Pratyahara is the 5th limb of Ashtanga, what the sage Patanjali called the eightfold path to enlightenment described in his Yoga Sutra. In this 5th stage, we practice disengaging from the external world of people and things and focus on the internal experience of the mind itself.
When the mental organs of senses and actions cease to be engaged with the corresponding objects in their mental realm, and assimilate or turn back into the mind-field from which they arose, this is called pratyahara, and is the fifth step. – Yoga Sutra 2.54
The practice of pratyahara is not a suppression of sensory input. Rather, it is a “letting go” of attachment to external stimuli, including associated memories, images and sense impressions. We no longer seek out or engage with information gathered through the senses, though we do still register its presence.
With training, the senses are said to follow the mind. So, when the mind turns inward, the senses come along with it. However, when the mind is untrained, it can seem the other way around. Our lives feel driven by the senses, constantly distracted and directed by desires and aversions.
Through that turning inward of the organs of senses and actions also comes a supreme ability, controllability, or mastery over those senses inclining to go outward towards their objects. – Yoga Sutra 2.55
Allowing ourselves to be continually distracted by sensory input is a habit that takes practice to break. For many of us, external stimuli alone determine what we attend to. We find ourselves inundated by information coming at us from all directions – much of it negative or frightening. The more compelling the stimuli, the more likely we are to be captivated by it. The problem with this is what we attend to, we become.
It makes sense then, that it may be useful to have more control over this process. We could be more choiceful about where we place our attention and have the ability to disengage from that which does not serve us. Fortunately, there are a number of strategies for practicing pratyahara. The 1st through 4th limbs of yoga set the stage. The yamas and niyamas offer practices that strengthen discipline and self-restraint. Asana, or postures, begin to embody us and bring attention inward. Pranayama, or breath control, helps narrow our focus to one sensory input and balance our energy.
Pratyahara, in turn, lays a foundation for deeper levels of concentration and meditation. When we are no longer distracted by the senses, we are better able to practice single pointed concentration. Therefore, we can become more fully absorbed in meditation. This eventually leads to clearer seeing and a connection with the true self.
Just as a tortoise withdraws its limbs, so when a man withdraws his senses from the sense objects, his wisdom becomes steady. – Bhagavad Gita