Going in

Going In: Pratyahara

By now you will understand that the asana and pranayama create the breeding ground for an easeful body and settled mind. The next anga (limb) of Ashtanga yoga therefore is Pratyahara or retaining the senses inward. This anga is mentioned in the Yoga Sutras of course (succintly) but is not clearly defined in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Therefore it is helpful to look to another key text on yoga with more detail to get a greater scope on the practice itself. This text was thought to be one of the most important on yoga according to Krishnamacharya: The Yoga Yajnavalkya.

The Yoga Yajnavalkya, a text that predates many well known texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gheranda Samhita etc, is a conversation between a husband (Yajnavalkya) and a wife (Gargi) as the husband prepares to leave his current life and take up residence as a yogi in nirodhah (absolute peace of mind). Before departing, his wife, intuiting that whatever Yajnavalkya is leaving all of his riches for must be infinitely more valuable, forgoes her inheritance (leaving them to another) and instead requests humbly to be taught the path to freedom through yoga. Through this conversation the 8 limbs of yoga are presented in a clear and descriptive manner. Gargi is a bright and attentive student and Yajnavalkya a compassionate teacher. Side note Krishnamacharya used this example to encourage the teaching of yoga to women, a bit of a taboo in his time. Before we see what the sage has to offer lets first look to the Yoga Sutra.

But first what IS Pratyahara and why should it be part of sadhana?

For the definition we can go to The Yoga Sutras.

  • svavisaya: each sense has it’s own object (sva-its own visaya- object)
  • asamprayoga- not connecting
  • cittasya: of the citta/mind
  • svarupa: for or nature
  • anukara: likewise
  • iva: as if
  • indriyanam: of the indriyas (senses= 5 senses of action + 5 senses of perception + manas/the organizing faculty)
  • pratyahara: restrain what you take in (pratya: restrained/ prati: against + ahara: taking something inside oneself)

Pratyahara is defined therefore by Patanjali as “when the senses are restrained/withdrawn from connecting to their respective objects (gross and subtle elements), the senses then appear to be like the mind (chitta) itself and are indistinguishable from it. This is called pratyahara.”

The result of this pratyahara is…

  • tatah: by result (of practicing pratyahara)
  • parama: the superior mind
  • vasyate: subjugated
  • indriyanam: of the senses

or… “The result of pratyahara is that the mind becomes sattvic (clear, light) and free as there is complete subjugation of the senses towards it’s acquired superior abilities.

To elaborate: our organs of perception and sensory input are typically pointed outside. This is a function of experience and relationship with the outside world: “where am I?” , “what is around me?” , “is there danger or safety?” , “is it night or day?” , “is this food safe or not?” etc etc. According to Samkhya the senses are 11 and exist of 5 karmindriyas (senses of action), 5 jnanindriyas (senses of perception) and the coordinating faculty of them all (the manas). These senses are consistently connecting outward to external stimuli from gross and subtle objects, like a moth to a flame and then the manas takes information gathered and presents it to the “I am” faculty known as Ahamkara, often defined as Ego. Therefore our perception of ourselves is largely informed by our engagement with the senses. In order to break the link of this association it is important through yoga sadhana to first train the mind to stop spinning OUT. We will venture into this krama (sequence of events) later on in our foray into samkhya philosophy but the take home message is that there is always a lot of information coming IN through these streams yet for the aim of yoga it is a worthy endeavor to turn our mind inwards (rather than towards the pull of the senses) so that when we finally sit for dharana the mind isn’t dancing around…It is a dynamic and creative creature after all and often requires careful “tucking in.” Also, as Ishwara Krsna reminds us in the Samkhya Karika, only a sattvic intellect (buddhi) can truly take up the path of self realization so as Paul Harvey writes “Don’t get stuck on the sticky.” Pratyahara helps us peel back.

SO then the question remains…how? 

For this let us look to the Yoga Yajnavalkya as Patanjali merely offers the definition and the result…

One pratyahara technique in particular is used in yoga sadhana quite often as it is a very effective tool. By physically closing the gateways of sensory input (ears, eyes, smell, and taste) we begin to direct the senses (indriyas) away from external stimuli. This is what we know as shanmukhi mudra and is defined in the 6th chapter of the text (the chapter on pranayama) after pranayama practice as…

“[…]The sense organs (are to be closed in the following manner)- with the two thumbs the ears, with the two index fingers the eys and the nostrils are to be closed with the middle fingers. After this focus on the crown of the head until the feeling of bliss arises.” (6.52-53)

The Professor seen here in Shanmukhi Mudra

One slight suggestion…Ramaswami often cues us to begin by taking shanmukhi mudra and bring attention to the breath in the heart (without controlling the flow of air); a fitting continuation from the gaze on the pranasthana throughout the previous angas of practice. This Shanmukhi mudra allows the mind to continue it’s inward evolution so that the antaranga sadhana (meditation) can begin on a “good foot” and without distraction. Ramaswami accounts that when first taught pratyahara in shanmukhi mudra at the age of 15 by his Guru he immediately had the image of the Japanese tale of the three wise monkeys (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil). Can you imagine why? 🙂

Yajnavalkya continues his detailed description on Pratyahara with the entire 7th chapter and it’s 30 verses. In this chapter there are five techniques described and one that is given particular importance. This technique is quite detailed in the text and involves rotating our concentration (drawing prana) through 18 vital points (known as marmasthanas). Chapter 7 slokas 8-11 list these 18 vital points 

the 18 marmasthanas

while 12-20 describes the specific distance in angulas (finger widths) between them. 

distance between the marmasthanas measured in angulas

The following chart from A.G. Mohan’s translation of the text is a helpful reference to see this information clearly and without breaking down each line (which would take a long time in written form 🙂 

Screen Shot 2021-09-29 at 1.07.31 PM.png

This technique is described as drawing the prana from one point to another beginning at the big toes all the way to the crown of the head following the course in the chart above and then in reverse-or- as Ramaswami Sir describes: from one marmasthana to another marmasthana bring your attention up… and let it completely relax, then go to the next point slowly in that order thoroughly withdrawing (samakrsya).

Ramaswami teaches a more compact approach (as Krishnamacharya also taught him). As we recline in savasana we slowly withdraw our senses through key points of the big toes, ankles, calf muscles, knees, thighs, pelvis, low back, heart, throat, nose, forehead, crown of head. Eventually Sir guides us to rest our attention in the heart region. This is what we can consider an introduction to pratyahara and is a helpful intermediary between asana and pranayama or even after pranayama.  Every now and then Sir says we may take a little more time to move our attention through all the 18 points. A suggestion has been to visualize the prana moving point to point as a golden strand of light. This is not a “guided relaxation” although it can feel very peaceful. The aim is to give the senses a trajectory inside and to purify the senses from external distraction.

The result identified by Yajnavalkya in his conversation with Gargi is that “all (sarva) the diseases (papa) will go away surely.” So we can see pratyahara as a purification process for body/mind complex. The aim of which is to arouse the kundalini (dormant, stagnant energy) at the base of the spine allowing it to move out of the way so that prana can flow freely through the susumna nadi (the central channel) leading the aspirant to transformation (parinama). More simply put this limb provides a reinforcement to the previous limbs of ethical observances combined with asana and pranayama as we prepare to take up the higher limbs of yoga that ultimately are all about the mind. We remove distraction in the body through asana, through the mind in pranayama and pratyahara, all supported with our behavior in day to day living. It makes a lot of sense.

Before wrapping up i’d like to reiterate to the logic here of the vinyasa krama system. This practice does not exist in parts. Like a good stew there are many ingredients that go together. Yes there is a sequence in which we add the aromatics, the spices, different vegetables, the protein, the broth etc…but the aim is that they are all working together always. In ayurveda, a sister science to yoga, meals are carefully prepared as not to upset the individual constitution of a person. A banana for example can be aggravating to someone with high kapha dosha unless consumed in moderation with the proper spices and cooking technique. And so it is with sadhana, excessive asana to a point without coordinating breathing and attention may actually be counter productive. Similarly sitting in meditation without the proper prior ingredients (limbs) observed will often be a fruitless effort. However, when the recipe is well minded a BEAUTIFUL table is set…which makes me think of Shubha’s analogy regarding vinyasa in a previous post 😉

We have seen this in pranayama. While pranayama is a practice, the foundation is introduced in the vinyasas and asana as we maintain a long smooth breathing, slowly adding in appropriate ratios, bandhas and the like so that when we sit for pranayama the foundation is strong. And so it is with pratyahara. The shanmukhi mudra and the marmasthana are specific techniques that are helpful to include as reinforcement but this is not the first introduction to sense withdrawal. Even in the asana we are consistently reminded to bring our attention back to the pranasthana. To observe the place the breath first tugs in the lung/heart region. This in itself prepares the mind well to stay inside more easefully moving forward. We are not just eating an onion alone then a cumin seed, then some lentils. NO. We are slowly preparing the full meal folding in elements artistically and with skill. All the parts together 🙂

See you Monday!



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