Post By: Vishwanath Iyer Published on: November 26, 2016 Reading time: 8 minutes
Introduction: The classical definition of pratyāhāra (retreat in Sanskrit) is withdrawal of the senses. Since practice of pratyāhāra results in isolation of the Self, it can be called a bridge between activity-based yoga or bahiraṅga (outside arm) and reflection/ meditation-based yoga or antaraṅga (internal arm).
Dharma or conditioning covers more than just human conditioning. It covers all existence. Dharma is the “rule of natural state” which defines the existence and role of each entity in the universe.
Let us start by looking at the dharma of a few entities.
Rāja-yoga is a philosophical exercise in regression where we move from current state of existence to the root of our identity by slowly isolating elements that make us dependent on outside stimulus for our sense of identity.
The classical definition of pratyāhāra (retreat in Sanskrit) is withdrawal of the senses.
Why is this stage important? Rāja-yoga consist of 2 major stages –
Therefore, serious practice of pratyāhāra will make the practitioner withdraw from society and evolve spiritually with a deeper understanding of the self.
For normal people, pratyāhāra becomes important because it generates an internal retreat, a place where they are in full control of themselves. Also, it provides the most appropriate platform for meditation (dhyāna) because the Self gets cleansed by āsana, prāṇāyāma and pratyāhāra, therefore becomes a fitting vehicle for meditation (dhyāna).
The journey begins with kriya-yoga which has the following components;
Yama – control of one’s interaction with the environment. This increases awareness of the Self (prajñā) in various situations. As a result of this awareness, there is increased control over behaviour in all interactions. As a result of increased awareness (prajñā) and control over free-will (saṅkalpa), our conditioning (dharma) begins to change so that we understand our Self (asmitā).
Niyama – yama results in altered awareness (prajñā) owing to discipline in response to stimuli. However, this effort to increase awareness and control over free-will brings with it experience of fear, anxiety, conflict with conformance, pain of redundancy in relationships and other emotions which will need to be managed using niyama.
One of the major outcomes of niyama is removal of baggage or residue of experience. When that happens, we are able to recalibrate ourselves (asmitā) and retain equilibrium or homeostasis in any situation.
However, this is not easy, but over time the ability to conform to yama rules, yet staying in homeostasis becomes easier. Consequently, as this change occurs, niyama becomes part of our awareness (prajñā), conditioning (svadharma) and identity (asmitā).
Āsana – Behaviour without a healthy body is like a car without a good engine or a rusted body. It will fall apart when subjected to the stress of changes induced by yama and niyama. Āsana aligns the various elements of the body to keep it in a condition of homeostasis. This element removes illness and makes the body fit to take on the stress of everyday living and change.
Prāṇāyāma – Breathing is critical to regaining balance in any stimulus-response. In any stress situation, breathing is hampered. Breath control maximises oxygen absorption, ensuring tissue regeneration, healthy oxygen balance in the blood and better left-right brain activity. Hence, this is a critical aspect of one’s development.
In pratyāhāra, one tries to minimise the impact of stimulus on the Self. This is done by not reacting with duality (dvandva). (like-dislike, good-bad, right-wrong etc). This increases the buffer between the Self (asmitā) and the stimulus, thereby increasing awareness (prajñā) and allowing of the person to work independently (svatantra).
So, it is obvious that pratyāhāra is the crossover point from material existence to spiritual consciousness. It is an exercise in the negation of existence and experience of the residue of that which remains after that negation.
The process is in 2 phases –
Implementing pratyāhāra in daily living.
Throughout the process, the key experience which we will need to tackle is fear and its opposite emotion, exultation. Pratyāhāra is not for the faint-hearted. It’s hard and there will be pain as well as grief.
Pratyāhāra is one of the least understood aspects of rāja-yoga. Most teachers simply skip this step and move on to meditation (dhyāna). But this is a critical step, because it enables the individual to isolate the fragile identity which is changing as a result of yama, niyama, āsana and prāṇāyāma from external influence and pressure. It makes the personality independent (svatantra).
Since this process is universal (sanātana), this step is also relevant for societies, countries and civilisations.