Pratyahara: the Fifth Limb

Pratyahara is defined as withdrawal from the senses, and literally means “To wean or abstain oneself from that which one takes in.”

As an overcaffeinated, overworked, overpartied, sleep-deprived, ADHD having, overstimulated westerner, this limb reads as both my worst nightmare and exactly the vacation I desperately crave.


Goodness and pleasure are not the same thing, did you know?

It’s impossible to escape stimulus. There is no place one can go in the world to experience 0 sensations. If you close your eyes and sit perfectly still, you can still hear and smell; the muscles of your body can still cramp and cause pain; your breath can grow choppy with fatigue. The trouble, then, is not so much that our senses encounter the world, but how our monkey-brains jump when they smell bananas.

On the most basic level, we’re inclined to move away from pain and towards pleasure. (There was a study with dogs and steaks, ringing any bells?) This was one of the primary areas of interest for the Greek philosophers; that is, the difference between the good and the pleasant, and what makes the good more profitable than the pleasant. The conclusion that they came to was more or less a question of instant gratification being the opponent of long-standing happiness.

So, while I’m working in my sensory-deprivation-chamber, the grey cube of white-collar hell, I am effectively trading this moment’s pleasure for my long-term happiness, because I’m cultivating discipline (Tapas) and simultaneously trading away my life in little nuggets for the means to feed and shelter myself. Delayed gratification for long term happiness. I do what I must now so that I can do what I want later. Are we all cool with this idea?

I certainly hope not. This idea is pretty much exactly why I don’t practice Christianity anymore.

This is the point in the post where I reiterate that I’m not a scholar, what I know about Pratyahara I learned on the Google.

For me, when I think of Pratyahara, it’s not so much about denying the pleasant for the sake of the good. Rather, Pratyahara seems to be about treating both the pleasant and the unpleasant with the same indifference, rather than running away from the unpleasant and towards the pleasant, as every living thing is inclined to do.

I’m as inclined towards the pleasant as anyone,  I eat so much chocolate. So. Much. Chocolate. One of the things that a yoga practice has made me more aware of is the way that instant-gratification-pleasant things often lead nearly immediately to highly-unpleasant-things, like the post an entire half-gallon of chocolate gellato stomach-ache and the associated headache. Another thing that I’ve become more aware of is what I tend to avoid.

We all avoid the same stuff. Vulnerability, challenge, the possibility of failure, the unpleasantness of a seemingly fruitless labor. The particular phobias look different to different people. I tend to drag my feet about playing party games and reading my email, because they both infringe on the false stoicism that I try to project. Some people would say that a Pratyahara practice means that you don’t have to play “ships and sailors” or respond to your emails, because both of those things would ~engage your senses~. I frankly think that’s a cop out. Don’t use your Yoga practice as an excuse to be a flake.

Do you know why James Bond always orders his martinis “shaken, not stirred”? When he does that, he’s telling the audience that though he’s been something wildly traumatic and is physically shaken, the drama has not touched his heart. He remains indifferent, he’s not stirred. This is what I think Pratyahara asks of us.

We must participate in our lives. There will be music and good food and love and fights and car crashes. The choice is in the distance between the things that happen to us and how we choose to react to them.

Again, back to the self-help talk. This seems to come up over and over again, almost as though the secret to being a happy and fulfilled person is not letting the events of your life dictate your feelings. The trick is that this also doesn’t mean that we become cyborgs. Human beings have feelings, and in order for them to not become warped, we have to be able to sit with them. Stoicly.

Most of us over-identify with our thoughts and feelings. The ideas we have, our reasoning, our feelings, we think they are us. And that’s not true. The thing that we are has different names in different faiths, but whatever you call that thing, it’s untouchable by the currents of your life.

My practice of Pratyahara is something I’m still working on, but I’m learning to examine my emotions and reactions as though they belong to someone else, however deeply I may be feeling them. I’m hoping that by learning to identify less with the small self, I’m getting closer to identifying with the larger Self.

“(2.54) When the mental organs of senses and actions cease to be engaged with the corresponding objects in their mental realm, and assimilate or turn back into the mind-field from which they arose, this is called pratyahara, and is the fifth step. (2.55) 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.” -the Yoga Sutras
(tatah parama vashyata indriyanam)(sva vishaya asamprayoge chittasya svarupe anukarah iva indriyanam pratyaharah)


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