In the practice of pratyahara, one of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, we draw the senses inward to bring attention to the inner world instead of expending energy exclusively on the outer world. What we perceive in the outer world is just one part of our whole consciousness. Pratyahara provides a bridge from the outer practices of yama, niyama, asana and pranayama (from the gross) to the inner practices of dharana, dhyana and samadhi (to the subtle). The energy freed from focusing outward, freed of the desire to act and to collect information can be wisely channeled instead to the realization of who we really are, which is pure consciousness.
Where do we put our energy most of the time? We give our precious attention to the outside world, invariably, through identification with sensory inputs as well as identification with conditioned personality. For example, take our self-image, how we want to present ourselves to the world. How do I look? How do people see me? How do I want to be perceived? This kind of behavior exhausts a lot of our energy throughout the day. Pratyahara, as a practice, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take care of ourselves or that we shouldn’t embrace beauty. It means to be aware of how much attention we give the outer image and to reduce the energy wasted in creating it. Satsang is a potent and helpful yoga practice in this regard. To be surrounded by people who are interested in yoga and self-realization instead of sticking to a carefully crafted outer image supports us to liberate ourselves from false identification.
To be able to turn the focus inward we need to minimize outer disturbances to the extent possible. What do we feed our minds all day? Information from news media, television, emails, social media, magazines and advertising, all of which trigger our emotions and tell us what we need next. What is our strategy to deal with all this information? Some may turn to alcohol, drugs and gossip. We talk and think more in an effort to digest all that input. Unfortunately, it only makes things worse. We should rather make an effort to calm our mind! We have to be able to digest what happens to us and everything that we say and think and do. Choose that which gives you less new things to deal with. As a practice, write down what distracted you during the asana or mediation. What made concentration difficult? By putting it into words you can realize what you are chewing on while you wanted to focus on something higher than your daily distractions. Then you start getting a sense of what is really important to you and what kind of external sensory input you would like to minimize.
To understand what is happening during the process of pratyahara, for me the philosophy of Samkhya is very helpful. We get an exact breakdown of how the human being functions, what has an influence on our behavior and how we perceive the world. We all know our five senses, referred to in Sanskrit as buddhendriyas. There are also the karmendriyas or “senses of action” (talking, grasping, moving, eliminating and procreating). These are almost always immediate, unconsciousness, automatic, spontaneous, and learned reactions to the sensations. I see something I like, for example, a brownie. For others, it would be a cigarette, a steak, a sexy person or a new pair of shoes. I see the brownie, I want to have the brownie and my hand grasps the brownie. To understand why we act like we do, we need to observe the connection between sensation, mind and action. Then we have the chance to change something. Being aware of what drives us to action makes it easier to let it go and calms down our lives. Conscious behavior reduces distraction and increases the ability to concentrate. Focusing inward we discover the three parts of our mental activity. The dominant parts are the thinking part, the mind (manas) and the part having an opinion, our ego (ahamkara). The pure observing component (buddhi) is slightly hidden, but always present. Through training the mind we can interfere and stop our prompt action. We then have time to reflect and act consciously. Do I need the brownie? Am I hungry? Do I need more sweets? What did I eat all day? What are the ingredients? What are the consequences for me and for others? Does my action lead to more suffering of others? What are my ethical and moral beliefs? How do I want to act, instead of just react? Addressing these questions will lead to different behaviors, which are based on a freely made decision, with hopefully less ego involved. Selfless and nonviolent behavior reduces the dominance of the ego and brings more peace to the world and to the mind.
A practical aspect of the training of the mind is to observe things consciously like a witness. Practice observing without judgments, without words, just watching. For example, watch thoughts arising during the Yoga Practice. We don’t have to stick with the thoughts, we don’t have to describe them and we even don’t have to think about where they come from. We can realize this is the mind thinking a thought, and let go of the thought. This will bring us closer to the buddhi, our intelligence, which allows realizing the higher Self, which is pure consciousness.
The practice of pratyahara shows us, how much influence the culture has, the outer circumstances, our experiences, our personal behaviors and characteristics and, of course, our preferences and antipathies. Going inward reveals a sophisticated vision of our entire consciousness. The ego — or better the “maker of our small self” — can be identified and eliminated, revealing the buddhi, a clear and free perception. As Sharon Gannon and David Life say in Jivamukti Yoga: Practices for Liberating Body and Soul, “Through pratyahara we can journey from the outer fixation to inward revelation.”