On a beach trip when I was about six years old, my mother pointed out the colorful coquina clams on the shore. Each time a wave drew back into the sea, the tiny creatures, sensing their exposure, would send out a soft foot and dig themselves back into the cool, wet sand. I gently picked one up and observed its jellylike extension. When its little feeler made contact with my fingers, it immediately retreated back into its shell.
I am reminded of this experience whenever I practice or teach pratyahara, the retracting of the senses. In English, pratyahara is often referred to as sensory withdrawal, which can suggest a kind of deprivation. But in Sanskrit, it means “fasting” and is an intentional—and often challenging—practice of resting from sensory intake in order to quiet the mind so that we can know our true selves.
Pratyahara in Spiritual Teachings
A renowned image from the Bhagavad Gita depicts unyielding horses pulling the warrior Arjuna’s chariot. Krishna, the divine charioteer, guides the five horses as they yank the reins in various directions.
Arjuna’s horses are said to represent the Pancha Indriya, or five senses (“Pancha” means five and “Indriya” means sense): hearing, sight, taste, touch, and smell. Krishna’s focused direction of the stubborn horses symbolizes our power to stay balanced in spite of the ”heat and cold, pleasure and pain” that the senses bring. Through this poetic imagery, we are invited to consider the important question: Am I in control of my senses, or are they in control of me?
When you are taken over by your senses—for example, by being immediately drawn in by the chime of a phone notification—you are less able to enjoy the present moment. On a larger scale, being driven by your senses can prevent you from realizing the inner purpose that Vedic teachings suggest we all have.
For a long time, I had a rigorous full-time career in education reform. Eventually, I faced a crossroads: earn my doctorate on nights and weekends, or enroll in yoga teacher training to deepen my practice. Although I deeply craved balance, the idea of adding “Dr.” before my name —and the appeal of after-class outings with colleagues—led me to add the doctoral program to my plate. My stress levels skyrocketed, and I constantly wondered what to do.
Then one day I did a progressive body relaxation in a yoga class. Distanced from outside stimulation, I felt more centered in my mind and body than I had in weeks. In that moment, the ring of prestigious titles and comfort of conformity began to dissolve. With continued practice, my inner conflict disappeared, and I felt empowered to let go of the doctoral program and chose to study yoga.
My sensory perceptions of prestige and security ruled me like Arjuna’s horses. Leaving a doctoral program took effort, but it allowed me to focus on studying and practicing yoga, which brings me joy.
Sri Swami Satchidananda’s translation of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali describes the senses as a mirror. When turned outward, they reflect what’s happening outside of us, and we imagine that as our reality. When turned inward, our senses reflect the purity and light that live inside of us, and we perceive our reality as peaceful. One easy way to try pratyahara is to simply become more aware of your relationship to your senses during your yoga practice. Allow your attention to retreat from the sights, sounds, and smells around you when you move in a steady rhythm of asana. Notice the ripples of your mind quiet as you consciously direct your breathing with pranayama or japa meditation.
Adding practices that reduce external stimulation can further help you withdraw. Try using Shanmukhi Mudra while practicing pranayama or meditation: Bring your hands to your face and use your fingers to close the gates of perception—eyes, ears, mouth, and bridge of the nose. During restorative yoga, turn off the lights and cover your eyes with an eye pillow and your body with a blanket.
Yoga nidra and sequential body scans also allow us to be in touch with physical sensations so that we can gradually draw them inward toward peaceful rest. Here’s my favorite body scan: Lie with your arms and legs comfortably extended. With your eyes closed, turn your attention to the sensations in your body, starting with your head and moving down through your arms, torso, and legs until you reach your feet. Notice how the bed or floor supports you. Are you hot or cold? Does one part of you ache? Do you feel deeply relaxed or a little anxious? Comfortably and naturally breathe in and out, simply noticing any smells or flavors in your environment and sounds you hear around you or within you, such as passing cars or the beating of your heart. Observe thoughts as images that move across the screen of your mind. Next, imagine your mind gently retracting back into a cool, quiet place. If your mind is triggered by a sound or movement, simply notice it, and draw your attention back to your breath.
As you gain steadiness in pratyahara, you can begin to observe light and color in your daily life with appreciation and intention, consciously “guiding your horses,” so to speak. The experience may not be instant, but for me, pratyahara is soft and steadying—the way a mollusk’s foot gently reaches out and secures her for a time, eventually gliding back in, her equilibrium restored.
Ancient Wisdom, Modern Practice: The Draw of the Senses is written by Carmen Harbour-Taylor for www.yogajournal.com