Pratyahara Practice as a Method of Managing Negative Mental Health

Siddhartha Bhushan, Lecturer, Dept. of Yoga Psychology, Bihar Yoga Bharati. This paper was presented at the 90th Indian Science Congress, Bangalore, January 2003.

Mental health problems have been the cause of great concern to those who are engaged in human welfare. As mental health disorders are on the rise throughout the world, much importance has been given in modern times to their prevention. Mental health has been conceived in two forms - positive mental health and negative mental health. Positive mental health manifests as general well-being, self-confidence, personal competence, satisfaction, happiness and ego strength. Negative mental health, on the other hand, expresses itself in terms of anxiety, phobia, obsession, aggression, inferiority etc. A mentally healthy person is one who has a wholesome balanced personality free from complexes and inconsistencies, emotional and nervous tensions, disorders and conflicts (Chauhan, 1999).

As stated above, management of negative mental health is a must for human welfare. In this paper, the preventive and curative values of yogic pratyahara practices will be discussed regarding the management of negative mental health.

Pratyahara is the fifth step of Patanjali's raja yoga. It is from the stage of pratyahara that the real practice of yoga psychology, i.e. mind management, starts. Pratyahara, literally, means disassociation or withdrawal of the sensory awareness from the external world (Swami Niranjanananda, 1993). When the awareness becomes internalized, the practice of pratyahara culminates in the development of the witness or drashta. In other words, real pratyahara is a state of internalization where one develops the ability to simply observe the sensorial inputs and functioning of the mind. Pratyahara has been taken both as abhyasa (practice) and prakriya (process). As a practice, pratyahara is practised by sitting quietly for some time and trying to withdraw the sensory awareness inside by maintaining the witnessing attitude. But pratyahara is not just an abhyasa, a practice, rather it is also a prakriya, a process, which goes on all the time in our daily life, i.e. an ability to remain detached even in the midst of activity (Swami Chidananda, 1991). Yoga nidra, antar mouna and ajapa japa are important methods of pratyahara. In every method, the technique is different but the aim is the same, i.e. to become internalized without the involvement of 'I' ness (ego).

Before discussing how pratyahara helps in the management of negative mental health, it should be first understood how negative mental health actually develops. All the expressions of negative mental health take their support from the unconscious. The patient does not know why he is anxious, depressed or phobic. The unconscious is basically constituted of much repressed material. Now the question arises: why repression? The major source of the problem according to yoga is asakti, i.e. attachment. When we become attached to a person, object or thing, it gives rise to expectations and desires. Expectations and desires ultimately make us victims of frustration, leading to tension and conflict. Due to this the ego feels insecure. To deal with this insecurity it calls upon the unconscious mechanism of repression, which slowly takes the conscious conflict to the unconscious mind and at the conscious level we become peaceful. However, these repressed conflicts and tensions do not die but remain active in the unconscious and manifest as symptoms of negative mental health such as anxiety, depression, phobia, hostility etc (Feldman, 1998). The development of symptoms of negative mental health can be seen in the diagram below.

ASAKTI (attachment)
Expectation Desires
Frustration Tension Conflicts
Ego feels insecure
Unconscious garbage
Anxiety Depression Phobia

The practice of pratyahara is rich in both preventive and curative value regarding the management of negative mental health. As a preventive technique, it helps to interrupt the mechanism of repression thereby restricting he inputs to the unconscious. When pratyahara becomes a prakriya or process, drashta bhava, the witnessing attitude, develops and the ego becomes detached and unaffected even in the midst of activity. When the ego is detached, it does not feel insecure due to the presence of frustrations, tensions and conflicts. When the ego is not insecure, it does not call upon the mechanism of repression. Hence the unconscious is not fed with this negative energy and therefore there is no question of anxiety, phobia or depression. In this way, the practice of pratyahara helps in preventing the development of negative mental health.

Pratyahara not only prevents the development of negative mental health but also has curative power. Negative mental health develops or is primarily reinforced by the unconscious repressed material. In pratyahara as abhyasa or practice, when we withdraw the awareness from the external world and internalize it, the mind starts to play with its own contents and slowly the deep-rooted impressions of the subconscious and unconscious mind start coming up to the conscious level. These impressions had been repressed earlier due to ego involvement. When we watch these repressed impressions without ego involvement, the ego no longer feels the pain and hence does not call upon the mechanism of repression again. Thus the repressed material which was earlier reinforcing the expressions of negative mental health is exhausted and uprooted. When the actual cause of negative mental health is rooted out, slowly the mind obtains freedom from such negative tendencies and thus negative mental health expressed in stress, anxiety, phobia, hostility etc. can be managed effectively. This further results in mental quietness, emotional intelligence, spiritual development and bliss (Swami Chidananda, 1991).

So, it is clear that the practice of pratyahara helps in preventing the development of negative mental health, on the one hand, and in managing the negative personality traits, on the other.

Study report

To support the above discussion, a study was conducted in the Department of Yoga Psychology to investigate the effect of pratyahara practices on anxiety. The total sample consisted of 54 cases. They were divided into two groups - experimental and control. The experimental group consisted of 27 students from the Hindi Certificate Course, while the control group consisted of the remaining 27 students from this course. The experimental group was given pratyahara practices (yoga nidra and antar mouna) for one hour daily, five days a week for 25 days, while no such practices were given to the control group. All other activities were the same for both the experimental and the control group. To measure anxiety, Speilberger's Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) was administered to both the groups in pre-post design. The results obtained showed a significant reduction in the level of anxiety in the experimental group, while no such reduction was noted in the control group. The results are presented in the following table.

Effect of pratahara practice on level of anxiety

Group Condition N Mean SD t value p
Experimental Pre 27 44.37 8.86    
  Post 27 39.3 6.87 2.32 .05
Control Pre 27 42.07 12.02
        2 0.84 NS
  Post 27 39.41 11.51    

The above table clearly shows that in the experimental group the pre mean score was 44.37, which significantly reduced to 39.3 in the post condition (t value = 2.32; p = .05). In the case of the control group the pre mean score of 42.07 reduced to 39.41 in the post condition, but the mean difference was not found to be significant (t value = 0.84; p = NS). These results suggest that the pratyahara practices of yoga nidra and antar mouna reduced the level of anxiety in the practising subjects, because the anxiety level reduced significantly in the experimental group, whereas it did not reduce significantly in the control group. Hence, the results obtained lend support to the above discussion that pratyahara practices can effectively manage expressions of negative mental health.


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