind and body, and the power to control that link. It is the magic key opening the door to that most mystical world, that of our own consciousness and existence.

Yet even our own consciousness and existence are so vast; how do we know where to search?

Pratyahara, the fifth branch of Patanjali yoga, is the flashlight that lights up what we want to focus on, by blacking out all the rest. Most commonly translated as ‘withdrawal of the senses,’ pratyahara comes from the root ‘ahara’ which means nourishment, literally translating as ‘a turning away from nourishment’.

The normal world continously feeds our senses with constant sensory input, and the goal itself of this world seems to be to stimulate our senses as much as possible in all possible ways, with new ways of feeding the same senses constantly being put in front of us.

Pratyahara is a voluntary withdrawal from this sensory orgy we usually live in, when the mind cuts off the sense input in order to reach the deep concentration only achievable once the senses are stilled. Senses here are in the meaning of the Sanskrit indriya, which includes the triple meaning of the sense as we know it, the sense organ, and the mental sense consciousness. Desire for chocolate is a desire of the mental sense consciousness of taste. In withdrawal of the senses, therefore, both the sensory inputs of the environment around us, and the mental desire for, and aversions of, sense objects, are subdued.

Pratyahara is a necessary base state for meditation. It necessitates a willing letting go not only of external sense objects, but also of the pleasurable bliss of relaxed meditation. Most commonly practiced meditation is in fact this pleasurable bliss of relaxation, which, while a definite benefit in itself, is not actually the deeper level of consciousness referred to as meditation in yoga.

Pratyahara is the first step beyond the door of yoga. It is the first glimpse into the deep power of the mind freed from its senses that, if not controlled by the mind, heckle it continuously like never-ending mosquitoes.
If the senses are to the mind like unrelenting mosquitoes that won’t give a moment of peace, pratyahara is the mind undisturbed even by the sting of biting mosquitoes or the sound of their constant buzzing.

As long as we are continuously distracted by our sensory input and sense desires and aversions, we are enslaved to our senses; our mind is not our own, and its power not used. When sense input can be controlled even for one short minute, the wonder of the mind can be glimpsed, and meditation can begin.

Blocking off the senses by will- it may sound supernaturally difficult and impossibly out of reach. The yogis of old time, however, were made up of the same stuff as we are. While it’s probably true that the world of those times was more conducive to yoga practice- just turn off your TV, internet, i-pod, stereo, and mobile phone for one day and I think you will see what I mean- yet sense desires and distractions always existed, and the power of the senses over the mind was no less then than now.

It’s not for no reason that yoga has continued since ancient times, becoming more and more popular. Controlling the input of the senses is definitely not easy, but it is only a ‘supernatural’ power in the sense that ‘natural’ would mean our natural state of being constantly overwhelmed by a whirlwind of senses.

Yoga gives a clear way of how to gain control over sense consciousness and therefore over the mind. That way starts with yama and niyama, the first two branches of Patanjali yoga, as our actions and behavior define the qualities of our mind. The way is enhanced with yoga asana, understood with pranayama, and secured with pratyahara. The next branch of Patanjali yoga, dharana, is the development of focused concentration that begins yoga meditation.

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