ASHTANGA YOGA SERIES
What if someone told you there was a simple set of practices that could help you manage every aspect of your daily life, and at the same time take you to a level of human potential beyond your wildest imagination? Would you be interested? Most people would at least be curious. That is in fact an accurate explanation of the practices of Yoga, but most people don’t realize it. Yoga includes a holistic set of practices for overall self-development and the well-being of the body, mind and soul. A few thousand years back, the great sage Patanjali compiled the current yogic practices of that time into a simple framework consisting of eight parts or limbs, and that framework is still used today. It is known as Ashtanga Yoga.
But the practices of Yoga have evolved since Patanjali was alive, in response to the needs of the time and especially during the last 150 years. So in this series DAAJI explores each limb of Yoga in the light of the modern day yogic practices of Heartfulness. He shows us how to integrate inner spiritual practices with living in the world and refining our personality, so as to create that true state of Yoga – skill in action and integration of the spiritual and worldly aspects of life.
Pratyahara is the fifth of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yogic practice. While it is one of the most important concepts in Yoga, it is not well understood. The lack of Pratyahara is the reason why many of us struggle with a meditation practice, and also why we don’t benefit as much as we could from the practices of Asana and Pranayama. Here DAAJI helps us to understand the significance and purpose of Pratyahara and how to bring it into our Yoga practice.
What is the most common problem we face as new meditators? “How can I get rid of all the thoughts and emotions that bubble up when I sit still with my eyes closed and try to meditate?” Whether it’s trying to meditate, or read a book or solve a problem, so often our thoughts are pulled in all directions so that we just cannot focus. Do you ever find that even when you close your eyes, the sounds, smells and activity all around distract you from going within? Focusing on external things is easy, for example on a movie or a football game, because our senses are drawn outwards, and are engaged and stimulated. But trying to stay focused inwardly on the object of meditation is often difficult.
Welcome to the fifth limb of Ashtanga Yoga! This quality or ability to turn the attention inwards is known as Pratyahara, or ‘gathering towards’. Most people who practice Hatha Yoga or who meditate don’t think too much about Pratyahara, yet it is vital to any yogic practice.
The first four limbs – Yama, Niyama, Asana and Pranayama – refine thoughts, actions, posture and energy, including the breath. When we reach the fifth limb we are at a turning point, because the focus moves to the mind, the subtle bodies.
In his Yoga Sutras, Patanjali tells us the following about Pratyahara:
2.54: Sva vishaya asamprayoge chittasya svarupe anukarah iva indriyanam pratyaharah
When the indriyas, the mental organs of the senses and actions,
cease to be engaged with their corresponding external manifestations,
and turn inwards to the field of consciousness from which they arose,
this is the fifth step called Pratyahara.
2.55: Tatah parama vashyata indriyanam
Through that turning inward of the organs of the senses and actions also comes a supreme ability, controllability,
and mastery over those senses that otherwise go outward towards their objects.
THE SUBTLE BODIES AND PERCEPTION
To really understand this concept of Pratyahara, we need to explore the science of human perception, and how we use the sense organs that function as part of the subtle body. We have 19 main subtle bodies, and they are:
The 4 subtle bodies (ant): consciousness (chit), mind (manas), intellect (buddhi) and ego (ahankar);
The 5 energy flows (pranas): the inward flow that governs respiration and reception; the downward and outward flow of elimination physically and mental removal; the balancing and integrating flow associated with assimilation and digestion; the ascending flow towards higher levels of consciousness, governs self-expression; and the flow through the nadis, the circulatory system, the nervous system, the lymphatic system, muscles and joints, and thoughts and emotions;
The 5 inflowing senses, the jnanendriyas: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch; and
The 5 outflowing senses or energetic processes, the karmendriyas: elimination, reproduction, movement, grasping with our hands, and speaking.
Pratyahara is the ability to divert the flow of attention of the 5 sense organs inwards. It is the conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses. We know how perception happens:
First we take in impressions from the outside world through our 5 senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch;
Then the internal organs of perception act through the brain centers and relay these impressions to the mind;
The mind relays the same through its layers to the soul;
When these all work together we perceive an external object.
When we allow our senses to look outwards to the periphery, we are constantly pulled to the external world. We are no longer dependent on our inner resources, looking outwards for everything. Entropy sets in. Pratyahara is the opposite of entropy. Approached wisely, it is not so difficult to withdraw attention from the senses, but it must happen naturally through a practice that expands consciousness and opens the heart. Later in the article we will explore how Heartfulness practices bring about Pratyahara in a very satisfying way.
There are systems that try to force inner withdrawal, by hypnosis, chanting, drugs or suppressive meditative practices, but it is always better to choose a natural path. This gives us a vital clue to how to evaluate and choose a personal practice: “Is it natural? Does it allow me to open my mind, witness its activities, and gently direct the attention of the senses inward?”
Anyone who is able to check the outward flow of the mind, and free it from the bondage of the senses, has succeeded in Pratyahara. The mind will anyway bubble up in meditation, as it is its nature to think. Initially, many uncomfortable thoughts and images may come, but each day these fluctuations become less and less, and gradually it becomes calmer. In the first few months of a meditation practice there may be many thoughts, later they will subside, and at some point the mind will be without ripples. And that is the easy part – it is the rest of the day when we are not meditating that requires mastery!
In Yoga, we need to pay attention to Pratyahara. Even if we are mastering Yama and Niyama, Asana and Pranayama, these four limbs of Ashtanga Yoga need to join with this fifth limb to bring about real purity and simplicity of character, through mastery of the sensory functions of the mind. And the functions of the mind, the subtle bodies, are the trickiest of all! You could say that this is the beginning of the march to freedom, because before this we are just puppets at the beck and call of our senses and desires. You may have read the ancient Indian wisdom from the Upanishads, which says,
Mana eva manushyanam
muktyai nirvisayam manah
For man, mind is the cause of bondage
and mind is the cause of liberation.
Mind absorbed in the sense objects is the cause of bondage,
and mind detached from the sense objects is the cause of liberation.
MINDFULNESS IS ONLY THE FIRST STEP
Swami Vivekananda once said, “Pratyahara is a gathering toward, an attempt to get hold of the mind and focus it on the desired object. The first step is to let the mind drift; watch it; see what it thinks; be only the witness. Mind is not soul or spirit. It is only matter in a finer form, and we own it and can learn to manipulate it through the nerve energies.”
Here in Yoga we find the original roots of Mindfulness, which has traveled and morphed through cultures over thousands of years, and which Vivekananda defines as the first step in Pratyahara – to be a witness to our minds. Most of the scientific research on meditation in the western world has focused on this practice of witnessing the mind and the subsequent ability to “learn to manipulate it [the mind] through the nerve energies” – the basis of a lot of modern research in neuroscience.
But Pratyahara goes beyond this first step. Vivekananda goes on to say, “The body is the objective view of what we call mind (subjective). We, the Self, are beyond both body and mind; beyond being subjective or objective; we are Atman, the eternal, unchangeable witness. The body is crystallized thought.”
He gives us methods to develop Pratyahara: “The easiest way to get hold of the mind is to sit quietly and let it drift where it will for a while. Hold fast to the idea, ‘I am the witness watching my mind drifting. The mind is not I.’ Then see it think as if it were a thing entirely apart from yourself. Identify yourself with God, never with matter or with the mind.
“Picture the mind as a calm lake stretched before you and the thoughts that come and go as bubbles rising and breaking on its surface. Make no effort to control the thoughts, but watch them and follow them in imagination as they float away. This will gradually lessen the circles. For the mind ranges over wide circles of thought and those circles widen out into ever-increasing circles, as in a pond when we throw a stone into it. We want to reverse the process and starting with a huge circle make it narrower until at last we can fix the mind on one point and make it stay there. Hold to the idea, ‘I am not the mind, I see that I am thinking, I am watching my mind act,’ and each day the identification of yourself with thought and feeling will grow less, until at last you can entirely separate yourself from the mind and actually know it to be apart from yourself. When this is done, the mind is your servant to control as you will. The first stage of being a yogi is to go beyond the senses.”
Does this mean that we do not use the senses at all? Of course not – they allow us to navigate in the world and live successfully. Without them we suffer, as people who are blind, deaf or mute know all too well. So it is not a case of suppressing the senses but of refining them and using them wisely. When I was a young practitioner of Heartfulness, I would observe Ram Chandra of Shahjahanpur, my first Guide.
One of his eyes always gazed towards his heart, focused inward, while the other looked at the world and at all of us, allowing him to guide us and do his work. He utilized the sense of vision in tune with Pratyahara. Similarly, he used his sense of smell to perceive the world for a different purpose. In his autobiography he describes how, as a teenager, he developed an instinct to recognize people’s clothes by smell: “This developed to the extent that at the age of fourteen I could know the character of a man by the smell of his perspiration.” The senses are vital to life and can be very useful, as long as we master them so that they are not at the mercy of external desires.
There is another practical tip that helps with Pratyahara, involving the nadis and breathing. Generally, those times of day when we are breathing equally through both nostrils tend to be the times of sandhya, that is, the stationary or turning points in the solar and lunar cycles – sunrise, noon, sunset and midnight. When we meditate at these times, it is easier to turn inwards and be still. Also, when our energies are moving inwards, when the breath is flowing through the left nostril, associated with the Chandra Nadi and the parasympathetic nervous system, our senses will easily focus inward and our thought energy will flow inward. We can make use of such periods for Pratyahara.
Modern-day Heartfulness takes us further, as it simplifies and expedites the old path of Yoga. There is no longer any need to take up the different steps of Ashtanga Yoga separately, one at a time. Instead, Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi are all taken up simultaneously. How does this work with respect to Pratyahara?
First, Heartfulness Meditation is aided by Transmission, which facilitates effortless inward focus. How? Transmission is from the Source, from the Center, so it calibrates us from the inside out to be in osmosis with the most sublime Samadhi from the very beginning. During Heartfulness Meditation with Transmission, transformation happens from the inside out, from Samadhi to Yama, from limb number eight to one. At the same time, we mold our lifestyle from the outside in, going from limb number one to eight. This two-way approach is revolutionary, because it allows us to experience the eight yogic attributes simultaneously, without such a severe struggle. We are given a cane with which to walk, and sometimes we are also carried like a joey in the mother kangaroo’s pouch, so that the journey is one of effortless effort.
Second, Heartfulness Cleaning removes those impressions from our subtle bodies that fuel our desires and activate the senses. In previous articles, we have spoken about all the emotional pulls that we feel due to the impressions we accumulate from our past. Until they are removed, how can inward focus be natural? That is why Cleaning is so important.
Through these two Heartfulness practices, Pratyahara is facilitated, as both the deepening inward focus and the removal of obstacles are speeded up. While we still witness the vagaries of the mind during meditation, we simply ignore the thoughts that surface as they are being removed.
Third, the Heartfulness Prayer is a direct practice of Pratyahara. It contains an acknowledgment, “We are yet but slaves of wishes putting bar to our advancement”, and then gives us the solution to take us beyond that limitation, by focusing on a stage of existence beyond the senses. Prayer naturally takes us to the center of ourselves where the senses are not needed in our witnessing. Instead we are in osmosis with a higher dimension of existence through the heart.
There are also other Heartfulness practices that support Pratyahara, including a scientific technique that was developed by Ram Chandra of Shahjahanpur. While observing the flow of thought energy, he discovered how it descends from the ‘lake of consciousness’ – known in Yoga as the chit lake – which is associated with the prefrontal cortex of the brain and the Brahmanda Mandal or the Cosmic Region in spiritual anatomy. Thought energy descends from the chit lake towards the chest area and in most people it diverts to the left side, to the first chakra of the heart. From there it flows outwards into worldly thoughts and activities.
Then he observed that if the chit lake is first cleaned and a portion of the flow of thought energy is gently diverted towards the right side of the chest, to point 2, the point of the soul, then the seeker will be relieved of disturbing thoughts. By bringing the attention to the soul rather than to desires, the senses are naturally drawn inward. Pratyahara and Vairagya go hand in hand, and a great hurdle is overcome in such a simple way.
Then there are the Heartfulness practices to maintain the purity of points A, B, C and D around the first point of the heart, where most of the sensory impressions initially lodge in our system.
These practices are a daily maintenance regime so that the senses are no longer always searching outwards for stimulation. They can instead rest calm and unaffected.
And finally there is the coup de grâce, the technique of all Heartfulness techniques for keeping the senses relaxed and free from excitement. It is meditation with open eyes, or constant remembrance, in which the meditative state continues throughout the day. It is the classic example of how Heartfulness works from the inside out. When we meditate first thing in the morning, before the dawn, we are able to imbibe Transmission very easily, because we are cooperating with Nature – we are swimming with the current. The Transmission takes us to deep levels of meditation, where we experience Samadhi, that condition of perfect balance that was there before creation. We are at one with the soul. When we emerge from meditation, we allow a few minutes for the condition we have acquired to be enlivened and imbibed, so that we are one with it, in complete union (A E I O U). When we are able to hold this state of Samadhi after we open our eyes, Pratyahara happens naturally.
We carry on with the day, and that underlying condition stays with us so that we remain connected with it while we do other things. We are in the world, but our senses are not pulled by the world. We retain our equilibrium and imbibe things consciously. We remain alert and aware with a mindful focus, while also being absorbed in Samadhi.
There is an Indian fable that explains this beautifully: When the star Svâti is on the ascending horizon, if it rains and a drop of rain falls into an oyster, that drop will become a pearl. The oysters know this, so they come to the surface when Svâti is shining bright in the sky and wait to catch a raindrop. When the drops are caught, the oysters close their shells and dive to the bottom of the sea to patiently grow the pearl.
How can we be like these little oysters? How can we live in the world, while leaving aside outside influences so as to patiently grow the truth (an exquisite pearl) within us? That is where Heartfulness plays its part. When the heart is our focus, everything is anyway connected and integrated. The heart does not distinguish the physical, subtle and causal levels of existence, because the heart encompasses all of them.
By diving into the heart each morning in meditation, we will become like those little oysters. Then we will arrive at the yogic state of Uparati, where we are no longer controlled by our desires and senses, as our minds are all the time centered in Reality.
Article by KAMLESH PATEL (DAAJI)