Pratyahara is the fifth limb of Ashtanga Yoga. Pratyahara means drawing back or retreat. The word ahara means "nourishment"; pratyahara translates as "to withdraw oneself from that which nourishes the senses." In yoga, the term pratyahara implies withdrawal of the senses from attachment to external objects.
Pratyahara, what is it? What does it mean? Pratyahara is learning to disengage from the environment around us and from the noise within us. The original concept was that as we sense an object be it through sight, sound, taste, smell, touch or even just thinking about an object; that as we do this we create a connection, a tendril or tentacle of attachment between ourselves and the object. Pratyahara is the act of controlling those tendrils and of withdrawing them. In other words, pratyahara is metaphysical form of keeping our hands to ourselves.
The word “pratyahara” means “removing indriyas from material objects”. Pratyahara is the stage at which an adept learns how to control the “tentacles” of consciousness that are called “indriyas” in Sanskrit. This allows him to achieve the ability to see in subtle and the subtlest layers of multidimensional space, as well as to exit of his material body into them and to settle in them, accustoming himself to their subtlety, tenderness and purity.
Of the eight limbs of the 'Yoga-Sutra' of Patanjali, pratyahara forms the fifth consideration after yama, niyama, asana, and pranayama, but before dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. By pratyahara is meant the practice of withdrawing 'sense organs and mind combine' from running towards the objects of sensations; the objects may be external (music, sweets, beauty, smell, etc.), or internal in the form of thoughts and memory. Pratyahara enables the spiritual aspirant in concentration of mind, and thus make it fit for meditation
It is easy to not see or taste things but what about hearing, smelling and touching? How can one stop touching the earth or the chair or one's clothing? How can one stop hearing the sound of birds or the laughter of children or the sound of one's own breath and heartbeat? How does one not smell dinner cooking, the flowers on the table or the scent of one's clothing? Even more difficult yet, how does one stop thinking about all the many things that must be done before the day ends?
Europeans translate the term “pratyahara” as “control over the senses”. But senses are not everything that is denoted by the term indriyas, since indriyas include mind as well. It is also essential that the image of “tentacles” evoked by the word “indriyas” provides profound understanding of the principles of functioning of the mind and consciousness, as well as of methods of controlling them.
I find it easiest to sit comfortably and focus on my breath long enough for 24 inhalations. This slows my body and mind down and then I begin detaching myself from my senses. I do not stop hearing nor touching but the sensation of sitting fades and the sounds around me flow through me. It is the same with my thoughts, like a monkey it darts here and there thinking about what I had for breakfast or what the weather will be. The moment I notice that I am thinking on something, I acknowledge it and let it go. If it is a good thought, something I want to remember or accomplish, then I say That is a good thought, and let it drift off to find some corner of my mind where it can live. If the thought is unpleasant or one I do not wish to keep, then I say That is also a thought but it is not mine. Sometimes these thoughts also drift away and find a place to live in my mind but most often they simply drift away and are forgotten.
Another way to look at pratyahara: Our minds are full of thoughts that are constantly in motion. Some of those thoughts are about the apple I am eating, others are about my mother's eye surgery and still others are about the days and weeks ahead of me. These thoughts and many others float around like the little dust motes one can see in a ray of sunshine. If one blows through these motes, they dance through the air very fast but left undisturbed, the motes drift slowly, almost lazily through the air. As one stops paying attention to the thoughts and senses floating through one's mind, these thoughts, these dust motes of the mind, slow and a gentle stillness settles over everything.
Practice of Pratyahara How to achieve this? By becoming witness to our thoughts and activities of mind! Sit for some time quietly and watch your mind. Let it run on, as it wants to and wherever it wants to wander. Let it think good or evil thoughts, pure or impure thoughts. You shall be surprised to find how restless the mind is, and what hideous thoughts it can throw up! But, if you do not react, soon it would calm down bit by bit. It would become less restless, less violent, as desires and thoughts are reduced. After years of such practice one is able to control the mind at will. Another important characteristic of mind is that it works on what we feed it with. If we think about sin, we become sinful; if we crave for money, the mind also runs after money. Thus, another way to purify the mind and train it for pratyahara is to consciously think of noble thoughts only, and deliberately reduce desires. For this, such practices as repeating the Name of God (Japa), to get engaged in rituals and worship, selfless work and study of scriptures, etc. are all beneficial. Then, mind becomes less restless, and may get attached to the thought of God; but this is desirable in the initial phase of sadhana. Sri Ramakrishna also advised his householder devotees to follow such practices of devotion as basic path to approach God. He never abhorred rituals or worship, dancing and singing to develop love for God. He also insisted on adhering to simple ethical and moral injunctions like truthfulness, continence, and simplicity. Additionally, Sri Ramakrishna insisted on proper discrimination between real and unreal, permanent and transient. 'Sense enjoyment is transient, God is permanent,' he used to say. Secondly, one of the best ways to reduce desires is to be 'watchful of lust and gold'.