Three Practices of Pratyahara

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Yoga nidra

Yoga nidra means psychic sleep. What is your understanding of the meaning of the phrase ‘psychic sleep’? Some people say psychic sleep is sleepless sleep. Some people say it is conscious sleeping. Some people say shutting off the mind and losing it is the definition of psychic sleep. However, all these ideas relate to manomaya kosha, and manomaya kosha is not psychic; it is vijnanamaya kosha which is psychic. This means yoga nidra is a practice that connects you to your vijnanamaya kosha. The psychic awareness of vijnanamaya kosha is not of the outer consciousness but of the total consciousness, and the total consciousness involves all the levels of manas, buddhi, chitta and ahamkara.

In yoga nidra you keep yourself active all the time and create stimulation of different senses. For example, you create your own inner visual stimulation when you visualize different objects or scenes. That is due to the memories of what you have seen in your life. You can also imagine what you have not seen as a result of these memories. I have never seen a purple cloud, but I can visualize a purple cloud as I know what clouds are and I know what the colour purple is. So I can put those two together: the image of the cloud and the colour. In this way, you can see anything, even a rabbit with wings.

When unrealistic images come together, images that are not compatible in reality, it is a different experience from the coming together of compatible images. The incompatible images become fantasy. Many people lose their path in pratyahara when they go on such a flight of fancy, as two totally un-associated impressions are trying to create a third impression. You are creating more pratyayas, impressions, by going into flights of fancy, that is why visuals in yoga nidra are restricted to specific things. It is not that you can say anything under the sun and make up any story according to your liking desire and whim. If you have done that, it is wrong, so come back to basics. Understand the visualization stage in yoga nidra from the perspective that the visuals have to first bring out memories that are soft in nature, not the hard ones that disturb you or destroy the peace and balance of mind.

In yoga nidra, when you begin to go into the pratyaya level, you begin with the soft memories. If I say, “Visualize a lake”, you search in your memory for a lake that you have seen, whether in the morning, afternoon or evening. It is an image that impressed you, an image that you liked and retained. If somebody said “Visualize a lake” to me, the lake that I naturally used to visualize was a place I liked: the scenery, the water, the surroundings, the trees, the snow-capped mountains, the Ozarks in America. It would always be that lake, which had made a deep impression. However, it is possible for another memory to overpower the previous one. If today somebody says visualize a lake, the image of the Ozarks will not come, instead the image of Manasarovar will come as that is a better impression and has more feeling associated with it. It has overpowered the memory of the Ozarks lake and now my deepest impression has become the Manasarovar lake. Now that visualization is natural, as it is stronger than the previous one.

You begin to practise visualization with such things: lakes, rivers, mountains, flowers, a garden, forest walk, moon, sun, star, something that you see on an everyday basis. Yoga nidra stops there, with visuals. The last stage of yoga nidra is visualization.

In the preceding stage of yoga nidra, experiencing opposites, the sensations that are used are also limited. They are related with bringing up memories that might disturb the peace of mind and then harmonizing those memories. Therefore, the sensation of heaviness comes first, before the sensation of lightness. If you change the order, it is not yoga nidra as it will not explode the pratyayas in a balanced way. If you explode a heavy pratyaya, you have to replace it with a light one. If you explode a painful pratyaya, you have to replace it with happiness. You may think that to begin with pain or heaviness is abrupt, but this order is necessary. The feeling of heaviness first, then the feeling of lightness. The feeling of pain first, then bring up the memory of pleasure. You are always changing the negative into a positive, not the other way around.

Every stage of yoga nidra has a specific purpose and therefore it is done in a particular way, which has been given by Sri Swami Satyananda. Even if you are an experienced teacher, check your practice to make sure you have not lost the track.

Antar mouna

After yoga nidra you move into another practice, antar mouna, the second rung of the ladder. The same thing is being done, but this time you are using thought as the medium to internalize yourself. Thought is an activity of the manas level. How do you control your manas? How do you observe your manas? What are the strings of manas? The strings of manas are the thoughts. In yoga nidra, you relaxed and cleared the impressions, recent or old. Then you go into antar mouna and begin to work with manas. The subsequent meditations lead you from manas to buddhi to chitta to ahamkara. That is the sequence that Sri Swamiji has defined.

In antar mouna, you look at the strands of mind and see them come. The only problem is that these strands of mind, the thoughts, are an unconscious activity and not a conscious activity. Therefore, when you begin to observe your thoughts, you suddenly find that they are not coming. Thinking is an unconscious activity. It cannot become a conscious activity, you cannot consciously think. You can brood over something. You can pick up a thought or an idea and brood over it, but that is not thinking. It is brooding, which means circling around an idea.

In order to observe your thoughts in antar mouna, you have to withdraw your attention a little bit. That will allow them to come again. As long as you are 100 percent externalized, the thoughts won’t come. You have to go in 50 percent in your awareness, then they will again start trickling in. The moment you again intensify your awareness, they will stop. Therefore, the state of mind in antar mouna should be 50 percent awareness.

In 100 percent awareness, you struggle with yourself, ‘The thoughts are not coming, now what do I do? I have to think about something. I have to bring them back.’ You create more stress in your antar mouna here. In 50 percent awareness you can see the strands of thought moving. Without intensifying your attention, you can look at them without obstructing them. When you are able to do this, it indicates the resilience of awareness and mind. It is like the strength of the body. If you have to pick up a book, the strength is used in a specific manner. If you have to pick up a bucket of water, the strength is used differently. Resilience has to develop in antar mouna before you progress into the next meditative technique.

The seven stages of the practice develop resilience and the skill to be with your manas from every possible angle. See the thoughts, stop them. Call them, stop them. Create them, stop them. You are controlling and developing your manas. You are not learning concentration, you are not meditating; you are becoming aware of and observing your manas. You are silencing the chatter of thoughts, and silencing the chatter of thoughts is known as inner silence, antar mouna.

The thought process is also connected to pratyayas. Every thought has a link somewhere in the past. A thought is like a weed: on the surface you see only seven centimetres, but when you start digging you find that the weed goes down seven feet. That is the nature of a thought also. What you see is only the seven-centimetre growth, but it is linked with your ahamkara and buddhi, with your ambitions and desires. All the traits of the personality reflect themselves on your thoughts. Can you pick up the different traits of your personality in one thought? Can you observe them? Can you change them? This is the learning of antar mouna.

Ajapa japa

The third practice of pratyahara is ajapa japa. When the mind is still and you are able to observe your own thoughts, then there is a need to channel the mind and prana, to bring together prana and mind and merge them. Therefore, after antar mouna comes ajapa japa. From yoga nidra to antar mouna you are working with the upper 25 per cent of the consciousness, the manas level. In yoga nidra you do go deep into your consciousness, into vijnanamaya kosha, but you bring the matter up to the surface, to the manas level. Then in antar mouna you deal with everything at that level. Once this is done, you have to merge manas with prana, and that is done through ajapa japa.

In ajapa japa, the breath, prana and mind work in unison. The training is to visualize the movement of mind and prana in different areas: in the frontal passage, the nasal passage, the spinal passage, the circular passage, the lateral passage, the vertical passage, the inverted passage. These passages denote a movement of mind and prana shakti through different nadis, energy channels, and chakras, energy centres.

With the intensification of ajapa japa, the chakras can be awakened and an altered state of mind achieved. The poet yogi Kabir has spoken of ajapa japa as the ultimate meditative practice. In the vedic literature too, the only meditation recommended is ajapa japa. In fact, it has been considered so important that there is a separate Upanishad dealing with the subject, called Hamsa Upanishad. The mantras Ham and So, So-Ham or Hamsa is the subject of the Hamsa Upanishad, and it provides the methods, varieties, systems, techniques and attainments of ajapa japa. The reason the ajapa practice has been given such a prominent place in the meditative techniques of yoga and spirituality is that it merges mind and prana together.

With the three practices of yoga nidra, antar mouna and ajapa japa, the first level of pratyahara is complete.

—25 October 2016, Ganga Darshan, Munger, Raja Yoga Training - Module 1 (Extract)