"Make a Way for Yourself Inside Yourself..." Or, What the Heck is Pratyahara and Why Should it Be Part of My Yoga Practice?

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the practices of Yoga have 8 Limbs. The most known in our American culture is the third limb, the physical practice of asana, followed by, perhaps, the varying “levels” of meditation. But the limbs of yoga are considered the limbs of one tree, each component of the other – not separate.

The first two limbs are the yamas and niyamas, ethical observances in relation to the world and to the self. The 4th limb is pranayama, the channeling of the breath. The last 3 limbs: Dharana (concentration or focus); Dhyana (Meditation or absorption) and Samadhi (bliss or unity) are stages of the meditative process.

Pratyahara, the 5th limb, is to me the point of integrating all of these seemingly separate disciplines into one discipline with many potential expressions and interweavings.

Often described as “withdrawal of the senses,” Pratyahara translates as “away” (Prati) from “food” (ahara). There are three levels of “food:” The physical food that sustains our bodies, comprised of the five elements; the impressions our senses take in from the world around us; and our associations and connections with our fellow humans.

My take on Pratyahara is that it isn’t so much about withdrawing from the world but choosing to direct our attention inward so that we can more consciously decide where to put our energy as we move through both practice and life. It is the capacity to “make a way for yourself inside yourself,” in the words of Rumi. It is in many ways the key to our inner resources of strength and self-trust.

As a yoga therapist specializing in trauma, I witness the powerful effects of yoga in its capacity to reconnect the dissociated parts of a person’s self. Part of this healing process has to do with yoga’s capacity to increase “interoception,” the perception of the experience of one’s own body and viewpoint. “Exteroception” is the perception of external stimuli. In extreme situations such as a traumatic event or chronically traumatizing situation or relationship, all of the attention must be directed outward for survival purposes, and the ability to feel one’s own experience, and one’s own subjective viewpoint, can be severed. We also experience this within the chronic sensory overstimulation of our daily lives. Our nervous systems become chronically responsive to what lives outside of us and we lose the ability to self-refer, becoming addicted to the “food” of the outer world.

The practice of pratyahara is this drawing inward to feel ourselves. It is the direction of our awareness back to our own centers where we can reconnect to the source of our power in the world and our ability to trust and feel our inner strength.

Pratyahara is what makes asana different from calisthenics. When we use the movements of the physical body as a template of our awareness, movement and strength and range of motion become experiences of life rather than ideas or expectations. We become aware of our breath as the way we are using our energy. We notice the way we are acting in the world both with others and ourselves. In meditation, we are able to come to a place of deeper union with our beautiful human aspects rather than disconnecting or dissociating. As we direct our attention away from outer distractions, we find we have choices about where the energy of our attention goes.

Pratyahara is also the quality of attention that makes acts of self-care rejuvenating and self-nurturing rather than a time suck. It is why it doesn’t matter so much what we practice as how. It is the magic of tapping inside for resources we had no idea were there in times of crisis that lead us to transcend our limits and uncover our potential.

How might this look in the space of an ordinary life?

A few years ago, I was struggling to leave a marriage that had become a destructive place to be. I was struggling to function, and every system in my body was dysregulated from the stress. My practice became about finding refuge within the space of my own body, and there I found, every day, one breath at a time, the capacity to trust my judgement in a volatile situation. A little house down a wild trail, on the beach, appeared. I walked down that trail with a sleeping bag, some coffee, and some raspberries. The feeling of solitude- no one could find me unless I walked out to get them- became an outer refuge for my body refuge to rest in. That sense of positive, life-giving solitude has been the foundation of my own healing, my work, and my practice. If I had continued to direct my attention to the outer world and remained hyper responsive and hypervigilant, in survival mode, I might not have tapped the courage to understand that drawing out of the world I had known and into myself, was the most beautiful place I could be. I had to become aware of the “food” I was taking in by staying in the familiarity of a destructive situation, and choose to withdraw from the addictive stimuli of the fish hooks that kept me planted there. Once my practice brought me to the place I understood I could make choices, I had the capacity to walk down that trail and begin a whole new life.

As we practice pratyahara consciously, we tap into the potential of transformation by learning to direct our energy. Our practices become infused with this energy and our lives are infused by the practices.

For more please see my upcoming workshop at 8 Limbs Yoga: