Beginning to Practise Pratyahara

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Indriya pratyahara, sensorial pratyahara, is not merely withdrawing the senses into the mind. It begins with a simple practice called kaya sthairyam, which Sri Swami Satyananda taught as the first stage of learning to meditate. Kaya means the physical body, the physical form, and sthairyam means stillness. The stillness of the physical form has to be acquired before you still the mind. To become still physically, you have to be in a comfortable state in the body and in the mind. You have to observe the body, the movements of the body, and restrict them. You have to be still, in that stillness there should be no tension or tightness, only stability. In that stability you have to be totally at ease with yourself. The condition that you create in your body will also encourage the mind to become like that: still. That is the first level.

Practising drishti (vision) pratyahara

The second indriya pratyahara comes when the body has become still. Then use your vision. For example, I have a flower before me, I look at it intently for thirty seconds, as if performing trataka, then I close my eyes and recreate, visualize the flower in my chidakasha, as I have seen it. If it has five petals, there should be five petals in my vision; if it has a hole in one of the petals, there should be a hole in one of the petals. You have to recreate the same flower inside. The impression that you have taken from outside has to be seen inside. You have clicked the shutter of the camera, now you have to see the photo inside. After seeing the photo, you drop that image, and maintain a blank visual state in which no colours, shadows, shapes or lines appear. If you find that there is a play of light and shadow, dots and sparkles and all that, which tends to happen, then you again open your eyes and focus on another object.

The practice is similar to trataka, the difference being that in trataka you have to use bright objects, or contrasting objects, such as a white sheet of paper with a black dot on it, or a white sheet with a hole in it to look at the moon, or a candle flame. The objects that can be used for trataka have been specified, as the intent is different. Here you work with whatever you see to help focus and concentrate the mind.

Each time you open your eyes, you look at a different object, and the focus, awareness and concentration are of a different quality. If you look at a more complex object and try to see the same thing internally, the experience is different from when you try to recreate a simple object. You may not be able to do the practice in the first attempt, but through sustained effort you will find that there comes a time when you can look at something, acknowledge it, and drop it. Your mind is not attached to that object, person or idea anymore. How you use your drishti, when you withdraw, and when you shut down becomes your choice.

Practising ghrana (smell) pratyahara

The third level of pratyahara is of smell. The peculiar aspect of smell is that your senses tend to get habituated to it. If incense smell is in the room, when you walk in, you can smell it and after some time you don’t notice the smell anymore, it doesn’t register anymore. If there is another smell, again the mind registers it, and the reaction to smell is based on raga and dwesha. For sight, the reaction is not raga and dwesha, but awareness. With smell, raga and dwesha come alive. The nervous system reacts instantly to a foul smell: ‘I don’t want to smell that’, the olfactory nerves tend to shut down and you blow out whatever has gone in. That one foul smell evokes many subtle actions.

You have to identify all those subtle actions and not allow your nervous system to cringe, not allow your nose to shrink, not allow your brain to react with, ‘Yuck!’ Instead maintain a normal state, saying, ‘I acknowledge it as a pleasant or foul smell.’ If you can observe all these little components of the smell factor, then you can use this awareness to deal with raga and dwesha when you are faced with the vrittis. Thus the ghrana pratyahara of smell is remaining unaffected and unresponsive to any kind of smell, pleasant or foul.

Practising swad (taste) pratyahara

Next is taste pratyahara. The same principle of smell pratyahara is applied here: taste something, see the reaction, hold the reaction. When you sip Coca-Cola, feel the taste, then neutralize it. Taste of white wine, feel it, neutralize it. Taste of pungent food, spicy food, bland food – feel it, neutralize it.

The main point here is that one should not be affected by craving. That is the purpose of taste pratyahara: the cravings of the senses have to reduce. If you are thirsty, you should not start dreaming of drinking something cool and sweet and pleasant, or desire that. You have to be free from that desire, that craving.

During our sannyasa course in 1970 in Munger, as part of our training, we were given a bucket. There were no thalis, katoris, spoons or forks, and all food used to go into that bucket, like into a begging bowl. Dal or kheer, samosa or rasagulla, everything used to go into the same pot. We used to mix everything and eat. Sri Swamiji used to eat in the same way with all of us. We did it for one month. There are some people like Swami Kaivalyananda, who still eat like that every now and then even today. In swad or taste, pratyahara, taste may be enjoyed, but the craving of the taste should not be there.

Practising charma (skin) pratyahara

Skin pratyahara is meditative. During shavasana or yoga nidra you are sometimes told to feel the contact points between the body and the floor. That is one level of knowing the touch sensation. The second: becoming aware of the clothes that you wear around yourself. The third: the texture of objects; some are pleasant to touch, some are hard or rough, some are thin, some are thick, and so on.

Each texture, each touch perception evokes a different response. You observe the body and the items by which the body is enveloped, as that is the touch you are experiencing at the moment. You become aware of the touch of clothes and then the outer environment. The heat and the skin. Feel the heat on the surface of the skin, feel it in the deeper parts of the body, and then find your comfort level.

I had to practise this during panchagni. If skin pratyahara had not been there, I would have been conscious of the heat and become uncomfortable. It was due to pratyahara that extreme heat did not disturb the focus, the concentration and the stability of the mind and the physical body.

Practising sravan (hearing) pratyahara

The fifth is hearing pratyahara. You have experienced this in the practice of yoga nidra: becoming aware of a sound, letting it go, and then moving on to the next sound. Those of you who are able to do this practice properly would have noticed that when you don’t do the practice, the sounds disturb you during yoga nidra. If you do it properly, even a loud bang next door is not going to make you jump. You are hearing the noise, you are wondering what it is all about, but the physical and psychological reactions are much reduced.

Merging the conscious with the subconscious

Finally, ‘merge the mind into the mind’. What is this? First you have withdrawn the tentacles of the octopus. There are six tentacles: body, vision, sight, taste, touch, hearing. These are withdrawn. Now the mind has to be withdrawn. How do you withdraw the mind into the mind? If the mind is seen as a triangle with the three levels of conscious, subconscious and unconscious, as long as the conscious is active it will be connected to the senses, as the conscious cognition takes place only due to the senses. Once the cognitions have been withdrawn, the senses have been pacified, their grip on you has been loosened and your association with them has been released, then the consciousness merges into the subconscious. As there is no activity, it becomes quiet. You are not sleeping, only there is no conscious activity and you are in a state of sleepless, wakeful harmony and peace. That is the final level of kaya sthairyam or sensory pratyahara.

Published in Progressive Yoga Vidya Training, Progression of Pratyahara 1