Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) is one of the most important limbs of Yoga but often one of the least understood.
Yoga requires that the mind must be focused and drawn within, with the fire of vairagya or detachment of the senses (indriyas) being awakened and mastered.
The most famous Vedic forms of the gods or forms of Agni (Fire) that relates to Pratyahara is the god Indra, whose name means “Master of the sense-organs (indriyas)”, as he himself destroys all obstacles (vritras) that come in the way of attaining the higher state and cultivating inner awareness and restraint.
When the mind is controlled, internalized and not externalized (which sometimes requires cultivating the physical fires of silence through tapas or austerities and restraining the body – sometimes even from foods as in fasts, or from society, as in Yogis renouncing the world or meditating in remote places) this provides us with a kind of Pratyahara also, a withdrawal from the usual surroundings and conditioning of the body and the mind, so that we can better silence it and keep it restrained and away from these influences.
Another example is visiting sacred places or Tirthas which themselves have powerful effects upon our minds and help awaken the fire of transformation. Avoiding certain foods (anna-pratyahara) and cultivating the fire of sattvas or purity, avoiding all things that are not Sattvic, not pure, whether foods, scriptures and other surroundings and we associate ourselves with devotees, religious people or fellow-Yogis and withdraw ourselves from the mundane urban and materialistic aspects of the world.
Ahara itself means food or impressions that we take within ourselves and as such, refers to restraint of these.
In Ayurveda, we go through a kind of Pratyahara or withdrawal or avoidance of certain foods, as per our own biological Prakriti or natural constitution, as also when we are diseased, we cultivate the fire of Pratyahara also, avoiding certain activities and lifestyle impression that may harm and hinder our health.
For example if we are suffering from Prameha or diabetes, then we will adopt a Pratyahara or withdrawal from certain foods such as dairy, oily foods and pastries, sugars and sweet foods, heavy foods and such and instead take lighter, easier to digest and pungent foods and also avoid activities such as sleeping during the day, awaking late and having large heavy meals in the morning and at night, which can aggravate our disease condition by killing our Agni or fire of digestion that has been behind the disease in the first place.
Likewise, we also need to cultivate the fire of awareness about our karmas also and consider whether or not we are performing a Pratyahara or withdrawal from certain activities or actions (karmas) that are hindering our spiritual progress or thwarting our prarabdha, the current fruit-bearing karma of this life from coming out naturally and may have to cultivate the fire of withdrawal from certain activities we are doing, as they may not complement this inner pull and the inner samskaras or karmic impressions we have imbibed from the past.
Similarly, we have to consider awakening the fires of Pratyahara against negative activities and be aware of allowing in negative impressions that influence our actions, such as those caused by mistake of the intellect (prajnaparadha) and cause us for example, to be lazy and not do our sadhana or spiritual practise or study the ancient texts and expand our spiritual knowledge.
There are various practices that help us develop a Pratyahara or withdrawal from negative impressions on a spiritual level in Yoga and Ayurveda:
Pujas or ritualistic offerings to the Deities and also immersing ourselves in the study of sacred devotional literature such as the Puranas of ancient India help withdraw our senses away from the modern materialistic culture and take our minds into one of a spiritual and more enlightened age and also withdraw us from the body and into the devotion of the Deity itself, such as also mantras do when focuses upon and offered with the fire of devotion to the deity.
Agni Hotra, the ancient fire sacrifice itself is a good way to help us do Pratyahara, as it helps us connect not with the physical impressions and senses, but with nature through the sacred fire and offerings, through which we (mentally) offer up our senses and such also. It helps detach ourselves from our senses and focus our energies upon more productive and spiritually conducive acts, whereby the senses themselves become transformed as a result of selfless service by not seeking rewards or gains for our activities or for sensual gratification (or toxic emotions and impression) and help cultivate vairagya or detachment from the mind.
Meditation, done according to our biological constitution (Prakriti) and with appropriate mantras and visualisations also helps internalise our minds, thoughts and awareness.
Popular examples of a toxic involvement of the senses are the Television, Video-games, News or Media hype and also by way of Social-media, through which we must also develop an attitude of Pratyahara and sensory withdrawal from also, as such impressions can also create disturbances in our psyche even at night and can create bad dreams, as Ayurveda itself states:
Bad dreams occur due to the blockages in the manovahasrotas (mind carrying channels), due to aggravated wastes in the body.
– Ashtanga Hridaya, Sharirasthana,VI.59-60
We hence need to restrain our toxic impressions with regards to both the mind (manasic aharas) and also the body (dehic aharas), which includes all such impressions and also foods, which can dampen both the fire of the intellect (bauddhic agni) and also the fire of digestion (pachakagni) in the body and cause disease.
By withdrawing our minds and bodies away from such things, we can hence go far in Yoga by cultivating this fire of detachment and withdrawal and therefore help us in restraining the senses overall, by which we can become great Yogis.