By Shameem Akhtar
Withdrawing the sense, mind and consciousness from contact with external objects, and then drawing them inwards towards the seer, is pratyahara.
There is an interesting exchange between the Mother (of Auroville) and her students. According to her, tapas involves control of senses. This cannot be confined to the time of sadhana, but needs to be a continuous and conscious effort. She gently rebukes students who feel if they just had the right food, their sadhana would be perfect. Or the right conditions of bedding, lighting and surroundings that our senses clamor for. We believe we can get on in life, including our spiritual inner one, only if the tyrannical needs of our senses are first satiated.
This is true even in ashrams today. I, too, had passed that stage of griping (and still often succumb to it) about not having everything right so one can focus on one’s sadhana or life. Indian philosophies mock at this slavishness to our senses. In yoga, there are several practices that consolidate its fifth limb, called pratyahara or withdrawing the outward flow of the senses. Only then can we progress – be it in achieving health, spiritual centering or our professional goals. This is sage Patanjali’s definition in his Yoga Sutras: ‘Withdrawing the sense, mind and consciousness from contact with external objects, and then drawing them inwards towards the seer, is pratyahara.’
See how most successful people employ pratyahara naturally. Supermodels deny themselves tempting delectations for the sake of their professional fitness. Businessmen devote crushing hours at a project, denying themselves sleep to earn profits. Sportsmen renounce pain just to thrash their enemy at the scoreboard.
All of them are practicing pratyahara. They do this instinctively. In some stars, however, this instinct may be lop-sided. They may make the grade in their professional lives, but fail miserably on the personal front. A superstar with an eating disorder, like Elvis Presley. Or a supermodel who needs anger management therapy, like Naomi Campbell.
But yoga uses a systematic training that can first mold even those of us who are not naturally inclined that way. And most importantly, mold to completeness those whose instincts provide only a lop-sided pratyahara, like the stars mentioned above. Most of the physical aspects of yoga lead to this mental pratyahara.
Pratyahara is designed into yoga’s physical aspects. The higher advanced version of nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), called samanu, also sets the pace. Brahamari (humming bee) pranayama centers the energy flow within the sushumna, reining in the mind’s sensory dance. Advanced practices such as kurma asana (tortoise), garba pindasana (womb pose), nasik graha mudra (nose-tip gazing) also stop the senses’ wasteful outward flow. But the most perfect combination of all practices is the shanmukhi mudra (closing the seven gates).
Shankmukhi mudra: A powerfully involuting practice, not recommended for introverted shy people or chronic depressives. But is superb practice for those with attention deficit, addictions, or anger. In nada yoga, it is used to progressively appreciate the subtle sounds that lead to samadhi.
Sit cross-legged with an erect back. Raise hands, bending them at elbows. Use fingers to shut sense organs on face. Shut your eyes. Place each thumb in each ear hole. Place each index finger lightly on each shut eye-lid. Place tip of each middle finger on each nostril. Place each ring finger on top of upper lip, so the finger’s edge may shut the lip. Finally, place each little finger below each lower lip. As you breathe in, lift middle fingers lightly to allow breath to enter nose. Immediately after, shut nostrils to retain the breath. Hold for just a few seconds. Then release, by again lifting middle fingers. Do this for a few minutes only in the first attempt. Then slowly you may increase the time.
Some schools recommend a support for the elbows to ease beginner’s pain. The above explained practice is just the start-up. The more advanced practice is ideally learnt under the guidance of a teacher.
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