Pratyahara itself is termed as yoga, as it is the most important limb in yoga sadhana.
—Swami Sivananda

Yoga is a vast system of spiritual practices that provides tools for inner growth. It teaches us how to understand the different aspects of our nature and how to harmonize these with the greater universe within and around us. This wonderful inner science shows us how to realize our highest evolutionary potential.

As the fifth of the eight limbs, pratyahara occupies a central place. Some include it among the outer aspects of yoga, others with the inner aspects. Both classifications are correct, for pratyahara is the key to the relationship between the outer and inner aspects of yoga; it shows us how to move from one to the other.

It is not possible for most of us to move directly from asana to meditation. This requires jumping from the body to the mind, forgetting what lies between. To make this transition, the breath and senses, which link the body and mind, first need to be brought under control and developed properly. This is where pranayama and pratyahara come in. With pranayama we control our vital energies and impulses, and with pratyahara we gain mastery over the unruly senses—both prerequisites to successful meditation.

What Is Pratyahara?

The term “pratyahara” is composed of two Sanskrit words, prati and ahara. “Ahara” means “food,” or “anything we take into ourselves from the outside.” “Prati” is a preposition meaning “against” or “away.” “Pratyahara” means literally “control of ahara,” or “gaining mastery over external influences.” It has been compared to a turtle withdrawing into its shell—the turtle’s shell is the mind and the turtle’s limbs are the senses. The term is usually translated as “withdrawal from the senses,” but much more is implied.

In yogic thought there are three levels of ahara, or food. The first is physical food that brings in the five elements necessary to nourish the body—earth, water, fire, air, and ether. The second is impressions, which bring in the subtle substances necessary to nourish the mind—the sensations of sound, touch, sight, taste, and smell that constitute the subtle elements: sound/ether, touch/air, sight/fire, taste/water, and smell/earth. The third level of ahara is our associations, the people we hold at heart level who serve to nourish the soul and affect us with the gunas of sattvarajas, and tamas (the prime qualities of harmony, distraction, or inertia).

Pratyahara is twofold. It involves withdrawal from wrong food, wrong impressions, and wrong associations, while simultaneously opening up to right food, right impressions, and right associations. We cannot control our mental impressions without right diet and right relationships, but pratyahara’s primary importance lies in withdrawal from or control of sensory impressions, which frees the mind to move within.

By withdrawing our awareness from negative impressions, pratyahara strengthens the mind’s powers of immunity. Just as a healthy body resists toxins and pathogens, a healthy mind resists the negative sensory influences around it. If you are easily disturbed by the noise and turmoil of the environment around you, you need to practice pratyahara. Without it, you will not be able to meditate.

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