The Fifth Limb of Patanjali’s Eight Fold Path: Pratyahara (Controlling the Senses)

Last month, we covered the fourth limb of Ashtanga yoga – pranayama (breath control).  All previous posts can be found on the YWG GRACE-MAIL archives.  Now we are going to explore the fifth limb: pranayama (breath control).

Just a reminder that the eight limbs of Patanjali’s Eight Fold Path are:

  1. Yama (restraint)
  2. Niyama (observances)
  3. Asana (posture)
  4. Pranayama (breath control)
  5. Pratyahara (controlling the senses)
  6. Dharana (concentration)
  7. Dhyana (meditation)
  8. Samadhi (absolute consciousness)


This month’s focus: PRATYAHARA

Pratyahara is centering the mind with control of the senses.  The yoga sutras define pratyahara as ‘the conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses’.  You can liken the state of pratyahara to a tortoise who hides in its shell or the return of sun-rays at sunset.  Pratyahara encompasses the ability to direct your five senses internally instead of externally.  The yogic paradigm suggests that there is an internal world within each one of us that can be explored, and only by withdrawing from the exterior environment can one begin to investigate the inner world.

Jean Dechanet describes the external senses as servants of the soul, not masters and the internal senses must be wise and active.  In order to have this control, one must get to know one’s mind.  A simple exercise of pratyahara would be to spend some time daily observing the mind; its drumbeats so to speak, and gradually after consistent practice, it will grow calmer.  Self-inspection is one of the most effective and penetrating criticisms which leads to mental control.    When the senses are at rest, a sense of internal stillness causes the mind to be clearer.

Saint Teresa of Avila describes the senses as inhabitants of the castle of the soul which if not ordered and controlled can plunge into inner darkness.  For the yogi, the senses should be refined and tuned into the experience of the divine….be it Allah, God, Jesus, Yahweh or simply the universe.

So what does pratyahara look like in a practical sense? It can be described as the state of non-reaction to external stimulus – like a state of being in the world, but not of the world.  Many of us can relate to pratyahara in the resting posture of savasana.  The last posture we practice in a yoga class; lying completely still on our back and the practice of falling into deep rest and relaxation.  Initially it seems difficult and we shuffle into a comfortable position but once our physical body is still and relaxed, the mind then begins to become still and relaxed and soon enough you are in a blissful state of relaxation where you withdraw from the external world but without losing contact with it.  You may still register the sounds around you, the temperature of your skin, your position on the mat; but it does not disturb your mind or body.  So your sense organs still receive the input of what is happening around you however you are unresponsive to it because you are in a state of pratyahara.  Like a tortoise who hides in its shell is still able to hear and feel the outside world, but is now unresponsive to it.  Or the sun that sets, is still present in the world although introspective.  So in pratyahara, it’s as though you are removed from your senses.  This is the beginning of being in a true meditative state!

  • Do you give yourself time during your day to practice pratyahara? ….Simply sitting or lying still while focusing on relaxing the body will naturally relax the mind and encourage you into a state of withdrawing the senses…
  • B.K.S Iyengar says that in Sanskrit, pratyahara literally means “to draw toward the opposite”.  The normal movement of the senses is to flow outward and this limb is concerned with going against that grain, a difficult reaction.
  • Pratyahara is built brick by brick through the first four limbs of Ashtanga yoga – yama, niyama, asana and pranayama, then utilised in the last three limbs – dharana, dhyana and samadhi.  It is the fifth petal of yoga, also called the “hinge” of the outer and inner quest.  It is the pivotal movement on yoga’s path.
  • Pattabhi Jois says in Yoga Mala that yoga is a path we step into and that will lead us towards unveiling the Self.

 “Pratyahara helps the mind acquire knowledge of the self”  -B.K.S Iyengar

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