Pratyhara means withdrawal of the senses and is the 5th limb of Patanjali’s Yoga sutras, the 8-fold path to Yoga. To quote from Salvatore Zambita’s book The unadorned thread of yoga: Yoga sutras of Patanjali in English (in my opinion …the best!)
“The yoga sutras of Patanjali is the central text, the core of practical theory, and guiding instruction of all yoga disciplines and traditions. It presents the hypothesis that a transcendent level of consciousness is available to humans and offers a comprehensive technique base to help us access it.”
The sutras are said to have eight limbs, which are: yama, niyama, pranayama, PRATYHARA, dharana, dhyana and samadhi.
Pratyhara is very seldom mentioned. It is therefore the forgotten limb or perspective of Patanjali’s yoga sutras. It is usual practice in the west to jump straight from asana to meditation. One may ask oneself if this aspect of yoga is unnecessary then why did the ancients put it in? The answer is that it is part of preparing ourselves and our personal environment to aid in a successful meditation!
Swami Gitananda would say that pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses themselves from the objects stimulating the senses. We learn to bring our senses within ourselves and protect ourselves from the constant barrage of sensory stimulus!
If you cannot control the senses, then you are controlled by them, so how can you concentrate, let alone meditate?
My Ayurvedic teacher Dr David Frawley says that pratyhara is more accurately, withdrawal from distraction, which means detaching the mind from the impulses deriving from the senses. Distraction is our vulnerability to external stimulation, our capacity to be conditioned by environmental forces. Each sense organ has its own urges, its built-in programming and each is like an unruly child demanding our attention, imposing its likes and dislikes and seeking gratification.
The Patanjali centre for classical yoga tells us that, “the experience of pratyhara is essential to meditation and that pratyhara is the disconnection of the mind from the senses and without this state being established, meditation is actually impossible. It is this misunderstanding that can lead to a feeling of meditation being an effort or something we cannot do, rather than the natural and effortless experience it can be if the correct preparation is made”
Various techniques and practices that induce a state of sense withdrawal naturally guide us into the state of Dharana or concentration. When we go on a journey we prepare for it we pack for it, And so it is when we go on the journey towards meditation we need to prepare the ground indeed, ourselves so that our meditation is successful.
Please note that Patanjali, a great sage, scholar and grammarian compiled, condensed, edited and synthesised thousands of years of pre-existent material in the field of Yoga, but did not invent them!