As the hrs of daylight decrease and darkness creeps into our lives a little earlier each evening, there’s a natural tendency to withdraw from outward activity. As winter approaches, many animals migrate or prepare to hibernate. Some plants shed their leaves and will wait for Spring to grow again. Though we’ve mechanized our lives sufficiently to ignore the rhythms of nature if we choose to, we can recognize this inborn prompting to slow down and go within. For this reason, we chose to practice Pratyahara for November.
Pratyahara, often translated as withdrawal of the senses, is the fifth of the eight limbs of Yoga. It is practiced to gain control of the senses both for the purpose of developing concentration and to make good use of that control as we move through the world. It is inherent in any meditative practice in which we purposely turn our senses inward in order to sustain our meditative focus.
Pratyahara deepens our practice of asana and pranayama since it enables us to be more sensitive to the messages of the body, and the subtle movements of prana. When we meditate, the mental energy that would normally be directed outward through the senses, can be channeled inward, strengthening our focus. A regular meditation practice develops this ability to easefully direct our senses as we choose to.
This ability is of immense benefit since it is through the senses that we contact the people and objects around us. As we perceive things, we may automatically experience either desire for it or aversion towards it. If we have developed some control of the senses, we can circumvent this dynamic by exercising some control, retracting our senses and redirecting our attention.
When we walk down the street, can we smell fresh-baked goods or see glittering jewelry in a storefront window without getting sidetracked? Can we enjoy a bit of sweet after a meal without eating the whole container of ice cream or the whole bag of cookies? If we cannot, we may need to avoid unhealthy temptations until we develop sufficient strength of mind to remain neutral.
Ultimately, our practice of Pratyahara serves as a great preparation for controlling subtler distractions — our own compelling thoughts. Through steady effort, we gradually learn to sustain our focus, withdrawing our attention from all the many thought-forms that arise, an effort that requires patience and persistence. It’s helpful to remember that every little effort we make toward controlling our senses moves us that much closer to experiencing the deep, peaceful ocean of Spirit within, a source of tremendous healing and guidance.