Pratyahara is the fifth limb in Patanjali's eight limbs of yoga. It seems to be the one least taught and probably the one most difficult to understand and attain. It means withdrawal of the senses. Sight, sound, touch, taste, hearing.. how are we supposed to cut all of that off? Can you eat a piece of chocolate and not taste it? Can you sit through a dog barking and not hear it? Is this possible? Why would we want to do this?! It has to do with how the senses feed the mind.
"Just as a tortoise withdraws its limbs, so when a man withdraws his senses from the sense objects, his wisdom becomes steady." -Bhagavad Gita
Although pratyahara is defined as withdrawal from the senses, the word breaks down into ahara, meaning food and prati meaning away. Food is anything we take from the outside and bring to our inside. The senses feed the mind constantly with information. How can this information always be truth when it is biased by our interpretations? It is thought that when the senses are turned "off", both the mind and the senses are in a neutral state. We are constantly being fed physically by the wrong types of foods, mentally by sense-created interpretations and spiritually through our associations with the people we choose to be around. If all three types of food are wrong, we are left distracted.
“When the mind runs after the wandering senses, then it carries away one’s understanding, as the wind carries away a ship on the waters. Therefore the wisdom of him whose senses are withdrawn from the objects of the senses stands firm.” (2:67 Bhagavad Gita)
Much like the heart chakra is centered between the three physical chakras below and the three spiritual ones above, pratyahara lies between the physical practices of asana and pranayama and the spiritual practices of dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation). It also lies between the external practices of yama, niyama, asana and pranayama and the internal limbs of yoga, dharana, dhyana and samadhi.
Swami Satchidananda states, "The senses are like a mirror. Turned outward, they reflect the outside; turned inward, they reflect the pure light."
The practice of pratyahara divides into four main types: indriya-pratyahara (control of the senses), prana- pratyahara (control of your energy), karma-pratyahara (control over your actions), and mano-pratyahara (withdrawal of the mind from the senses).
Means to control the senses...indriya pratyahara:
-You could turn off electronics or abstain from speaking for a set amount of time.
-Practice Yoni Mudra, which uses the fingers and thumbs to block the senses.
-Shambhavi Mudra teaches you to go inward without shutting off the senses. For example, can you look within while keeping your physical eyes open?
Means to control the prana pratyahara
-pranayama to build strong energy; pratyahara to expend the energy
Means of controlling action- karma pratyahara
-offering selfless service
Means to withdraw the mind...mano pratyahara
The mind is like a puppy happy to tag along behind a playful kid. If the kid darts to the right, the puppy follows. If the kid leaps to the right, so does the unthinking puppy. If I am in a bakery and my eyes zone in on the eclairs, I miss seeing the napoleans. If we can separate the mind from following the senses, it is hopeful we miss nothing.