“Yoga is Whatever You Want it to Be”…Hmmmm.

By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | July 6, 2024

COMMENTS

I once heard a young yoga teacher say, “Yoga is whatever you want it to be.” Hmm. It might make a good self-help book title, Yoga Is Whatever You Want It To Be: a spiritual bypassing guide to spinning your karmic wheels.

The thing is that you, me, and pretty much everyone else have no business defining yoga – because it’s already been done – pretty darn well.

So, a more helpful statement might be “Yoga can be used for different purposes.” There are so many tools, and you can pull out different ones at different times, and you can be creative about it – and that’s one of the things we can all love about yoga.

Of course the definition of yoga in the west mostly gets squished into “yoga postures.” So today, I wanna talk a little about one of the lesser known tools, pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga. It’s typically defined as “withdrawal of the senses.”

“When the mental organs of senses and actions (indriyas) cease to be engaged with the corresponding objects, and assimilate or turn back into the mind-field from which they arose, this is called pratyahara, and is the fifth step.”  svaviṣayāsaṃprayoge cittasvarūpānukāra ivendriyāṇāṃ pratyāhāraḥ  2.54

 

“Through that turning inward of the organs of senses and actions also comes a supreme ability, controllability, or mastery over those senses inclining to go outward towards their objects.” tataḥ paramā vaśyatendriyāṇām 2.55  (translations from Swami J)

Recently I heard two different well-known yoga teachers provide their own defintions of pratyahara. The first one said, “Practicing pratyahara is about remaining in the middle of a stimulating environment and consciously not reacting to it.” It’s a lovely thought. But, while being able to remain non-reactive, even in a stimulating environment, may result from practicing pratyahara, it’s not the practice of pratyahara itself. The second teacher said, “Pratyahara means mindfulness.” Okay again, that’s a lovely idea. But it’s perhaps the result of the practice, not the practice itself.

And, you know, before I jump into what the tradition says about practicing pratyahara, I just wanna say that I love innovation in yoga, and I’m really interested in practical application and the daily life manifestation of practice. And, at the same time, we don’t have to reinvent the yoga wheel, it’s a matter of looking things up, studying, finding good teachers. The problem with defining things yourself is that it lends itself to reinforcing samskaric baggage (aka egoic habits) rather than using yoga for its intended purpose – which is to uproot the nonsense, shake it out, look at it honestly, and do something about it in order to become clearer about yourself and the world.

I learned pratyahara practices from a few different traditions and while some of the techniques I learned are initiations (in other words you’re supposed to learn them directly from a teacher of that lineage) they all seem to have some elements in common. Patanjali says that pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses and motor organs (indriyas). The idea is that the senses and motor organs use up a lot of our energy, so when we withdraw them, we can use that energy internally for connecting to the limitless and timeless source of all energy, and use it to dissolve some of that samskaric baggage that we carry around with us.

The five senses are called the Jñānendriya – smell, taste, sight, touch, and hearing. The five motor organs are called the Karmendriya – rectum, genitals, legs and feet, arms and hands, vocal cords. The practice entails using the mind to re-direct the energy of the senses toward the inner landscape – which can be a pretty interesting place to hang out sometimes. If you are moving around, talking, etc. it’s hard to practice it because the senses and motor organs are doing their intended thing – engaging with the external world.

So pratyahara is intended to be part of the meditation practice. The typical cross-legged postures of meditation (like Siddhāsana, Padmāsana, and Sukhāsana) are intended to redirect the energy typically used by the senses and motor organs within. So the meditation postures themselves are an aspect of pratyahara practice – you fold your legs (or sit in a chair), fold your hands in your lap, close your eyes, and touch the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. I learned not to burn incense or listen to music because those activities draw the senses outward and detract from pratyahara.

So the body is set up in a posture that helps to withdraw the senses and then the mind starts to do some inner work to further the process of withdrawing. And there are lots of techniques (some very specific ones that can take a while) including following the flow of the breath, working with mantras, working with chakra focus points, and tracing sensations through the body, to help effect that withdrawal.

The idea is that pratyahara, as a part of the progression of the 8 limbs, is a gateway to the inner realm and the inner experiences of meditation. It’s a way to take the energy that usually gets used up by the sensory and motor organs in our daily life, and use it instead to explore the inner world and draw wisdom from it.

For me, one of the most beautiful results of pratyahara practice is that it helps me to let go of external world troubles and heaviness, and listen internally. It helps me to hear the voice of my higher self, connect with it, develop, maintain and deepen my relationship with it, and allow myself to be filled with its love and energy so that I can function better back out there in everyday life.

Regularly practicing pratyahara can help you maintain a state of balance and be more mindful when you’re out there in the world living your life – but those qualities really need to be understood as the fruits of practice, not the practice itself. Let me know what you think in the comments.

 

Please check out my free ebook, 5 Ways Yogic Meditation Changes Your Brain.

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