The fifth limb: pratyahara
In the yoga philosophy, yogis are encouraged to walk the eightfold path. The eight limbs of yoga, as they are often referred to, act as guidelines for how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. These steps can be thought of as a moral and ethical code for conduct and self-discipline. The eight limbs of yoga serve to help the individual connect with one’s health, acknowledge the spiritual world all around, and become grounded in oneself. No one step is more important than another, nor does one step have to come before another. Each step is part of a holistic focus that brings a sense of connectedness to the individual as they find their connectivity to the divine.
The fifth limb is called pratyahara and it translates as “to withdraw oneself from that which nourishes the senses.” In other words, pratyahara is sense control. Imagine you are walking along a boulevard lined with shops and stores. You pass by a window with great shoes and you think, “I must get those right away,” and you walk inside. Or, you pass by a cupcake shop and you notice a delicious red velvet cupcake with cream cheese frosting just calling your name and you open the shop door. Or, you are passing a clothing store with the perfect accessory to match the outfit you’ve been building for 3 weeks and you hand over your credit card. These are instances of your senses being in control of your actions. Sometimes we also call this impulse shopping.
The idea that your actions follow your senses is the opposite of pratyahara. In pratyahara, you have control over your senses and therefore your actions are also within your control. To practice pratyahara, you have to make a conscious effort to draw your awareness away from the external stimuli; you are detaching from your senses. When you do this, you are able to direct your attention internally. You can take a step back and look at yourself fully. Doing so allows you to focus on your inner growth as you walk the eightfold path.
Think about a time you practiced meditation. When done properly, the mind is so focused on the object of the meditation that the senses are quiet. The senses are not reacting to external stimuli because they are following the actions of the mind: they are focusing on the meditation. Meditation is a great way to practice pratyahara because it almost happens naturally. Another time pratyahara happens almost instinctually is during a yoga practice. When practicing yoga, your mind is wiped clear and your focus is on the movements and the breath. When your mind is focused on your yoga practice, the external stimuli are quieted and recess to the background. This is when pratyahara steps in and allows you to walk the path of self-realization and inner peace.